Tuesday, September 1, 2009


Renate, as she scrubbed my scalp, was describing a customer at the salon who had been very displeased with her haircut. “And I feel SO guilty!” she concluded, squeezing the soapy water out of my hair.

“What for?” I asked. “You didn’t cut or style her hair, you only shampooed it.”

“I know, but I still feel guilty. I feel guilty all the time, you know? I feel guilty about everything.”

I frowned. “Oh, my, what a terrible affliction! To what do you attribute this?”

"I’m sure it’s because I’m Catholic,” she said. I remembered she is old-school Catholic, too; she attends St. Joseph, whose sign out front says, “Extraordinary Rite (Tridentine)” meaning they use the pre-Vatican II mass, in Latin.

That was a couple of years ago. Since then, I’ve heard similar remarks from several other Catholics, especially lapsed Catholics; they all believe Catholicism has heaped them high with guilt. I asked one woman, my age, why she hadn’t raised her children Catholic, and she retorted, with a bitter laugh, “Why would I want to inflict that on them?”

"That what – do you mean guilt?” I asked.

“Of course.”

Now I’ve just read in Nesweek's article about Sen. Kennedy, another Catholic, that “His own ideology seems to have been rooted in liberal guilt…” meaning, “since the rich have a lot (like good health care), why shouldn't the poor?”

Dr. Robert Sessions, whose book I’ve been reading, doesn’t think the encouraging of guilt feelings is limited to Catholicism. He thinks it’s Christianity’s stock in trade. He writes that “the church as an institution has become an avid merchant of guilt. Nobody does guilt as well as the church, unless it be a big part of Judaism. Many churches hold their members in ‘guilt slavery.’ Feelings of guilt are powerful motivators for church attendance and for financial support and service.” (Getting Christianity Right! iUniversity Press, New York, 2007, p. 131.) 

I think he's right.  I can remember, as an evangelical, how I used to organize my thoughts when preparing to "witness" to someone, and realizing one had first to go through all the hell and damnation stuff, because otherwise, it seemed, there was no particular reason for needing Jesus or His death on the cross.

Once I asked a minister whether a good sermon, in his denomination’s thinking, would consist of first making the hearers feel as guilty as possible, and then presenting Christ, especially His death on the Cross, as the relief for the acute guilt feelings. His answer was yes, that was the essence of a good sermon.

Don’t let them do it to you!

There is one situation, and one only, in which guilt feelings are appropriate, and that is when you haven’t repented. And please take note, repentance is declaring war upon the evil within, turning against it with your whole self, resolving to fight it as hard as you can in future. Unless you do that, merely confessing your sin is no good. Telling God you’re sorry is a charade, and asking God to forgive you is kidding yourself. Even spending hours and hours contemplating Christ on the cross, supposedly bearing all the punishment due you, will not work, except momentarily. If you have no intention to put a stop to the evil, your heart won’t be fooled, and your guilty feelings will persist, as they well should.  Moreover, in the long run, this method of seeking relief (recalling that Jesus bore all the punishment for you) will backfire on you, making repentance even harder, because it paints God as Someone increasingly difficult to love, so your heart will resist Him.

The only real solution for guilt is repentance. If you do change your mind and heart about sin, hating it and struggling against it as much as you are able (even if you aren’t VERY able), then your feeling of guilt will evaporate all by itself as soon as you make that decision. And objectively speaking, you will have no further cause for guilt.

So do not be some guilt-mongerer’s victim. What he's trying to do amounts to emotional manipulation; it’s abuse. It’s some guilt-ridden soul’s attempt to share his affliction with you because misery loves company and because he wants you to reinforce his pseudo-solution for him (the one that isn't working very well for him, either) by agreeing with it.


Michelle M. said...

So true. Thanks for sharing such a great post.

elizabeth said...

I have seen this in Catholics as well. Lord have mercy.

Chris said...

Not to be mean towards people who are genuinely and seriously contending with guilt, but, for the Orthodox, guilt is the manifestation in doubting God's mercy and compassion. Now, does that mean I have not a shred of guilt? Quite the contrary. But when guilt does enter the equation, there is the impulsive and natural inclination to only look at God as a vindictive judge, devoid of any salvation. It is quite a cross to bear. Repentance is the remedy for all sins but guilt can be as bad as the sin which caused it to arise. just mho.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Perhaps, for the Orthodox, "sorrow" would be a better word, and "guilt" might better be reserved for that particular form of wounded pride, mingled with fear of retribution?

Steve Robinson said...

Good thoughts. Of course if one accepts that being "guilty" is THE issue before God and the one that God dealt with through the cross then of course we SHOULD be in the "guilt business". An Orthodox soteriology impacts the message of the Gospel and nature of God and man at this fundamental level: what food are you going to feed God's children?