Many, if not most, today consider the idea of guilt to be an oppressive, outdated concept, usually associated with the repressive wiles of institutional religion, and that the only way to achieve a true sense of healing and freedom is by telling ourselves that we are personally not at fault – there is nothing to feel guilty about. It is our upbringing, our environment, our genes, what we’ve been taught at church, etc, that is at the root of our feelings of guilt, which are just that – feelings, that we can be rid of like any other.
The problem is that, whilst it is true that we can become beset by feelings of guilt that are really not due to personal fault (e.g.; due to the controlling behaviour of someone else, or genuine abuses of institutional power, both ecclesiastical and secular, or our parents taking out their frustrations and insecurities on their children, etc), more generally feelings of guilt emerge for a reason – to tell us that we have done something wrong, that we have done something to offend our conscience.
We are all by nature instilled with a moral compass – an innate sense for apprehending the fact that we live in a moral universe, and that there are such things as right and wrong. What might be the right thing to do in particular circumstances, and the nuances of right ethical behaviour are to a certain extent dependent upon the culture into which we are born, and so our consciences need to be formed by our forebears, sharpening the edges of our moral sense, and refining our knowledge of the more subtle aspects of the moral law. However, the feeling that there is such a thing as ‘the Good’ at all is something we are born with, and which can never be wholly eliminated.
This is the problem with telling ourselves that guilt is ‘just’ a feeling, and the consequent rejection of moral objectivity that inevitably follows. Doing this blunts our moral ‘edges’, and renders our moral compasses less effective, so that we are become less sensitive to the promptings of our consciences, and are led into more chaotic and destructive ways of living, but at the same time are still left with some distant sense that what we are doing is wrong. The moral sense can be broken or blunted, but it cannot be removed.
Thus, the removal of guilt from our categories of thought necessarily leads to a repression of our conscience because, no matter how much we muffle it, it continues to remind us of the wrongness of our behaviour. This, ironically, then leads to a much more unhealthy situation than we might have encountered before, where patterns of anxiety and despair build up because our consciences call out to us, adding layer upon layer of authentic guilt that we cannot deal with (because we have chosen to deny it) and become much harder to unravel because we have contrived to push them under the surface in order to ‘heal’ ourselves according to the teachings of guilt-denying psychologies.
True healing, and true liberation from anxiety, can only come when we acknowledge what authentic guilt is telling is – that we have sinned, fallen short of the standard which in our heart of hearts we know to exist and that depends not on ourselves but on a standard far beyond our control – and confess that sin to the One whose standard we have fallen short from. To admit that have sinned – as individuals and as families, as societies, as nations – and confess our sins to God, trusting in His infinite mercy and forgiveness, is the only way our moral compasses can remain in good health.
Furthermore, by acknowledging our guilt and confessing it to God, not only do we keep in touch with what our consciences are telling us, but we are given a really constructive way of dealing with our problems. Because nothing is hidden away, wrapped up in theories of genetic tendencies, anti-institutionalist rhetoric, and skewed concepts of parental authority, we can look at our problems head on, and deal with them, by handing them over to God. It is only in the knowledge that the God from whom our consciences receive their confirmation is also a loving Father who is infinitely more forgiving than we could ever imagine, that we can offer up our faults like this.
True freedom does not come from doing whatever we want, and then suppressing the voice that tells us otherwise. Neither does true healing come from sweeping the genuine feelings of indictment that emerge from our consciences under the carpet – doing this will only require us to find new and even more destructive ways to muffle conscience’s voice (and some much more destructive than others). True healing comes from admitting that we were wrong to do what we did, and confessing those sins to an infinitely loving and merciful God.
True freedom (and healing) comes from responding to the promptings of our moral compass, and keeping that compass in good condition so that, by letting it guide us always to seek the Good, our vices will have less hold on us, and our minds will be unclouded, freer to see the right path amidst so many that would lead us astray, and ultimately into misery. As a society, we need to fix our broken compasses, so that we might find our way again – the only way to start though, is by admitting that they are broken, and by admitting that we need help to fix them.