Fake guilt, and where grace comes in.
If you can’t shake your guilt, it’s because your conscience is defective.
- Guilt /gɪlt/ n. The culpability, and moral responsibility, attached to one who committed a deed. (Usually a misdeed.)
- 2. A feeling one has committed a misdeed; often regretful or remorseful.
- 3. v. Make someone feel remorse for wrongdoing.
- [Guilty /'gɪlt.i/ adj., guiltless /'gɪlt.lɪs/ adj.]
Guilt is healthy. Fake guilt, not so much.
If I do anything, good or bad, I’m guilty of that action. Most of the time we use “guilt” in a negative sense, like when we’re responsible for sins or crimes. But we can be guilty of good deeds, particularly ones we do in secret. Like if I slipped an extra $20 into the waiter’s tip, or turned in a lost backpack to the lost and found, or deleted all the Nickelback from your iPod. Guilty. You’re welcome.
Being guilty of misdeeds—assuming you were raised with a properly-functioning conscience—tends to come with a negative emotional response. We feel bad about ourselves for what we did. Every time I turn the hose on Christmas carolers, I feel really remorseful about it. Not for long, but you get the idea.
But sometimes we don’t have a properly-functioning conscience. So we feel bad for no good reason. That’d be fake guilt.
Fake guilt is what happens when people try to program or reprogram our consciences so we feel bad over imaginary wrongs. Sometimes by convincing us more things are sins than really are, like legalists do. Sometimes by convincing us our very existence is sin: Supposedly total depravity has made us such filthy sinners, God can’t stand us, and the only reason he doesn’t blow up the earth in rage and hate is ’cause Jesus somehow placated him. (Often this idea of us being filthy sinners is their justification for all the abuse they wanna pile on us.)
The product is a feeling of guilt which lasts all the time. See, proper guilt is supposed to get us to repent, stop sinning, turn to God, get forgiven, apologize to others, maybe make restitution, and generally get on with our lives. Actual guilt goes away. Fake guilt lingers. We repent—but still feel guilt. We make restitution—and still feel guilt. We know (or think we know) God forgives all, and God forgives us, and yet we simply can’t shake this terrible feeling we’re royally screwed. It’s like we’re cursed or something.
If the human brain can’t find a connection between one event and another, but really thinks there oughta be a connection, it’ll frequently invent that connection. (Hence conspiracy theories.) Fake guilt does that too. Christians invent reasons why we inexplicably feel guilty: We must’ve committed the unpardonable sin and didn’t know it. Or there’s some weird generational curse we never properly dealt with, and we’ll continue to suffer it till we exorcise it. Or we got far more grace than we deserve (as if any grace is deserved). Or we feel if we receive grace instead of karma, if we don’t experience that eye for eye and tooth for tooth,
Ultimately there’s no good reason for fake guilt. We, or Christ—it’s usually Christ—dealt with it. So it’s done. Gone. Over.
But we can’t put it away. Like I said, it’s ’cause people have defective consciences. It functions like an autoimmune disease, where our own antibodies attack us for no good reason. It gnaws away at our insides, like a chihuahua who climbed into the Thanksgiving turkey.
Fake guilt and fake Christians.
You don’t have to be a cult leader to realize emotions are the easiest way to manipulate people. Doesn’t matter how rational and logical people claim to be: Get ’em to think they love you, and they’ll do whatever you want. Frighten them so often you desensitize them, and you can get ’em to do things that’d ordinarily horrify them. Make ’em feel shame for things which shouldn’t embarrass them, and they’ll never divulge what you do to them. Make ’em think patience, not happiness, is joy, and they’ll never notice you stole all the joy from their lives.
Emotional manipulation isn’t always a bad thing: God uses love. Works fantastic. And when it’s actual love, it only does good. But love isn’t an easy thing to nurture in other people. The only way to properly do it, is love ’em till they finally begin to reflect love back. Sad to say, sometimes they never will. God knows better than anyone: He loves everyone, pours tons of grace into us… yet even with such a tremendous outpouring, only a third of humanity claims to love him back. It takes a lot of love to grow love.
What if you’re a fake Christian, and the closest you have to love is benevolent reciprocity? Well, that’s where the other forms of emotional manipulation come in. If you can’t grow love in people, you can still do as the devil does: Make ’em fearful, horny, angry, jealous, envious, and hateful. Make ’em feel guilt when they needn’t.
This is why guilt, among Christians, has become a running joke in a lot of our churches. “The nuns kept me in line with that good ol’ Catholic guilt,” or “I was raised Fundamentalist, so everything was sinful.” But let’s be fair: Neither Roman Catholicism nor Fundamentalism is what makes people feel needlessly guilty. People make ’em feel that way.
I grew up Fundamentalist, y’know. In my experience my pastors never tried to make me feel needlessly guilty. It was always the rank-and-file Christians. The parents. The Christians who were only Christians on Sunday, who weren’t really all that devout, and more Christianist than Christian. They discovered they could guilt their spouses and kids into behaving themselves. Tried it on me too.
When such people are put in charge of anything, they try it on everyone. They found they can use all the commands in the bible—and a few “biblical principles” which they deduced from proverbs and elevated to the status of more commands—to put us fellow Christians under their thumbs.
Christianist parents specialize in this: “Obey your parents, ’cause God said so. If you don’t, it’s sin. You know the bible allowed the ancient Hebrews to stone their children to death if they misbehaved.
I used to teach at a Christian elementary. Too many teachers also specialized in this. When the kids misbehaved—as kids will—healthy teachers treated these missteps as the minor infractions they were. Unhealthy teachers treated ’em as hardcore, horrible, God-offending, relationship-destroying, make-the-Father-turn-his-face-away, sending-you-to-hell
It’s meant to make the kids feel just terrible, and reform, and behave. It has the unintended consequence of frightening them so often, they become desensitized, and by the time they’re teenagers they don’t care anymore. God’s sending them to hell? Well they don’t believe in God anymore. That’ll show ’em.
And yeah, it’s emotional abuse. And lies. Because God forgave us.
No need for guilt.
All those sins the legalists are trying to get us to feel rotten about? Covered. Jesus paid for ’em, centuries ago. We’re not in the doghouse with God; we never were. Jesus didn’t come into the world to judge it, but save it.
True, when we do horrible things, intentionally or not, we might have to rectify things with people. That’s only fair. Do the crime, gotta do the time. But when we’re dealing with Christians… well, they’re obligated to forgive us. Jesus mandated it.
And they’ve no business dangling guilt over our heads. Over anyone’s head, really. That’s the Holy Spirit’s job. Not ours. The Spirit uses our guilt to fix us, not punish us: To get us to turn to him, not make us slosh around in a slough of despond. If you sinned and feel guilty for it, it means you’re not so far gone God can’t forgive you. (Of course, if you sinned and feel nothing, it means you’ve been shutting God out for a little too long. Better start crying out to him.)
When kids sin, when newbies slip up, we mature Christians (assuming you’re trying to be a mature Christian) need to follow Jesus’s example and teach them grace. Forgiveness is available, no matter what. God erases the sins of everyone who repents and turns to him.
God wants everybody to come clean, repent, and be saved.
Unhealthy Christians will keep trying to throw us back into guilt, and give us lots of stupid reasons why constantly feeling terrible about ourselves is good and useful. And dump rules on us God never invented, and try to make us feel awful for breaking their rules. Get away from them. Find better Christians. Find people who aren’t trying to burden you, but free you from sin like Jesus wants.
Grace is the cure for guilt. Seek grace.