Wednesday, July 11, 2007

How Guilty Should We Feel…And What Should We Do About It?

I came across a fascinating piece called "On Guilt and Social Responsibility" the other day by a guy named PoserorProphet. He argues that guilt is something Christians ought to feel, yet some (many?) Christians think they shouldn’t feel. It’s worth reading the whole thing, but here’s an excerpt:

“So, do I believe that others should feel guilty for living lives that are, in general, apathetic, self-absorbed, and damaging to others? Sure I do. I really do wonder about this aversion to guilt that we have -- it is as though we believe that "accepting Jesus into our hearts" absolves us from all responsibility. But that is not the case. I am well aware of the fact that I am God's beloved, indeed, I have vividly experienced that love, but I am also aware of how complicit I am in corrupt social structures and lifestyles, just as I am aware of the responsibility I have towards my neighbour. Indeed, it is precisely the awareness of ourselves as God's beloved that empowers us to confront, and admit, how guilty we are. That so few Christians seem able to confront or admit their guilt, especially as it relates to social issues, suggests to me that very few Christians actually have been transformed by encounters with God's love.”

Oh, I have felt this guilt. I wrote about it here. It was a horrifying, overwhelming burden that I ultimately realized I couldn’t bear. It led to a debilitating depression in which I literally lost an ability to function day-to-day for a year. It also fueled my ever-increasing pleas and questions to God as to why he doesn’t do more -- because it seemed that no matter what effort I put forth to ease someone else’s suffering, it wouldn’t ultimately make a difference. It would be a drop in the bucket.

Some years later, I have enough distance from the circumstances I witnessed in India (and elsewhere) that I don’t carry this burden, this guilt, in quite the same visceral, close-to-the-surface way. Yet I still feel responsible; I know that I am part of the structures of violence that wind up oppressing others. I remain very aware of how privileged I am; and I do very much feel a call to social responsibility and social justice. But, short of a call to literally live in solidarity with the poor and oppressed (which I don’t have and feel (yep, you guessed it) guilty about), what does it look like in daily life to do something about that call? Is it some set of “think globally, act locally” actions? Is it being kind to the people I encounter? Is it signing political petitions to save Darfur? Is it biking instead of driving my car? Is it serving a meal at a homeless shelter once a month? Joining the ONE campaign? Is it doing pro bono public sector work every now and then?

I do such things now. I want to do more and think I should do more. But I struggle very much with the question of how much is enough? I fear I can never do enough, ever. In that sense, then, I do feel constantly guilty; yet this guilt tends to drive me back toward legalism, obligation, and self-recrimination...not at all toward grace and love.

I wanted to be able to rest in the bosom of God and know that he would take care of all the crap that I couldn’t. But if God isn’t taking care of all the crap that I/we can’t, where does that actually leave us? In short: how guilty should we feel… and what should we do about it?

21 comments:

Heather said...

It's interesting ... because I don't see the guilt-focus in the bible that much. Yes, there are things that people are guilty for. But part of liberation is to be free of guilty, and can't recall anything that Jesus or Paul said that one must be constantly aware of one's guilt or that guilt was even a driving force for them.

After all, there is a difference between an awareness of how we can potentially affect things in a negative fashion, and feeling a crushing sense of guilt.

Kullervo said...

How I should feel guilt and what I should do with guilt, especially in light of God's forgiveness and Jesus Christ's grace, are some of the big things I'm grappling with at the moment.

Slapdash said...

***It's interesting ... because I don't see the guilt-focus in the bible that much.*** (Heather)

I used to joke that, considering I wasn't Catholic, I sure carried around a lot of Catholic guilt!

Somewhere along the line I definitely picked up on the "works" side of the coin; I have always struggled with the grace part. Which again is part of why I have distanced myself from church itself - I need more grace, and I find/associate only legalism and obligation with organized Christianity.

But...back to guilt: do you think there is any role or use for it? How do you make it more a useful spur to action and less a painful judgment of inaction?

Heather said...

Slapdash,

** do you think there is any role or use for it? How do you make it more a useful spur to action and less a painful judgment of inaction? **

Yes and no. Guilt over a wrong action can spur us to make amends, and help us be better people.

However, if one piles on the guilt, it's going to produce an even more negative action. We are, after all, only human, and we will make mistakes. Mistakes can be good, in terms of a learning process. But what I don't like about conservative Christianity is that it often makes someone feel guilty just for being human: and what else could we possibly be? to much can just make one bitter.

