What is guilt? And how does it fit into the life of someone who has accepted grace?

The human body uses various appetites to propel us toward the things we need. An appetite is a pressing impulse, often uncomfortable, to move from a state of dissatisfaction toward a state of satisfaction. There are a wide variety of appetites, ranging from what might be considered base or animal (hunger, thirst, sexual desire, the desire to conserve the body and its energy, etc.) to those considered loftier or more spiritual (purpose, belonging, self-actualization). When an appetite arises -- sometimes immediate and potent, sometimes gradual and quite ignorable -- we can address it in different ways. Usually the quickest way to address an appetite will remove the discomfort for a time without providing very well for the deeper need in question. Rushing out to pick up fast food might satiate the surface-level component of hunger, but it will not provide the nourishment that the body is truly seeking. It is a way of shortcutting the body's very useful self-corrective mechanisms, and can soon become addictive. The discomfort of an appetite is not itself the problem that should be addressed -- it only points to the true problem.

Guilt (or in the more typical Christian parlance, "conviction") is an appetite for redemption and reconciliation. It is an uncomfortable feeling that points us toward action. Like other appetites, it can be addressed shallowly (removing the hunger without meeting the deeper need) or fully. There are countless quick fixes for guilt that do nothing for guiltiness. Some examples include:

  • Self-flagellation. This can be literal self-harm, but it's much more often emotional: by savoring the pain of the guilt itself, refusing to let it go, we punish ourselves until we feel we've paid for our sins. Sometimes we even put ourselves in situations that invite others to berate us -- not with fair and constructive criticism (which we avoid), but with senseless abuse.
  • Excessive apologies. When we say sorry before we've really considered why we're sorry, just in case.
  • Rules-lawyering. This is the Pharisaical approach. By following a strict set of lifestyle rules, we maintain a feeling of cleanliness. This might include diets, hygienic choices, going to church every Sunday, teetotaling, or other forms of lifestyle legalism.
  • Judging others. When we point out the wrongdoings of others, either publicly or in our thoughts, to make ourselves feel more righteous by comparison.
  • Indulgences. Much like in the time of Martin Luther, except they go by different names nowadays: organic food, cancer research, NPR tote bags. It's easy to see in the marketing for charities and ethical products that what's really being advertised is cleanliness of conscience.
  • Industry. This can take two forms. In the first, it's a special case of self-flagellation: We work ourselves to the bone trying to somehow make up for our shortcomings. (Ironically, one of the shortcomings most noticeable to loved ones is an exasperating workaholism.) In its other incarnation, we keep so busy and distracted with tasks we deem important that we never have to pay attention to our nagging convictions at all.
  • Tokenism. Gathering outward symbols to create the illusion of inner righteousness. These tokens could be any number of things: books, passport stamps, sociology credits, ethnically diverse friends, clergy friends, publications, volunteer hours, bumper stickers, organic cotton T-shirts, filled canning jars, etc. (As a small-scale organic farmer, I occasionally feel I'm being collected, to be forever introduced as someone's "farmer friend". Please don't do this to your local farmer!)
  • Cheap grace. A dilution of God's grace that is merely therapeutic, compartmentalized to affect the feeling of guilt but not the actual sin. We drill the Gospel into our heads and use it as a free pass for sin, refusing to allow God's liberating transformation to take place. We want the eternal life but we desperately want to avoid the death to the self that will be necessary. Ironically, the proclamation of cheap grace sometimes leads to "meta-guilt", feeling guilty for feeling guilty. ("I'm forgiven, so why do I still feel bad? What's wrong with me?")

Ultimately, all these are forms of self-righteousness, attempts to take control of our own redemption. As with any appetite, guilt's discomfort pushes us to do something. But we do not have the power to forgive sins, and the attempts we may make are feeble and ultimately harmful. The only way to satisfy the real need is to wholly accept God's grace: not only as a means of washing away our discomfort, but of washing away our sins. This does not mean that God's grace has fine print or strings attached. That notion represents a misunderstanding of its transformative power. The transformation, the removal of sin, which is enacted by painful death and joyous resurrection, is part of the gift! It's not "forgiveness, but". It's "forgiveness, and". Living as a new creation is truly a fuller, more abundant existence. It is not a trade-off -- not something to be bought -- but a gift entirely free, the real food we crave in our inmost being. It is the same jubilee experienced by Zacchaeus when he paid back his extortion victims fourfold. It was not grace with "strings attached" nor a cheap attempt to assuage his guilt. It was the fullest fruition of the gift he received.

Herein lies the paradoxical marriage of God's boundless mercy and God's boundless wrath. He is intimately aware of all our flaws, all the darkest places in our souls. He loves us so fiercely that these are all forgiven without question. Yet he also loves us so fiercely that he can't bear to leave us imprisoned by our sinfulness. His merciful anger wills to burn away everything -- addiction, ego, self-righteousness -- that stands between us and his embrace. He loves us for the wretches we are in the present moment, and is genuinely overcome with delight at every tiny drop of affection we can give him in the present. Yet he loves us too passionately to ever be satisfied. He will open the door to the feast immediately, and yet he will hound us night and day all our mortal lives. In our hearts he has seeded a longing, an appetite never quite satiable, that mirrors his own lovesick longing to be unified in body and spirit with his beloved.

Our appetites can work for us or against us. When we become their slaves they begin to destroy us. When we try to sever or compartmentalize them, we lose valuable guides to our well-being. But when we learn to integrate our appetites harmoniously into healthful lives, they become allies, pointing the way to true nourishment in body and soul.

How can we learn to use the guilt for our growth? By becoming more aware of it. Just like hunger or anger or anxiety, it is worth pausing briefly between impulse and reaction to consider: What is this emotion? What am I experiencing in my body? Why do I feel this way? What is my body-soul telling me that it needs? How can I best meet that need?

Conscience is a gift, and a natural and necessary part of the human creature. While it is possible and all too common to become enslaved by guilt, addicted to the cheapest, easiest, and shallowest satisfactions; it is also possible to train one's guilt-hunger for redemption -- to recognize on its tongue the difference between empty gratifications and the wholeness that our souls desire. We can be free only by listening carefully to the hunger and doggedly pursuing that wholeness, that reconciliation, that eternal belonging, all the days of our lives.