Four decades ago when I was writing grad school papers about conscience and moral character, I couldn’t have imagined the circumstances in which my thinking would crystallize for the benefit of a dozen middle schoolers at a church confirmation event. It was 11 p.m. on the Friday night of a weekend retreat and I was heading for my sleeping bag on the floor of the church nursery when the Minister of Christian Nurture said to me “In the morning could you give the kids a brief explanation of the difference between healthy and unhealthy guilt?”
Explain to a bunch of fourteen year olds the gnarly issue at the heart of what brings so many people to the offices of ministers and therapists of all kinds.
I remember feeling backed into a corner, up against a wall. Evidently my colleague and friend assumed I had this explanation “in my back pocket” since I was a psychotherapist. Smartphone in hand, I Googled “neurotic guilt” to get my thoughts going. I soon realized that I was likely to get very bogged down if I approached it with searches like that. I needed instead to let my mind synthesize with God’s help what I already knew. Maybe it WAS deep down in my back pocket somewhere.
I’ve expanded on it a bit through the years, but what came to me fairly quickly was this:
We are created with free will which God intends us to use in life-giving ways. When we mis-use it by being
we are guilty of breaking the moral law at the heart of creation and we experience the uncomfortable emotion we call “guilt”. Later I added Willfully Ignorant to this list. Unlike innocent ignorance, this refers to situations when the Holy Spirit has dimly or acutely prompted us to inform ourselves about a situation and we have not done so (usually due to one of the already mentioned four). We ‘re likely to experience this uncomfortable guilt most acutely if harm comes to others or to self as a result of mis-using our freedom.
God created us in such a way that we experience guilt feelings so that we will (1) RECOGNIZE we have mis-used our freedom, (2) REPENT (turn away from our error), and (3) GET BACK ON TRACK. Once we have done those three things, these healthy/appropriate/God-given feelings have done their job and should rightly wash on down the stream and out to sea, so to speak.
In addition to this corrective function, guilt feelings also have a guiding function. Because they are painful, we want to avoid bringing them on. God intends that we learn from experience so that when we contemplate future mis-uses of our freedom, we will be guided to morally good choices instead. This works pretty well early in life, but unfortunately if we ignore the discomfort over and over again, we can build up callouses that desensitize us to the pain and harden our hearts against God.
We’ve named this inner judge and guide “conscience” and when it’s doing its job well, it is a blessing, helping us stay on course morally or at least return to it when we’ve gone astray. So that’s what we mean by healthy, God-given guilt feelings arising from actual “guilt” i.e. from the mis-use of our freedom.
Now what about the unhealthy, so-called “neurotic” guilt that plagues most people some of the time and burdens some other people enormously, even to the point of crippling them?
Sometimes people convict themselves of mis-using their freedom when it’s just not true. If they examined the facts — the help of an objective disinterested person may be needed for this—they would recognize they have NOT been selfish, careless, thoughtless, lazy or willfully ignorant. Instead, disguised as guilt there is fear of disrupting an insecure attachment with the supposedly wronged person. Too many manipulative people take advantage of this tendency in the people around them.
In other cases, the person did mis-use freedom and repented but holds on to the “conviction” notice instead of letting it float on out to sea when its job is done. They keep beating themselves up over the error. What would make someone hold on like that to such painful feelings? If we know ourselves to often be selfish, thoughtless, careless, lazy, or willfully ignorant, we might hold on to the guiltiness as a deterrent. In other words, the feelings serve the function of an ever-present warning system. By plaguing us, these feelings may help protect us from mis-using our freedom that way again. It’s not that we consciously think this through, but living with the guilt may be less painful and less costly than doing the deeper spiritual work of relinquishing the excessive self-centeredness at the heart of our sinfulness. A healthier alternative would be to hone our ability to recognize in ourselves —and turn away from —the tendencies to BE selfish, careless, thoughtless, lazy, and willfully ignorant. Such a resolve is part of deeper repentance and would be cooperating with God’s plan to transform us more into the likeness of Christ.
There are other more complicated factors that keep some people trapped in guilt and shame, many of them arising from early neglect or abuse of various kinds, but these reflections apply to the majority of us so I’ll stop here for now.