Magazine article The Christian Century

When Guilt Is Good

Magazine article The Christian Century

When Guilt Is Good

Article excerpt

I've counseled all kinds of people whose consciences were stricken by this or that regret. My advice? Avoid using personal guilt as a spiritual motivator. Religious people seem especially good at beating themselves up in the (false) belief that they're deepening their faith through mental self-flogging. There are far more positive ways to inspire a future than by wallowing in guilt. Nursing a regret that one cannot shake or bear to discard is eventually debilitating. If we judge our mistakes as too heinous to be forgotten or forgiven, God's acceptance of us will always seem elusive.

Recently, I've come to see the need for making a distinction between a person's guilt and their sense of guilt. Guilt has its own reality outside of a person's feelings. If I rob a bank, I'm guilty of a crime and must live permanently with that guilt. The guilt is as indelible as the crime. Nothing can wipe it away. A sense of guilt usually accompanies guilt, but not always. I may feel as though I did nothing wrong in that robbery. And a sense of guilt, which has deep reality within a person's own mind, doesn't have to be a permanent reality in the same way that guilt is.

I thought about this distinction recently when contemplating the letter-writing commitment of Rep. Walter Jones, a Republican congressman from North Carolina's third district. For 14 years now, Jones has made a point of signing and sending letters to Americans whose son, daughter, or spouse was killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. He has sent nearly 12,000 letters. …

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