When we speak of guilt, we must be clear what we mean, because the word has been used in so many different senses. For example, in law an accused person can be advised to "plead guilty" of a crime he has not committed, in order to gain some technical advantage; this does not make him guilty in any moral sense. On the other hand, certain moralists tell us we all share the common guilt of the slums, poverty, crime and war, even though we personally have had nothing to do with them. Theologians used to say that Jesus took upon himself the sins of the whole world and bore the punishment for them, though he himself never committed a sin. This strikes me as being nonsensical. No one can bear anyone else's sins or take on anyone else's guilt. As I understand it, guilt is the ugly black mark on your soul caused by your own sinning, your own choice of evil rather than good. You deserve to be punished for it, and perhaps you will be some day; but whether you are punished or not, the guilt is there. Even if you do not admit you have done wrong, the guilt remains — that black mark, that scar, that twist of the soul resulting from sin against God or against one's fellow man. Only the Lord can remove the scar or straighten out the twist; and he can do it only if we realize it is there, feel distress about it, repent of the sin, and go to him for forgiveness. Then, when we are healed, we must be desperately careful not to repeat the sin in the future, for if we do the black mark or the scar will become many times worse, and eventually indelible.
Is guilt the same as remorse? Not really, though the two are mutually involved. Remorse is when we see our guilt and are horrified by it, wishing we could have our time over again so that we could avoid it. Remorse should lead us to take steps to have the guilt removed; but, if it does not do this, then the remorse is wasted emotion and does actual harm. Conscience is also involved in guilt. Conscience tells us that the guilt is there. It gives us that "guilty feeling" which should lead to remorse and thus (hopefully) to repentance, forgiveness and amendment of life.
As an illustration, think of the little warning lights on the dashboard of your car. If a red light comes on, your attention is drawn to a fault of some sort: the battery is not charging, the oil pressure is too low, or the fuel is running out. So you stop at the next garage, pay the price, and have the fault put right. A feeling of guilt is a danger sign and should be taken seriously. If you are wise enough to attend to it, it provides a precious opportunity for reconciliation between man and man, man and wife, man and God. Of course, if you are cynical, atheistic and complacent; if you have lost all your ideals, and if you care neither for God nor man, then you will experience no feeling of guilt. The warning lights on the dashboard will no longer operate, and your condition will be serious indeed.
Jesus told a little story about a Pharisee and a publican who went into the temple to pray. Said the Pharisee: "I thank thee, O Lord, that I am a clean-living man. I attend church regularly, pay my dues, and do all the things required of me. Many people have done harm to me (as thou knowest, Lord!) but I have borne it with patience and charity. Now, look at that vile publican over there! How did he get in here? I know his type — filthy morals, a quisling of the Romans, an extortioner and thief — ought to be thrown out on his neck! Anyway, Lord, I thank thee I am not like him!" The publican, standing afar off, would not so much as lift up his eyes to heaven, but smote his breast, saying: "God be merciful to me, a sinner." (Luke 18:13.) The point of this story is that the publican, not the Pharisee, went home justified or forgiven. Why? Because he had a sense of guilt, and, so long as there is a sense of guilt, there can be forgiveness and absolution. Whereas even God himself cannot forgive someone who thinks he is entirely blameless! Doubtless the Pharisee had lived an exemplary life in the conventional sense. He had kept the commandments from his youth up. But don't you see? He was ruining it all by his attitude towards the publican! He had broken the great and over-ruling commandment, "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself."
If only we would use the same skill in excusing our neighbour's faults that we use in excusing our own! But few of us can do this. It gives us far more pleasure and satisfaction to condemn other people, because it makes us feel superior to them. It builds up our self-esteem, which is why we so seldom feel guilt in connection with it. Criminals who steal and murder and rape, generally know very well they have done wrong (society tells them so if they have any doubt about it); but the Pharisee was proud of being as he was! He actually thanked God that he was a better man than the publican! That is why pride is such an insidious sin. A proud man feels no guilt, and so cannot be forgiven.
Do I detect a certain pharisaical pride in our churches today? Could it be that our Christian Church of modern times is descended from the respectable Pharisees rather than from the rough-looking, uncouth men who surrounded Jesus? We should, of course, base our outer conduct on that of the Pharisee rather than on that of the publican. But beware of this one sin of pride which destroyed all the credit gained by the Pharisee in his God-fearing life. In that one important respect we should imitate the publican who smote himself on the breast and cried, "God be merciful to me, a sinner!"
Are you a sinner? Am I a sinner? Doubtless we are all sinners in one way or another. The mere fact that we have an ego which, from the moment it begins to develop, drags us powerfully down towards love of self and the world, makes it inevitable that we shall have sinned thousands of times, in thought and intention if not in outward act, and probably in act too if we will only admit it. There is nothing peculiar about this. We are all in it together, and we should learn by our mistakes. That is what the church is for: it is a society of people who know they are sinners in need of forgiveness, and are involved with one another, helping each other in the painful process of spiritual growth, building one another up with understanding and sympathy.
