Guilt and God

Author Greg Koukl Published on 03/12/2013

Those pangs of guilt could be telling you something.

I got a call from a man in Sacramento yesterday who asked a challenge to Christianity about the sin issue. He made the comment, “Why don’t you Christians just get away from the old sin thing and then you wouldn’t have to have this bloody Jesus business either. If you get rid of sin, you can get rid of the cross.” I agreed with him entirely. Get rid of sin, no need for the cross. But that’s kind of like saying if you get rid of sickness, you can get rid of medicine. Sure, they kind of go together, but you can’t just get rid of either of those things by denying them.

There’s an interesting article in the L.A. Times from a couple of days ago on the issue of guilt. I want to refer to that and talk about the notion of guilt and God. The reality of guilt needs to be addressed and I think to some degree our internal awareness, the self-awareness that all of us have of the issue of guilt, turns out to be a key to the understanding of humankind's problem, and also suggests to us a possible solution.

This article is entitled “Feeling Guilty? Good.” It is subtitled: “Believe it or not, guilt does serve a purpose. Moms have always known this. It can shift the balance of power in a relationship and it’s one way to make amends for your sins.” Apparently someone has done a study on guilt. They have noted that guilt is a useful tool in getting things done and they suggest that it can also help you be sympathetic towards other people, identify with other people, and it actually help you curb inappropriate behavior.

Well, let’s see what they do say here. The article is written by Sheri Rone, Times Health Writer, and she’s quoting at length here from a psychologist Roy Baumeister of Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. Never heard of it. In any event, he says, “The cultural stereotype is that guilt is a wasted or a worthless emotion. But guilt seems to have a purpose.” By the way, I think it’s significant that this is a psychologist who would identify a cultural stereotype in this way, as in the case of guilt, as being a worthless emotion. We’ve gotten to the point in society now we don’t consider guilt as having any connection to any moral reality. Instead the stereotype is that it’s a worthless emotion and we should get past it and deny it because it doesn’t do us any good. Now this psychologist says it’s not entirely worthless. There is some practical usefulness to guilt. For example, he says, “You wouldn’t want to have someone with no sense of guilt as a roommate or a spouse or a business partner. Guilt seems to benefit relationships. I think the bad reputation seems to come from the idea that the person feeling guilty doesn’t benefit.” He goes on to say, “Psychologists have tended to think about guilt in terms of the individual psyche. But the evidence shows that guilt depends on the interpersonal context. It’s just not confined to yourself.” Guilt is tied into some kind of interpersonal context. He suggests, “Guilt tends to be a two person kind of thing.” The writer also points out that guilt helps people in close relationships control each other’s behavior. Baumeister says, “One example is someone who employs the phrase ‘If you love me, you wouldn’t do that.’” So you could use guilt to control people. “The person with less power can get his or her way by using guilt,” he says. “Guilt is a good strategy for the weaker person in the relationship. Guilt is a power-equalizing strategy. If you feel guilty over not taking out the garbage, chances are your spouse who wanted the garbage taken out will feel better knowing that. In this way, emotional equity is restored because bad feelings are restored to the person who caused them. Feeling guilty is a way of showing that one cares.”

Then he makes an interesting departure from the more pragmatic approach to guilt. “What are the roots of guilt? Well, the data are converging on two sources. One is empathy.” In other words, he’s suggesting the roots of guilt is empathy. You feel bad when someone else is hurting. “This starts early in life. One study showed it starts the second day of life. The other cause is anxiety over the loss of relationship. This anxiety may even be a reason that women feel more guilty over extra-marital affairs than men.”

What does he say causes guilt? Guilt is really caused by a feeling of empathy for another person or the fear of loss of a relationship. This article treats guilt in a sort of utilitarian way. In other words, what practical use can we make out of it? That is not the most important question when we face the issue of guilt. This article focuses on what guilt does and how guilt can be used, not on what guilt is. Now it does suggest what the roots of guilt are. “The data are converging on two sources.” Sounds official, huh? What are those two sources upon which the data converge? Empathy and anxiety over the loss of a relationship.

Let me ask you a question, ladies and gentlemen. Take just a moment out here for a bit of self-reflection. When you feel guilty, is what you are feeling merely empathy with someone else who is hurting? Is it anxiety over possible loss of a relationship? You may fear the loss of relationship because of what you’ve just done, but is that fear of loss the same as the guilt ? Is guilt our way of showing we care? I don’t think so. Do you see how this author has completely failed to capture what guilt is?

Now I think this author knows what guilt is, because he feels it like the rest of us do, and it is a very, very telling emotion. It communicates something to us that is true about ourselves and about our world. But it’s also true, as Chuck Colson once said, that we have an infinite capacity for self-deception, so I’m not a bit surprised that this psychologist and many other people will have guilt staring them in the face and work very hard to try to redefine it into something that is just inconsequential or even something good. “Guilt is empathy. It’s a way of showing that we care.” Alright.

