In the last several weeks, I’ve had some peculiar interactions with a few people.
I’ve had several acquaintances who, as a result of not having the capacity to invest as much in our relationship as they’d like, have asked that we no longer have any contact whatsoever.
They’ve struck me as odd requests, and I can only attribute them to one thing: a feeling of guilt.
These people feel bad about not being able to do more, and in order to relieve the feeling, they’re opting to completely remove the option of association. There is a sense of failing to have met a self-imposed expectation, and so by removing the relationship, they are able to let go of the expectation and thus expunge themselves of the feeling of guilt.
Wow. This indicates one thing to me: guilt is an incredibly powerful force. It is able to destroy relationships that barely exist. It is able to impose a bizarre form of emotional and relational slavery, which begs deliverance–even at great cost and sacrifice.
At the root of guilt seems to be this sense of an unmet expectation of self, often expressed as, “I know better than that.” I did something, and I shouldn’t have done it. Or, apparently: I didn’t do something and I feel like I should’ve.
So guilt is when my expectations of me go unmet. I think that shame then is when others’ expectations of me go unmet. It’s a violation of the desires of those who are loved and respected, or of the community’s standards and norms.
It’s possible for us to shame people into guilt. By expressing our expectations for someone, and pointing out their failure, we can lead them into a sense of letting themselves down, of not following through with a particular expectation held by a community with which they associate.
Thus guilt can be achieved in either of these two ways: originating from others or from self. But are we then stuck there?
While guilt may fester and plague us for some time, perhaps we may hope that it leads us to sorrow and repentance.
What are these?
I think sorrow is feeling distraught about a reality. The awareness of some unpleasant circumstance causes us discomfort. Being caught in the wrong with punishment impending (perhaps in a state of shame) may lead us to sorrow. Receiving news that someone is sick may cause us to express, “I’m so sorry to hear that.”
So then, repentance? Repentance is the re-setting of a new expectation for self. It is a new formulation of how we expect ourselves to behave, leading us to change our direction and mode of operation.
Having felt guilt, we are sorry for the results, and we work to avoid feeling guilty again, and so we resolve to act differently, to make different choices. Hopefully, this new standard leads us to future freedom from the slavery of guilt. But in order to do that, these repentance-driven expectations must align with God’s expectations.
If that realignment happens, then guilt isn’t necessarily without value. The internal drive to reform ourselves, if it pushes us toward the expectations that God has for us, can be an important part of our spiritual growth.
But if we remain ridden with guilt, if we succumb to the embarrassment of public shame, then we remain enslaved after all–to the sorrow of our lives, the guilt of the moment, and the activities that begot it.
Some people would prefer to avoid the word guilt altogether–because it sounds so negative. But we are guilty, culpable of wrongdoing, and if the experience of internal regret pushes us toward a renewed and refocused life, than we shouldn’t feel the need to run and hide from this notion.
True, we are free in Christ. We are forgiven people. But we are not infallible in our life’s journey. We need recalibration of our personal GPS when our wanderlust causes us to stray. And God may use guilt, or shame, experiences of sorrow, to bring us onward to repentance and thus back to Himself.
We are not beyond redemption. And neither is our guilt.