It is interesting that the writer says that we should feel guilt for inaction, given our recent discussions on free will and God's apparent/actual lack of action in terms of situations like Sudan.

Slapdash said...

***It is interesting that the writer says that we should feel guilt for inaction, given our recent discussions on free will and God's apparent/actual lack of action in terms of situations like Sudan.***

Yes, I agree. I wonder, too, why I am so drawn to, and affected by, that way of thinking about the world. I was a much less afflicted person before I started traveling abroad!

jennypo said...

Guilt feelings are as useful as pain. In general, pain tells me to do what is necessary for my body's health, like get my hand off the hot stove. Guilt tells me that what I am doing is not in alignment with my sense of right. If we respond to either one by turning from what has prompted it, then both guilt and pain are useful, positive aspects of the human psyche. Guilt is helpful when it becomes a hinge between the past that we cannot change and the future that we can change.

But both pain and guilt mechanisms can malfunction and cause a misery that is unreasonable - springing from something that we can't begin to respond to or turn away from.. In such a case, both are destructive.

The difference between healthy and unhealthy guilt is that we may learn from the former, but the unhealthy feelings often spring from the opinions of others and cannot be changed. This is not "real" guilt. It consumes the good things in our lives instead of the negative things.

Jesus has paid a high price for our freedom from guilt, but we're going to have to feel a little guilt first if we are to turn our backs on the selfishness that is destroying us and choose him instead. Once our guilt before God is gone, we do still have a guilt before our fellow human beings. This is what you are referring to, Slapdash, when you talk about the Sudan. Such guilt should be a reminder of our responsibility - a responsibility that is based not on how much we can alter their situation, but how much we are willing to give of ourselves. If we give according to our own consciences, then what matter if we give it to those we are responsible to in our neighborhood, or those we are responsible to in the Sudan?
If you are a Christian, there is no question what you are required to give - it is nothing short of love. The Bible says if you give your body to be burned and have not love, it is nothing. Real love will tell you exactly what you ought to do for people. Only real love will ever be enough to satisfy real guilt.

Zeke said...

Only real love will ever be enough to satisfy real guilt.

I guess that's why the widow's mite was better than all the larger offerings.

Which makes me wonder: why is God more pleased with effort than result--especially when the result is ongoing suffering of others?

In other words, if the point is to help others, then who cares whether somebody gave in love as long as they gave? This strikes me as another Character of God question.

SocietyVs said...

"how guilty should we feel… and what should we do about it?" (Slapdash)

It is my opinion that being a good person should not be determined by our amount of 'guilt' but our amount of concern/compassion for anothers situation.

I think the church does drive a lot of guilt into people concerning eternity mostly (how good do I have to be? How much is considered aqequate good? etc). But if our faith becomes a driving factor/force for doing good here and now - guilt should not be the focus - but love (according to Jesus' teachings) - and we should leave teachings of guilt/reward for the system of unity/family/brotherhood/etc. I understand the reason for leaving the church - a lot of us do - that system becomes very judgmental and controlling - and this leaves such a bad taste in our mouths - one even wonders if ti can change as a community setting?

I was in the same position as you concerning guilt and works - until I learned that love was such a driving factor in Jesus' works - the guilt for me just washed away (metaphorically). I found it did me no good to stress about being 'guilted into good' because if that was the case - how could I be seen as good in the first place. But love...well...doesn't really consider that whole equilibrium of the church - it just does things because of the concern. For me, this will always be my focus these days.

Ha Kohen said...

"Father forgive us for the things we have done and ought not have done; for the things we have not done but ought have done."

lowendaction said...

slap - I think your perspective on this might be a little backwards...not attacking, just postulating:

When you are with the one you love, and your eyes stray to some tasty piece of flesh, or you don't lavish them with the same amount of love as you did in the beginning, do you feel guilty about that? I think it's the same with us and God. All He ever really wants from us is our love and acceptance of His love for us. When we put all of our effort into that FIRST, then we would find that one of the happy bi-products of this is automatically spreading said love to others in need, because we would be acting from the character of God-as opposed to emulating it.

So we are doing it backwards. Instead of FIRST investing EVERYTHING into our personal relationship with Him, we busy ourselves doing all these "good" things, desperatly seeking for His approval.

Of course He isn't doing "anything" (I'm not even going to touch that one) in this world, because He has left us in charge to steward it. But it is not in our streanght our ability to fix everything. Only in Him can such things be accomplished. So again, everything begins and ends with Him...not us.

