July 12, 2011

On Guilt, Shame, and Repentance

When I was a younger I used to think that because I felt guilty about my sins, that meant I was repentant. It took me a while to puzzle out the difference. I was confusing to myself when I observed that I kept on sinning; hadn't I repented? I thought I had, but I was wrong.

Guilt is an afflictive emotion that arises when we become conscious of having done something against our conscience, our best selves, or who we have decided we want to be. Like other afflictive emotions such as anger and dejection, guilt isn't really moral in itself. The moral decision arises when we decide what to do with our guilt, and there are two choices.

Guilt presents a temptation and an invitation.

The temptation is to transform guilt into shame. We go from realizing that we have done something wrong to believing that we ourselves are bad. We go from hating the evil we have done to hating ourselves. In this movement we are tricked into an inverse form of pride that is just as self-involved as any positive vanity. In our concentration on ourselves, we start to miss out on grace. We lose interior sight of the God who alone can free us from the rotten luxury of our particular self-involvment, and we end up reinforcing the selfish roots of sin that got us into the whole mess in the first place.

The invitation is to turn guilt into repentance. Repentance wants to get rid of guilt not because it will make us feel better, but because we want to be better. We want to be rid of sin because, having discovered that we are beloved of God, we trust God enough to confess that we are a creature lovable enough to deserve better care, and more happiness. Even if we don't yet love ourselves well, we can desire to care for ourselves better as Another's beloved.

In other words, the path to real repentance is not so much in hating sin, but in loving the God who has loved us first.


Jen said...

Thank you, Fr. Charles. Your words hit me in a really deep and personal way today.

God bless you!

Daniel @ Campinas said...

Thank you so much for this post. Just the other day I was thinking about this, and how I "fight" sin, just so that I can receive Communion. I thought, I am not "not" doing this because it is wrong, or because I feel guilty afterwards, but because I want to be able to receive Communion, what it is, what it means. i thought, something is wrong with my thought process. Anyways, very thought provoking, so thank you.

Brother Charles said...

@Jen: Thank you for your encouragement!

@Daniel: You raise a delicate question. The desire for Holy Communion is a good thing. If that desire helps us to avoid sin, that's a good thing too. However, it might feel like the 'thought process' is off because our desire for God is rarely without defect. Our motivations are 'weeds and wheat' as the Lord himself said. Nevertheless, however imperfectly we will ourselves to prayer or to the sacraments, it is the Risen Lord is with us in prayer and who unites himself to us in the sacraments. He comes to us in his perfection, even though we arrive in his presence in the imperfection of our motives.

So be confident. Jesus promised that the weeds and wheat would grow together, but that the wheat would be harvested unto eternal life.

Daniel @ Campinas said...

when in doubt, I always default to "I believe, help thou mine unbelief". I say it constantly, daily at Transubstantiation, crunch time during soccer games, sporting events, whenever I want to scream at the students ... and those to sin or not to sin moments. Sin of omission and like Carlin said "It was a sin for you to wanna feel up Ellen. It was a sin for you to plan to feel up Ellen. It was a sin for you to figure out a place to feel up Ellen. It was a sin to take Ellen to the place to feel her up. It was a sin to try to feel her up and it was a sin to feel her up. There were six sins in one feel, man!"
I really took that to heart, I confess the whole shebang, no pun intended. Sometimes my confessor, and this is the weird part we both know who is on the other side and we still go through the routine, he'll tell me things like it's the first time saying it and I act like it's the first time hearing it. Every once in a while he gives a good ear tug and says "quit playing games, you know what's right and what ain't and what matters and what doesn't", but never "lets on" that he knows it's me on the other side, even though he does. I mean, I'm the only one that confesses with him in English so he knows it's me.

Anonymous said...

A medicinal blog post for those post-abortive. Thank you.