Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Guilt and Shame That Don’t Go Away

Guilt and shame are life-controlling emotions. Psychologist John Bradshaw warned:

  • The internalized feeling of being flawed and defective as a human being…shame [or guilt] which should be a healthy signal of limits, becomes an overwhelming state of being, an identity if you will. Once toxically shamed, a person loses contact with his authentic self. What follows is a chronic mourning for the lost self.

However, few find their way free from this emotional bondage. Why? We tend to regard guilt and shame as no more than feelings that should be either denied, justified or medicated away.  We convince ourselves that once we get rid of these feelings, we will be free.

However, it might be more realistic to regard guilt and shame as truth-tellers or even fire-alarms. We would certainly laugh at the idea of a drug that promised to remove all sensory discomfort. We need to feel pain! Without this sensory feedback, we would pick our pimples until they became infected, or maybe we would take our time before removing our hand from a hot stove.

Instead, we need to regard pain as necessary – something that gives us essential feedback about reality. Likewise, a fire-alarm is not simply a disturbing noise. Rather, it is a necessary noise alerting us to a reality that requires appropriate action.

Perhaps guilt alerts us to a reality that requires our attention. However, this idea is contrary to the way we tend to think.  The late Swiss theologian, Emil Brunner, wrote:

  • The specific evil of the modern history of thought…is the fact that modern man does not understand guilt, that the problem of guilt hardly interests him, with the exception perhaps of the guilt of war, that is, where he is not guilty himself. (The Scandal of Christianity, (91)

Consequently, the revelation of the Cross of Christ and its promise to eradicate our very real guilt is offensive to humankind. It informs us that we are objectively guilty, deserve condemnation, and require the forgiveness of the Savior. Many therefore find it more comfortable to regard guilt as no more than an annoying feeling. Brunner writes:

  • Goethe…says that he does not want to hear of the cross; it is just ugly…It is his moral self-esteem which revolts against the cross. He does not want to hear that this had to be done for him…he does not want to bend his head beneath this yoke by complete humiliation. He does not want to receive, he is too proud to receive divine mercy. (92)

Goethe regarded guilt as no more than a pesky feeling. Sometimes we are unable to find the right answer because we are unwilling to ask the right question! What happens when we regard our guilt and shame as objectively reflective of our moral plight before God? We can turn to the right Person to find relief!

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