So I'm not saying that the things you are doing are bad. But I believe that this feeling of guilt or lack of fullfilment might be a sign that your love priorities are off.

Mind you, this is not coming from the mouth of a saint! I should be at the back of class when it comes to this subject, but I guess knowing the truth and practicing it can be worlds apart.

Heather said...

** because He has left us in charge to steward it. But it is not in our streanght our ability to fix everything. Only in Him can such things be accomplished. **

Isn't this a contradiction, though? Why would you leave someone in charge if you know the person can't do the job?

lowendaction said...

heather - the fact that "we can't do it" isn't God's fault, it's ours. It's not God that's caused the situation we are now in, we did it. So it's more like us asking Him to help us out of the mess we've created. He gave us a clean palette, the picture you see today is at the handy work of our brush not His.

Plus I don't see this as a pass/fail excerise. This is more like an essay answer. The sum of our actions will be what counts. God never promised a perfect utopia on this earth, especially after we screwed it up in Eden.

Heather said...

Lowendaction,

**the fact that "we can't do it" isn't God's fault, it's ours. It's not God that's caused the situation we are now in, we did it.**

But I wasn't speaking in the manner of fault. In any other circumstance, you do not leave someone in charge if they cannot undertake the job (well, that is how it is supposed to work), nor do you place an unqualified candidate in that position if you want a successful outcome. If I need someone to run a large corporation, I don't hire a ten year old to do it -- then I'm just setting everything up for failure. In the statement, "I am not doing anything to help the company, because I left the ten year old in charge, only I knew the ten year old wouldn't succeed" just comes across as illogical, and people would ask why I did such a thing. So to say that God isn't doing anything because we're left in charge, only we don't have the strength to fix everything is going to come across as contradictory. Would you leave someone in charge of raising your child if you knew that person was incompetent?

Note: I am not assigning blame here, I am taking the statement itself and saying that something doesn't connect in the way it's phrased. I'm not approaching this on an emotional level of fault/blame. I'm looking at the way the argument is laid out, and saying "Here is where I find a gap."

This gets even more complicated if inherent sin is thrown into the mix, because then people are born without the ability to succeed, and yet still left in charge.

**God never promised a perfect utopia on this earth, especially after we screwed it up in Eden. ** No, the people of today didn't. You can only be held accountable for the actions that you yourself have done.

Bible student said...

Heather,

You imagine the wrong one in charge. Referring to humans you say:

**you do not leave someone in charge if they cannot undertake the job**

but the Bible at 2 Corinthians 4:4 calls Satan, “the god of this world.” 1 John 5:19 tells us “the world around us is under the control of the evil one.” Even Jesus did not dispute the Devil’s ownership of the world he offered it to Christ at Matthew 4:9.

Satan is completely qualified for the job of ruling the earth. Since he is corrupt, we feel the effects. If the spirit creature who became Satan had remained faithful to God, his guidance would surely have produced the paradisiac conditions intended for as stewards.

Since sin has entered the picture and Christ covered it with His sacrifice, we are now waiting for the end of a “little time,” (Revelation 12:9-12) and the end of Satan’s rule.

God will get his way yet. Humans enjoying lasting happiness under the best conditions in wonderful surroundings. Real life, beyond our limited comprehension. Free of Satanic influence. (Revelation 21:3, 4)

Heather said...

Biblestudent,

**You imagine the wrong one in charge. Referring to humans you say**

I'm sorry, but I don't see how this reflects my statements. I didn't say anyone was in charge, nor am I claiming through Biblical support that anyone is. I was addressing a statement by lowendaction about God leaving humans as stewards, and yet humans can't do it, and the difficulties I see with that statement alone. That's all I was focusing on.

Bible student said...

I’m sorry Heather.

lowendaction,

**because He has left us in charge to steward it**

You imagine the wrong one in charge. The Bible at 2 Corinthians 4:4 calls Satan, “the god of this world.” 1 John 5:19 tells us “the world around us is under the control of the evil one.” Even Jesus did not dispute the Devil’s ownership of the world he offered it to Christ at Matthew 4:9.

Satan is completely qualified for the job of ruling the earth. Since he is corrupt, we feel the effects. If the spirit creature who became Satan had remained faithful to God, his guidance would surely have produced the paradisiac conditions intended for as stewards.