Is it even remotely possible that the reason people feel guilty about extra-marital affairs might have something to do with the notion that an extra-marital affair is a moral wrong? A sin? Ladies and gentlemen, you don’t need a psychologist to tell you why you feel guilty because, frankly, I think you are a better expert on yourself than he is. I’m going to tell you something that you already know to be true. The notion of guilt is always associated with the notion of morality. It is not some benign thing. It’s tied into our understanding of things that are right and things that are wrong. We feel guilty when we think we’ve violated a moral rule, an “ought.” And that feeling hurts. It doesn’t hurt our body; it hurts our souls. An ethical violation is not a physical thing, folks, like a punch in the nose, producing physical pain. It’s a soulish injury producing a soulish pain. That’s why I call it ethical pain. That’s what guilt is—ethical pain.

Not only is guilt inescapable, I think it tells us something that is inescapably true about ourselves and about our universe. It is tied to morality. We don’t feel guilt when we are involved in some activity that does not seem to have any moral ramifications and that is significant. It’s not just that it’s a result of our ideas of guilt. I think that’s self-evident, as I mentioned earlier. Just a moment of self-reflection will confirm that to you.

There is a point in the article that I do agree with and it’s a significant one. The psychologist notes that guilt depends on the inter personal context. Guilt tends to be a two-person kind of thing. Now I think he’s right there. We are not just guilty because of the relationship the action has to ourselves, even though there are times we feel guilty when we are entirely alone and what we’ve done has nothing to do with another human person. Now, that’s significant. When we do something immoral we are intuitively aware that we’ve offended someone. Now, who have we offended? Many times the guilt that we feel has nothing to do with a human relationship. It’s tied to a private sin, an unspoken but dishonorable thought, a compromise done in the shadows. Why feel guilt then? Who is it that sees then? Whom have we offended? To whom are we beholden?

I had a conversation with an American in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, last year when I was on my way to India. Actually he was as well. He to study in a Hindu Ashram. I to lecture on Christianity. We were talking about religion, exploring this idea of guilt as a key to unlocking some truth about ourselves and about God. And my point to him in this conversation was that the Hindu view is that all is maya, illusion, and therefore even something like guilt is ultimately an illusion. We concluded that this view simply was not adequate. It was not adequate to look at our guilt, be aware of guilt, and just simply say that this is a phantom, an illusion.

So I asked him the same question that I just asked you a moment ago. Whom have we offended? As he was thinking I offered him the standard response that I’ve heard from others. “We’ve offended ourselves.” We were sitting at a table drinking Malaysian coffee, and he thought about the question. He genuinely pondered it, he didn’t have a quick response. He really wanted to try to think through this. “Whom have we offended?” I asked. “Have we offended ourselves?” And he immediately shot back, “Not big enough.” He dismissed it. “Not big enough.” In other words, and this is very profound, folks, this man knew intuitively that someone was offended. Someone that was out there and not in here. And that Someone was much bigger in a moral sense than we are. He knew right away that we are not sufficient to define our own goodness. Simply put, our immorality doesn’t offend us. If we are merely the ones who make our own rules, we make rules that are consistent with the behavior that we produce. So when we make the rules, we fudge and we make the rules to include as morally appropriate the behavior we most like to do. We do that all the time. That’s why I think this sense of offense that we feel inside is so significant and why it was profound when he realized that this offense is not an offense that we are taking against ourselves. Our morality is too small to justify the sense of offense that we feel inside. Someone is offended. It’s not us. Who is it? It’s someone outside of us and someone who is bigger than us morally. We feel morally guilty, and we feel more guilty than we ought to feel if it’s only ourselves that we answer to.

Now, why do we feel guilty? The reason we feel guilty is that something tells us that we ought to have done something else. Who says we ought to have done something else? That’s the key question, and there are only two ways, it seems to me, to go about answering this.

You could say, you know it’s up to us individually to make our decisions about morality. There is no God. There is no guilt. We make our own moral decisions because no one is out there to tell us what to do. And if there is no one out there to tell us it is totally up to us, then the notion of guilt having offended someone out there is foolish. If there is no God there is no guilt. That’s the relativist’s argument, by the way. There is no absolute lawgiver so there is no absolute law. Then there is no real guilt. Since everyone plays by their own rules, guilt is just in your imagination. Ignore it. Deny it. Get over it. There is nothing to be guilty about. Don’t worry. Be happy.

The second way of going about it is to say, listen, guilt is real. It’s unavoidable. It’s built-in. No matter how much I try to deny it’s existence, I cannot ultimately make it go away. Now, if guilt is real, there must be a “who” out there making the moral rules. There is real guilt, therefore there must be a real God. If you were listening in yesterday as I talked with Kyle from Sacramento, this was my point. If there is real genuine guilt, if there is moral offense in some sense, it implies that there is a God who has established a moral law. That is, by the way, the absolutist’s argument.

Our awareness of true moral guilt implies we have broken a true moral law made by a true moral Lawgiver, who stands outside the system and passes judgment. Guilt is part of our internal machinery that points both to the law and to the Lawgiver and then points back at us as we stand in the dock, guilty and condemned.

I’m going to put it to you directly, ladies and gentlemen. We feel guilty for one reason and one reason only. It is because we are guilty. It’s that simple. Like physical pain which warns us of damage and injury to our physical bodies, ethical pain—guilt—warns us of damage and injury to our souls. Trying to deny guilt is like trying to deny a melanoma. We can’t imagine it away. And if we try, sooner or later it’s going to kill us.

Folks, we don’t get rid of guilt through denial. We get rid of guilt through forgiveness. And that forgiveness can only come from the One whom we have offended. The One who gave the law in the first place.