Sometimes I confuse guilt and humility. When I become aware of a particular weakness or failing, when the sadness of my failure seems to overwhelm me, my first response can sometimes be to try harder. And while sustained effort is an important part of attaining anything valuable–from Christian virtue to proficiency in algebra–trying harder often makes matters worse rather than better.
When I fail in Christian virtue, it is usually not because I don’t care. That is, most of the time I am already trying to be disciplined or self controlled or consistent in the area that I find myself failing in. I feel guilt. I feel guilty not merely that I have broken a rule, law or guideline; but I feel guilty that I do not love God enough to change. I feel that my inability to do better is a kind of ingratitude towards God who has given everything for me and who has been so good to me. This guilt becomes a driver in me, a driver compelling me to try harder.
However, I have found that when I try harder, the results are terrible. I may force myself for a little while to do (or not do) what I think I should be doing (or not doing), but I usually end up developing tunnel vision, becoming exhausted and grumpy, and alienating those around me. My extra effort in a particular area ends up blinding me to other areas.
For example, when I have forced myself to rise early to pray as much as I think I should, I sacrifice attention to others. Once, several years ago when I was pushing hard to be a kind-of monk in the world, I actually fell asleep before a class of 25 graduate students. I had asked a student a question, and before she could respond, I fell asleep in a chair and only awoke as I heard the students getting up to leave the room. Another time I was trying to read only spiritually edifying books–as I defined them at the time–and I became so obsessed that I couldn’t have a normal conversation without referring to the Dark Night of the Soul or Cloud of Unknowing. My good friends (who functioned much like a spiritual father to me in those days) forbid me to read any more spiritual books until I had read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings just for fun.
Trying harder does not work. It does not bring life. And worse, trying harder and seeming to succeed only brings arrogance. When I was an athlete in college running twice a day, over a hundred miles a week, I used to think that it was nothing but sheer laziness that everyone didn’t begin the day with a ten kilometre run. I was doing much more than that, I reasoned, why couldn’t everyone do a mere 10K in the morning? Today, I’m lucky if I can get out for a three to five kilometre walk a few times a week. In fact, for all of lent this year, I think I have only gotten out for four walks total. Do you see what I mean. I get focusing too much on one thing and forget others.
But I don’t feel guilty. I feel weak. I feel like the earthen vessel St. Paul talks about–the pot of clay holding the treasure. And this feeling of weakness is often the content of my prayer to God. I offer God my weakness. Why, you may ask, would you offer weakness to God? Why would God accept it? The answer is that weakness is a perfect offering to God because it is what I am, what I really am. All I have to offer God is what and who I am. And standing before God as who and what I am (instead of as who or what I think I should be) is the only way I can really change, really grow, really participate in the deifying Grace of God.
Guilt is not the way. Trying harder is not the way. Humbling ourselves before the mighty hand of God–that’s the way.