Since sin has entered the picture and Christ covered it with His sacrifice, we are now waiting for the end of a “little time,” (Revelation 12:9-12) and the end of Satan’s rule.

God will get his way yet. Humans enjoying lasting happiness under the best conditions in wonderful surroundings. Real life, beyond our limited comprehension. Free of Satanic influence. (Revelation 21:3, 4)

lowendaction said...

b-student,

true statement, but what I was refering to, was the stewardship. I do believe those are two different terms. I think it is important to point out that we still have a "say" on this earth. And though satan might have "ownership" of this dump, we have been empowered through Christ to overcome his grip, and take charge over this worlds affairs.

heather,

In my opinion, we ARE/WERE cabable and up to the task. We have simply failed to completely rise to the challenge. I wouldn't go so far as to say we've failed, but there definitly is much room for improvement.

And yes, though we can only be responsible for our direct actions in the present, we have inhereted the legacy of those before us (for better or worse), just as we will pass ours along. This is where present thinking can become very dangerous (I'm not accusing you of this, just making a point).

Bible student said...

lowendaction,

I agree that Christians **have a "say" on this earth.** We though, can use this wisely. Taking Christ as our example, we can spread the hope, that the kingdom that we pray for (Matthew 6:10) will solve this earth’s ills. Bucking Satan’s organization seems futile.

Paul taught ”we have a wrestling, not against blood and flesh, but against the governments, against the authorities, against the world rulers of this darkness, against the wicked spirit forces in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:12) He was advocating strengthening our faith, not social heroism.

Man can’t even guide himself. One look at the state of this world’s affairs proves that. “It does not belong to man who is walking,” the prophet Jeremiah said, “even to direct his step.” (Jeremiah 10:23) We observe natural laws being followed by all creation, but people do not accept as guides the precepts God provides for them.

A wise man of the past wrote: “Man has dominated man to his injury.” (Ecclesiastes 8:9) His words are true whether those dominating are individuals, classes or governments. When one group of people elevates itself over another, misery and suffering inevitably result.

Speaking of both Communist and capitalist worlds, the French sociologist and philosopher Edgar Morin admitted: “Not only have we seen the collapse of the brilliant future held out to the proletariat but we have also seen the collapse of the automatic and natural progress of secular society, wherein science, reason, and democracy were supposed to advance automatically. . . . No progress is now assured. The future we had hoped for has collapsed.”

Suggesting that God needs help to accomplish will for this planet is just as vain believing that we can change our climate.

lowendaction said...

student - I think we're saying much of the same thing. I am not suggesting that humans have any real "ownership" of this earth. Nor am I saying that we even close to being able to "assist" God in ANYTHING. However, I am saying that we have been given certain responsiblities on this earth, and not all of them are strictly spiritual. IOW, we must own up to these tasks that God has given us.

And yes, I too agree that this marco-envrionmental move is the product of mans silly need for self-worth. I'm not saying that there is much we can improve to our micro-environments...but I'm afraid we give humans a little to much credit when it comes to the supposed end of the world.

Heather said...

Lowendaction,

**In my opinion, we ARE/WERE cabable and up to the task. We have simply failed to completely rise to the challenge.** I guess I see this as contracting the earlier statement about man lacking the strength and ability to steward the Earth. Isn't the whole point that man can accomplish nothing good on his own, which is why God stepped in?

**though we can only be responsible for our direct actions in the present, we have inhereted the legacy of those before us (for better or worse)** THere is a difference, though, between saying we inhereit a legacy and saying that were given paradise and screwed it up. The world of today didn't screw up the paradise offered to Adam/Eve. Do our actions today hold repercussions for future generations? Of course. But in 500 years, I wouldn't say that my future generations should be held accountable for my mistakes: they are held accountable for how they react to my mistakes.

lowendaction said...

heather,

sorry for not being clearer, I'm trying to balance my job and feed my brain at the same time...doesn't always work that well!

I do believe that we (being the early we, as well as the present) have been given all the necessary "tools" to "do the job". One of those "tools" is calling on God for help when we fall short.

Again, when I was refering to "we", it was inclusive of both then and now. For the challenge hasn't changed. The fact that Adam and Eve dropped the ball is a part of our human history, it won't go away. That does not automatically mean we are predestined to fail, but that we should learn from their mistakes and excel.

this is the problem with this blog business...what is in my head doesn't always make it to the screen in such a way that other people can make sense out of what the hell it is I'm tyring to say!!

but thanks for stickin' with me!