Wineskins Archive

February 12, 2014

In Praise of Guilt (Jan-Feb 2002)

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by Richard Beck
January-February 2002

Guilt, contrary to what you might have heard, is a good thing. In fact, it’s one of God’s most important weapons in shaping our character and waging war with evil. And yet, guilt has been getting a bad rap. With the rise of pop psychology and cultural tolerance, guilt is widely viewed as a destructive and unhealthy emotion. Guilt is considered a sign of dysfunction. If you misbehave and feel guilty about your behavior, well, what you need to do is recognize that guilt is the product of ultra-restrictive and shame-inducing Judeo-Christian value systems. Don’t change your behavior, change your values. Guilt is a sign that your conscience is too tough, so lighten up a little.

There is a cultural assault on our value systems (much of it coming from my discipline of psychology) and one of the casualties has been guilt. Interestingly, this view of guilt has been getting subtle support from some Christian communities. I want to work through a psychological and theological analysis of the emotion of guilt to give you some ideas that might aid you in thinking through how our culture might be undermining a very important part of our moral character.

The moral emotions

For most of my professional career I have studied emotions. The constellation of emotions that have most fascinated me are what I call the “moral emotions.” The moral emotions are those feelings and emotional states that are intimately related to our moral and ethical behavior. In fact, our “moral conscience” is largely emotional in nature. In short, there is a set of emotions that help monitor and regulate our individual ethical behavior.

Let me mention some of the prominent clusters of moral emotions. First, there is the cluster involving the emotions of sympathy, compassion, empathy, and pity. Clearly these emotions assist in motivating altruistic acts on our part. Lacking these emotions we become “hard-hearted” and fail to bring love to those in need. Second, there is the cluster that involves righteous indignation and wrath (I am using the word “wrath” since “anger” is too broad a term; also, wrath has righteous and religious overtones which suit my purpose). These are the emotions which rise up within us when we experience or witness a moral injustice. The feeling of wrath motivates us to stand up and right a wrong, to defend the defenseless. (Obviously, Christians seek to display their wrath through non-violence.) Most injustices are confronted because someone got upset about it and wrath motivated them to take some action (the civil rights movement comes to mind). Third, there are the emotions of gratitude and thankfulness. Some psychologists have suggested that gratitude is an emotional IOU. I don’t think of gratitude in quite that way, but clearly gratitude for an act of kindness performed on your behalf motivates you to reciprocate in kind at a future date (if not for the person who served you then for someone in a circumstance similar to the one you were once in). Gratitude combats selfishness and compulsive self-reliance. Finally, and of interest to this article, there is the emotional cluster of guilt, shame, and remorse. As a part of regulating our moral behavior, guilt is an internal alarm bell and a self-imposed punishment. In contrast to the emotions we discussed above—sympathy, wrath, and gratitude—which help motivate pro-social behavior, guilt differs in that it attempts to curtail immoral behavior. Consequently, should a person loose the capacity to feel remorse or guilt they will have lost a large part of their moral compass. In fact, a failure to feel remorse is one of the diagnostic criteria for Antisocial Personality Disorder (known, in days gone by, as the “psychopath” or “sociopath”).

Once we realize the role guilt plays in regulating our emotional behavior, it is clear how guilt becomes a spiritual battleground. Obviously, it would be advantageous for Satan to undermine guilt. Conversely, guilt—or anticipatory guilt (“I know I couldn’t live with myself if I go through with this”)—is one of God’s weapons in shaping our moral character. My wife Jana, when talking with me about this article, has even suggested that guilt might be an avenue for the Spirit’s working. That is, God might work with our feelings of guilt to keep our attention focused on changing our behavior. God might also use anticipatory guilt to help prevent our misdeeds. I can’t help thinking of the stereotypical picture of the little devil and angel sitting on a person’s shoulders whispering in her ears as she contemplates a moral decision. Although that angel on our shoulders is capable of making us feel guilty, clearly it is an agent of good.

The battleground of guilt

So how is guilt be undermined today? Well, in a number of ways, but I want to focus on three areas. The first concerns the individual, the second involves our culture (primarily the influence of some psychological thinking upon our culture), and the final area involves theological issues.

Rationalization. There are many ways of sidestepping around our conscience, however one seems to dominate: Rationalization. No one likes to think of themselves as a cheat, a thief, or a liar. And yet, often we cheat, steal, and lie. How can we do these things and avoid the labels? We rationalize. Rationalizations are all those inventive and contorted reasons and excuses we offer to ourselves as to why, for instance, a particular statement we made was not “technically” a lie. Or, we minimize the effects of the action, giving reasons for why the fib was “little” or “no big deal.” Guilt knocks at the door and says, “That was wrong,” but we respond that it wasn’t really wrong because there were mitigating circumstances. I know I am preaching to the choir on this, we all are familiar with how this game goes. Here is the point I want to make: It takes courage to make an honest moral evaluation of yourself. Often we need to strip away the rationalizations and see ourselves for who we really are. This hurts, but it is critical step in spiritual growth.

