Sometimes the most dutiful among us are the most guilty-feeling, no matter what’s going on: We feel like we should be doing more, we feel like we should be better than we are, we feel guilty about something, and until we’re sure of what it is, we’ll let that sense of guilt motivate our behavior in all sorts of ways. The Church, any congregation, is codependent in this, too, unfortunately, because guilty people make good volunteers, so, hey, come work it off.
Repentance realizes that our sin has cost us relationships. Feeling guilty is just as often wrapped up in our relationships, too. It’s wrapped up in our relationships in two very different ways, although they end in the same place for we guilty-feeling people. In one case, we’re the actor, the agent, the do-er; in the other, victim, the one acted upon.
In the first case, repentance is “feeling guilty’s” opposite, because repentance takes seriously a situation, a behavioral choice, and the relationship it has affected, and seeks to not do it again because the relationship is just so important to us. Feeling guilty lingers, unattached to any particular thing but affecting everything. If we are people who feel guilty all the time, and we know that it’s related to something we ourselves have done, part of my advice would be to be as specific as possible with your feelings; What is it in our past or our present that we have done that could really use the emotional house-cleaning work of repentance? Do our feelings of guilt have to do with some break in our relationship with God? Or are they related to some alienation we feel toward some other person, even toward ourselves?
“Feeling guilt” is often tied, though, to things we ourselves have never done. We are victims, whether evilly victimized by others, or victims of the capriciousness of the world, of an accident or force of nature. And we can deal with the nature thing, usually; it doesn’t leave us feeling guilty, but to be a victim of another person, to be sinned against, is a difficult, terrible thing. Because we recognize that the relationship was broken; but it wasn’t broken by us. People do come to places of forgiveness, discover in the peace of God and security of self an ability to not hold liable the one who hurt them, because the person can’t pay back what their sin cost anyway. And that forgiveness–which is not reconciliation, a thing that may not be called for at all in the situation–is both enough and basically a miracle. But many of us only inch and creep forward toward a place like that. And for those of us who have had another person hurt us, it is often the case that one of the marks of their hurt is the lie that we ourselves are responsible for it. Yet we aren’t; we can’t fix a relationship we ourselves had no part in breaking. And that lingering regret, that lingering disempowerment, can haunt us with guilty feelings for a very long time, until we come to a place where we can reject the lie that we have done anything wrong at all.
Feeling guilty, remember, is nothing like repentance. We probably think of them as similar, you know, “feeling repentful” and “feeling guilty”, but they aren’t. Guilt is a legal declaration; You’ve broken a law. You deserve to be punished. Feeling as if we’re waiting for punishment is a terrible way to live; feeling as if we’re working of a debt we can’t pay is a terrible way to live, particularly when we have been forgiven, when our debt has been written off. Being made to feel guilty for actions that we ourselves have no responsibility for is a work of the devil, and an evil that can bind us so tightly that we forget we’ve been forgiven at all.
So if we are people prone to feeling guilty, or people who always feel guilty, I would suggest that there’s soul work that needs done in our lives, some work that in our inner being that we need to take up. It may be simply that we need repentance’s specificity, and the release that comes of it; it may mean we have a long road to walk toward healing. If we do, let’s walk it with people wiser than us who we can trust.
~Post written by Rich Hagopian