I wonder where the idea came from that churches are only for good people, and that a poor creature who has got himself into trouble cannot join a church fellowship because he is not "good" enough? If a member of a church has a moral lapse or defaults in some way, he is usually made to disappear! Good church-members say, "Naturally he would not dare to show his face here after doing that" whereas actually the whole membership should drop what they are doing and rally round to bring the poor fellow back into the fellowship and rehabilitate him.
A sense of guilt, then, is a healthy and normal part of the regenerating process. But unfortunately, in our complex and sophisticated society, it sometimes flies off into fantasy and becomes a neurosis, causing mental sickness and even physical sickness, so that a psychiatrist once told me that 80% of all the patients who came to him for treatment were suffering from a false sense of guilt. On the analogy of the dashboard of the car, suppose the little lights get out of adjustment and keep coming on and off, warning you that the generator is out of order when actually it is O.K., and that the tank is empty when you have just filled it up. You have been to the garage and had everything put right, but still the red lights keep flashing. It nearly drives you crazy!
Many people have a sense of guilt, not about anything in particular but a general feeling of failure to live up to the demands of our society which lays so much stress on success. They cannot measure up to what they feel they ought to be, or achieve what they feel they ought to achieve. We knew a very attractive young man, who had good brains and was musical, and had inherited quite a lot of money from an uncle. Always he was condemning himself because he was living in comfort. I asked him what he really wanted from life, and he said he wanted to make a million dollars. I pointed out that he was quite well off, but he said that meant nothing because he had inherited it. He wanted people to be able to say of him, "That's a smart guy, he has made a million!" At the age of 28 he shot himself, leaving a note to say he was a useless failure. He had a false sense of guilt which killed him.
On a less spectacular scale, people feel guilty because they fail to live up to their New-Year Resolutions. One person decides to give up smoking, another resolves to keep to a slimming diet. They fail, and are overwhelmed with guilt, feeling utterly spineless, hopeless, worthless. Maybe we harbour some smouldering resentment against someone who has hurt our feelings, or we hate someone, or we feel furiously angry about something; but instead of facing up to it rationally and deciding whether it is worthwhile feeling hurt or resentful or angry, we push it under the mat, where it goes rotten and stinks and breeds maggots and the rats get at it. Or perhaps we have in very truth done something mean and shameful, but when our conscience yaps and barks at us, instead of listening to it and repenting and trying to put things right, we gag and muzzle our conscience and push it all down into our unconscious and try to ignore it. Later, these unresolved tensions begin to show themselves in all kinds of neuroses and mental disturbances. We feel impelled to do strange things, like giving expensive presents to people we scarcely know, or lying down in freezing cold bathwater, or exhausting ourselves with violent activity, doing things we don't really want to do or need to do. Eventually we get sick, and this seems to give us a twisted sense of satisfaction, as if we were punishing ourselves as a kind of expiation.
The Roman Catholics understood this psychological phenomenon long ago and provided for it by prescribing penance in the confessional. Penance has a therapeutic value, because after the confessed sinner has undergone punishment of some kind he feels he has atoned for his sin and so no longer hugs the guilt to himself. But you don't have to walk from London to Canterbury with peas in your shoes (a standard act of penance in the Middle Ages) or climb the steps of St. Peter's on your knees! If you really feel the need to pay a price to remove a sense of guilt (as was the case with someone we heard of who had killed a friend by accident) why not take up some service to humanity, such as working for paraplegics or brain-damaged children? That would be a penance worth doing, and would effectively take one's mind off oneself!
Here is a general formula for dealing with guilt which I have always found useful. If you have sinned or made a mistake or got into a mess, first repent. Pray to the Lord for forgiveness. Pay for what you have done by making whatever restitution you can. Then forget the whole thing and move on to something else. Learn from it, and then forget it. If the memory comes up again to haunt you, simply hand it over to the Lord and dissociate yourself from it. The subject is closed. As for guilt because you don't measure up to what society requires, remind yourself that you are not in competition with society. You are YOU.
If you are depressed because you find you cannot stop doing something which you despise yourself for doing, the first step is to accept quite humbly that you are indeed a weak human being! Don't simply wallow in your shame, or you will have no power to change yourself at all. Be like the publican in the parable and say, "God be merciful to me, a sinner!" Realize and acknowledge that you are dependent on God for everything good. Go to him when temptation strikes, and in his presence you will be able to overcome. We need to have less pride, and more self-respect.
Now, how about guilt in our relations with the Lord? This is a different kind of guilt from what we have been considering; rather, it is a sensitive recognition of how petty and mean we all of us are when placed beside the beauty and holiness of God. Such a guilt-feeling naturally increases as we advance in the spiritual life and become closer to God; so we find the saints using exaggerated terms of disgust and self-reproach: they are vile, they are excrement, they are noxious insects . . . But we need not take them too seriously, for at the same time they are overwhelmed with awe and wonder, and feel themselves lifted up into the aura of the Lord's infinite pity and compassion. Such a sense of guilt is health-giving, as it involves an utter abandonment of the lower self, a complete submission to the Lord's will. The creature is soft in the hands of the Divine Creator who can remodel it into his own image and likeness. This results in a new creation, pure and spotless in his sight, all guilt removed for ever.