Edgar Allen Poe writes the psychologically terrifying “Tell Tale Heart” and we watch as the guilt from a murder drives the murderer crazy thinking he hears the heartbeat of his victim. This guilt is destructive to the man in the story and we can readily understand the horror of such a story because we. too , have felt the guilt of past wrongs.
In fact, there have been whole religious systems devised to warn us over the dangers of doing wrong by using guilt and shame to scare us away from bad choices. And I get the motivations behinds such religious warnings, but I can’t help but notice how weak these religious motivations using guilt and shame ultimately prove themselves to be. I mean, after all, if guilt and shame really worked to keep us free from bad choices why do we still make them?
I’ll tell you why. They don’t work once someone gets beyond about three years old! We get numb to guilt and shame after a while BUT we don’t get free from the caustic effects of guilt and shame. See the trap? We won’t stop making bad choices AND we keep piling on feelings of guilt and shame which, in turn, enslaves us to more bad choices! How do we get free from this dead end living?
Look at our lesson today in Luke 9:7-11:
At that time, Herod the tetrarch heard of all that was done by Jesus, and he was perplexed, because it was said by some that John had been raised from the dead, by some that Elijah had appeared, and by others that one of the old prophets had risen. Herod said, “John I beheaded; but who is this about whom I hear such things?” And he sought to see him. On their return the apostles told him what they had done. And he took them and withdrew apart to a city called Bethsaida. When the crowds learned it, they followed him; and he welcomed them and spoke to them of the kingdom of God, and cured those who had need of healing.
The Lord’s ministry coming on the heels of St. John the Forerunner’s martyrdom at the hands of Herod Antipas, the king causes much distress to Herod over his guilt at having John beheaded. Herod’s life goes downhill from here and his nagging guilt torments him. Antipas would die in exile as the political winds shifted against him in Rome.
But isn’t that a fitting example of the power of guilt? Exile. Guilt causes us to constantly second guess ourselves; to question our choices. But it can also embolden our foolish pride and make us hide from our feelings of guilt and shame over past mistakes. Guilt usually serves to drive us into exile from our true selves and creates a constant, low grade fever of shame that eventually infects all our relationships around us. Feelings of guilt and shame drive us away from God and others and even our own selves into the exile of the desert of loneliness.
No wonder such untreated guilt does such damage to us!
The Faith invites us to another path. This path has us confront our sins and bad choices head on and immediately before such caustic soul sickness can grow within our lives. St. John Chrysostom says in his homily “On Repentance and Almsgiving”: “Do not be ashamed to enter again into the Church. Be ashamed when you sin. Do not be ashamed when you repent. Pay attention to what the devil did to you. These are two things: sin and repentance. Sin is a wound; repentance is a medicine. Just as there are for the body wounds and medicines, so for the soul are sins and repentance. However, sin has the shame and repentance possesses the courage.” The New Testament calls this “godly sorrow.” Here’s what St. Paul tells the Corinthians: “For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death.”
Guilt is nothing more than the worldly sorrow that produces death in our lives. Godly sorrow is that twing you sense in your heart after having gone down the wrong path. The danger is to become so desensitized by ignoring that first warning in your conscience that you don’t take the opportunity to repent soon enough! But it doesn’t have to be with way in your life! You can abandon the guilt and run to the God Who loves you in repentance and He WILL forgive you!
Today, are you living under the weight of past mistakes? Is guilt exiling you away from God and others? Drop that heavy load at the feet of Jesus and let Him heal your wounded soul with His loving forgiveness today. Get to confession and live Orthodox on Purpose!