The Goodness and Badness of Guilt and Grace

This morning we chatted a bit about guilt, shame, repentance, confession and this quote:

The one way of not doing anything about a situation is feeling guilty about it, because when people feel guilty about a situation they most usually, instead of doing something practical to change it, they resort to all sorts of symbolic methods of expiation. They go to confession. They see an analyst. They do all kinds of things which will be ways of actually not doing anything about the problem, but feeling all right about it instead. And guilt invariably produces that sort of reaction. It is a destructive emotion. And instead we need to have a different attitude to our mistakes and to our misdeeds.
-Alan Watts

This tied into my sermon last week where I noted the tension I feel between feeling grace and feeling motivated. Some people need to feel loved. Some people need to be challenged. It’s difficult to speak to a room when both kinds of people are there.

Let me tell a quick story. A few years back we had a downtown friend that was part of our weekly services. He has a long history of mental health issues and abuse. He smelled worse than anything I had smelled before. Sometimes he would urinate himself the night before and then wake up and come straight to church. I had the kind of relationship with him where I could speak about that with him, and remind him to shower, change some clothes, and do what he could each morning to clean up. So occasionally I would encourage him to do one of these things, because there is a good chance he had no idea.

But that morning at church, as I watched the look on people’s faces, as they would scrunch their nose up, or walk to the other side of the room, or go to the other room entirely and talk about how bad it was — I felt like I had a different responsibility. How could we honestly call ourselves followers of Christ if our first reaction to someone in that state is self-protection and mockery?

So I didn’t say anything to him that week. I didn’t want folks at our church to win. I didn’t want to play into their hopes that I would step in and send him away to get cleaned. Maybe I was using his state to give a lesson, and maybe that is even worse. But it was this tension that I felt.

Sometimes I think guilt is good. We should feel guilty for not actively loving people like him. We should feel ashamed.

But then there is the people that wake up in the morning and can barely roll out of bed because they are depressed. They live in cycle of shame where they have internalized a message of worthlessness and they constantly feel bad and guilty about ever single thing. They blame themselves for everything. This isn’t the guilt that I’m talking about. This isn’t healthy either.

So what is the appropriate balance or way to look at this? How do we acknowledge our wrongs and not wallow in them into depression? How do we challenge ourselves to grow without loading the burden of the law on ourselves?

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