Thank you for reading The Emotion of Guilt (Part 1 of 3). In this post I’d like to share some thoughts about two passages of scripture from the Bible to deepen our understanding about the emotion and to learn how “healthy guilt” helps us to experience safety and success with behavior that is problematic or addictive in nature. I think these scriptures also speak to the abundant love and mercy that God has and will always have for us, even when inconsolable guilt compels us to isolate and separate from the very best power and person that can help us, Jesus.
The first passage is found in John 8: 2 – 11. I’ve actually written about this scripture in Mercy Alleviates Suffering however there is so much more to learn when we consider Jesus’ responses when guilt and “missing the mark” are present. John 8: 2 – 11…
2 At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them.
3 The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group (v.4) and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery.
5 In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” (v.6) They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him. But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger.
7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” (v.8) Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
9 At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. (v.10) Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
11 “No one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
In this passage/process there are 3 specific Greek words that have a profound impact upon all who are present. The words are ELENCHO, ELEOS and ELEUTHEROS. ELENCHO means to “show fault, expose and guilt.” As you read the scripture, there is no doubt that the men wanted the woman caught in adultery to experience not only guilt and shame, but downright death in light of her actions (v. 3 – 7).
Jesus’ response to their actions was to directly infuse ELEOS or “mercy, pity and compassion” into this homicidal situation as He knew that guilt, suffering, emotional distress and the misery that usually accompanies sin (or “missing the mark”) is alleviated by mercy. ELEOS or Mercy is God’s spiritual and psychological gift to us to reverse the adverse and weighty effects of internal self-condemnation or external condemnation (and accusation, which is typically set off by our Adversary, Satan – Revelation 12:10). This infusion of Mercy helped the woman and the men who were accusing her in the following manner:
Since the men in this passage were so intent on “showing fault and exposing guilt” (ELENCHO), Jesus “held up a mirror” and mercifully challenged the men to examine their own lives and actions, which resulted in an appropriate response to guilt due to internal conviction, as His words reminded them (the older ones first, then the younger ones) that they all needed mercy and forgiveness. In this way, the infusion of Mercy instantaneously “reset” the conscience of the men to help them remember that Guilt and Guilty feelings which often accompany the failure to live up to certain values and standards is better treated by acceptance and compassion versus condemnation and violence, whether they were looking through a “see-through mirror” (at her behavior) or looking into an actual mirror (at their own behavior).
Equally, the infusion of mercy interrupted the condemnatory message of Guilt, shame and accusation directed toward the woman, as she was treated like a human being who deserved compassion, dignity and respect versus someone who deserved death because she engaged in behavior that did not meet either her own standards or God’s standards.
ELEUTHEROS, or freedom, was the literal, spiritual and psychological outcome for all involved as mercy facilitated safety, which is a prime ingredient in helping someone to be “set free” (John 8:36) from guilt and shame inducing behavior and experiences. It is when we experience the safety of not being condemned, by others or by ourselves, that we can begin to listen to the constructive message of Guilt, spoken to us by our conscience, which if listened to intently is actually prompting us to “to go and sin no more” or said another way, “to go and learn how to live.” Listening to the gentle and merciful message of Guilt, spoken to us via our conscience (#7) about good and bad, right and wrong, what is healthy and unhealthy, could lead us toward making safe and functional decisions regarding how we live our life, resulting in us “hitting the target” or even the bulls-eye more times than not (1 John 2:1 – 2).
The second scripture I wanted to comment about is found in Psalms 32: 1 – 5. As you read the scripture, please take note of the physiological and psychological changes that King David benefits from when he chooses to listen to then act on the constructive message(s) that a loving God “embedded” or imparted to him through his Guilt. Psalms 32: 1 – 5…
“Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the LORD does not count against him and in whose spirit is no deceit. When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer. Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD”– and you forgave the guilt of my sin” – Psalms 32:1 – 5 (TNIV)
I love the Psalms. King David wrote many of them, and in them David writes about raw humanity from a very vulnerable place, his heart. Like us, David made a few mistakes in his life. In writing this Psalm, David illuminates what he learned as he wrestled with his own guilt connected to not hitting his own targets or living up to God’s standard(s) which he revered. Deep inside of him I think David realized that life could be different if he listened to and acted accordingly to the subtle directives showed to him by God via the internal conviction that we call Guilt.
“Healthy Guilt” always comes from God and inspires us to redirect our thoughts and behavior toward living within His (and hopefully our) value system. Don’t expect to see toxic guilt or toxic shame infused in God’s revelatory process, but do expect to experience cognitive dissonance and conviction in your insightful encounter(s) with Him!
So in looking at these verses in Psalm 32, there are four simple takeaways to grasp and my hope is as you consider them, you will see how God simply desires to impart helpful and relevant information to us via our emotions and thoughts connected to Guilt. The four points from Psalms 32 are:
a) Acknowledge our sin to God: We tend to feel better when we begin talking about that which we have suppressed and feel guilt or shame about. Is there a safe person (this could be God too) that you could open up with who will listen and hear your heart without valuation and judgment? Step One (of the Twelve Steps) provides instruction that could be helpful: “We admitted that we are powerless over (insert behavior here) and our lives had become unmanageable.”
b) Expose it and not cover it up: By bringing issues that impact us to the light of awareness, we open ourselves up to receive insight and counsel about that with which we are struggling. This process may help us to recognize, experience and work through other feelings connected to our behavior (like feelings of sorrow, remorse, sadness, anger, fear or repentance) which helps us to see how our actions may have been detrimental to ourselves and/or to others. This information, which originated in our guilt, is useful because it will guide us as we take steps to “course correct” our behavior to achieve positive and constructive outcomes, again, based on the internal conviction that we receive from God.
c) Confess it to the Lord: Confession is a spiritual discipline and confession to a loving, caring and compassionate Higher Power more than likely will be beneficial for all of us, because hopefully we realize that our God wants us to be healthy and loving people who practice healthy and loving behavior with others. Is it possible that this is the most important “target” that we have been missing in our daily encounters (Luke 10:27 – 28)? When you listen to any internal message that your guilt conveys to you, what behavior does it prompt you to correct? More than likely, it has something to do with you and/or someone else. Correcting our behavior with the guidance of our God helps us to hit the target that is called “learning how to live.”
d) Which facilitates forgiveness for the guilt of the sin: Somehow in his struggle, David realized that it is in God’s heart and in His very nature to be merciful and kind versus punitive or vindictive. He realized that God’s desire for him, as it is for us, is to simply hit the target versus “miss the mark.” Imagine how liberating and empowering this could be if we listen to the informative, convicting and graceful message imparted to us through healthy guilt regarding how to live.
In closing, if you are feeling guilty about some behavior you have committed, what do you think is the message that God is wanting you to hear that ultimately would not only show you are learning how to live, but would also help you to become skilled at living (#8)?
In The Emotion of Guilt (Part 3 of 3 – The “T – R – U – T – H” Tool), we’ll take a look at a simple tool that helps us to distinguish between toxic guilt and healthy guilt, ultimately leading us toward healthier choices and outcomes in our lives and relationships.
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