The Gift of Guilt


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Guilt gets a bad rap.  For many years now, people have been telling us that guilt is the worst, most unnatural thing imaginable.  As if guilt were an unfortunate infection; or even a genetic disease passed down from parents.

We were told how repressed we were.  We were informed that for too many thousands of years, guilt had sucked all the fun out of life.

And yet here we are.  We have ‘sowed the wind and reaped the whirlwind.’ Murder and rape, cruelty and abuse, drugs and booze, greed and hatred, these spring up all around us in people who learned, all too often, that there was never anything to feel guilty about.

I know some guilt. I’m a preacher’s kid.  I grew up in an old-line United Methodist Church.  I’ve had dreams of guilt.  I have had dreams in which I robbed a bank and was so guilty I wanted desperately to return the money.  But I knew I’d still go to prison.

I’ve had a dream where I was cheating on my wife and had to be accountable to her.

I’ve had others.  Because guilt, appropriately taught, lies down in my soul as a guide-post, a flashing light, a guard-rail.

I have been, in my dreams, racked by guilt.  I have, in my life, attempted to avoid any reason to feel guilt.

I am a Christian. I believe in God.  I believe in Jesus Christ.  My early guilt was an attempt to avoid eternal damnation.  My later guilt, my mature guilt, an attempt to avoid disappointing the one I not only worship but love more and more.

This translates into other areas. A young married man knows he isn’t supposed to look at other women.  A man who learns to love his wife doesn’t want to dishonor her that way (or dishonor the other woman and her husband).

A young man avoids theft (sometimes) to avoid prison.  An older, wiser man does it because theft harms others and harms the soul of the thief.

A young man knows that assaulting someone, or killing them in rage, will mean prison.  A man who understands the value of guilt (and the power of love) knows that murder ends a valuable life and robs someone else of a treasured loved one.

I could go on.  But guilt is essential. And when we jettison it, we do so to our peril as a nation.  Mind you, guilt is popular again.  It’s trendy to feel guilt over one’s heritage if it’s the wrong heritage. Or over one’s gender or sexuality, if they’re of the wrong type.  It’s good to feel guilt over historical oppression or because someone was offended.  It’s positively wonderful to feel guilt at being a human being, living on the earth and using its oxygen.

But these guilts are frequently mere virtue signaling, because we can’t really do anything about them. However, those old-fashioned, essential moral guidelines we call guilt?  Those have benefit. They can keep families intact.  They keep men and women married. They can keep businesses on track without anyone embezzling.  They can make us treat others with equanimity.  They preserve respect and freedom.

I live my life knowing that God is watching. I see him less and less as the harsh punisher and more and more as the father I want to please.  And when I stray, his voice no longer shouts.  But like a father I know well, he raises his eyebrows.  He coughs.  He says ‘we need to talk.’

And I know what I need to do.

God send us some guilt.  No small number of horrors would have been avoided if men and women had learned proper boundaries and had an appropriate sense of guilt.

But let me tell you, without it we are sunk.


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