Self-love and psychology. There is a lot of pop psychology out there that suggests that feeling guilty is dysfunctional. The claim is that we need to replace guilt and shame with self-love and self-respect. I reject this dichotomy. I feel that guilt is wholly consistent with self-love and respect. For example, I want my sons to grow up to be psychologically healthy and happy (Although having a psychologist for a father is an obstacle they must overcome). I want them to respect themselves. But a part of that self-respect comes from truly facing up to one’s shortcomings and trying to improve. To put it bluntly, I want my sons to feel guilty when they do something wrong. I want them to have an internal moral compass and guilt, well, that’s just part of the deal. Let me put it another way: people with Antisocial Personality Disorder are some the most narcissistic people I have ever met. No one loves or respects themselves more. Clearly, unmitigated self-love is a recipe for disaster. Self-love, as all love, requires honesty and painful feedback at times.

Therapeutic grace vs. Costly grace. In The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer contrasts Cheap Grace with Costly Grace. According to Bonhoeffer, Costly Grace is a grace that costs everything we have. It is not a grace we earn, rather it is a grace that, once given, demands our very lives. It is a grace given to true disciples of Jesus. Cheap grace, by contrast, is a grace that demands nothing, a gift that allows us to pretty much do as we please, even to the point of ignoring the cross. I am sure this idea is familiar to you, in many traditions Bonhoeffer’s ideas play out in the old discussions of Faith vs. Works and Grace vs. Discipleship.

I want to change Bonhoeffer’s idea slightly to make it fit better, in my opinion, with what is currently happening in many of the churches I associate with. I want to contrast Therapeutic grace with Costly grace. Therapeutic grace is the grace who’s sole goal is to make us feel good. It is the grace that emphasizes God’s love and nurture to the exclusion of other facets of God’s character and will for us. It is a grace that is ultimately about my self-esteem and is guaranteed to make me feel happy 100% of the time. It is a grace that makes no demands and offers no moral guidance or critique. To my mind, it is the Christian equivalent to the trends in pop psychology I noted earlier.

Recently, I asked the Sunday School class I was teaching a question: Where has repentance gone? When I was younger, repentance was a dominant part of my faith community’s vocabulary. Nowadays you hardly hear anything about it. I believe this is because a dominant part of current theology is the axiom “God loves you just as you are.” This is true, but potentially confusing. I love my sons, but if one of them goes off into sin I can both simultaneously agree and disagree with the statement “I love my son just as he is.” In short, our language about grace and salvation can be potentially misleading. This is just the issue Bonhoeffer was trying to get at with his Cheap vs. Costly grace distinction. God does love us, which means He wants the best for us and sometimes the best involves tough moral evaluations and changes. The great Scottish writer George MacDonald put it this way, “God is easy to please, but hard to satisfy.”

When guilt goes wrong

I probably have alarmed some of you. Haven’t I ignored the ways in which guilt and shame can be debilitating and lead to things like depression and addiction? Yes, up to this point I have ignored these maladaptive forms of guilt. I did so because I think that this point is already being made pretty forcefully in our culture. I wanted to present the other side of guilt as a kind of corrective. However, lest I be misunderstood, let me make a few comments about the harmful effects of guilt.

Going back to our discussion regarding the moral emotions, we can think of those regulating emotions as a system that needs “tuning” during development. Should a person be raised in a home that catered to their every desire, this person might grow up to be selfish and entitled; the gratitude part of the system has not been tuned properly. Should a person be raised in an environment that is abusive, neglectful, or authoritarian they may live with feelings of shame and guilt throughout adolescence and adulthood. Again, the system is not tuned properly; the conscience is almost too sensitive, the person feels guilty for things beyond their control. Even worse, they may conclude that their negative feelings are the product of some intrinsic defect, the feeling that “I am a bad/evil/unlovable person.” In a similar way, maladaptive guilt may the product of abusive theology. If a person is raised in a climate where God is viewed as angry and vengeful, this person’s spiritual walk may become dominated by fear, shame, and guilt. I hope you understand that in my discussion above I have not been talking about these maladaptive forms of guilt.

However, let me conclude by saying that what is needed to aid persons suffering from maladaptive forms of guilt is not the complete removal of guilt (that too would be disastrous) but rather the fine-tuning of the moral emotion system. The goal is not to purge guilt from our moral lives. Some things we should feel guilty about, others not. Deciding between the two takes spiritual discernment, courage, honesty, and accountability. Guilt is like a watchdog. If abused the dog will become dangerous, even toward the owner. Train it well, however, and it will protect you from the evils that will assail you.

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