The Persistence of Guilt: Part 2
I felt like perhaps more needed to be added to my previous post on this. I don’t think I really provided much concrete explanation of why the feeling of guilt might persist, which perhaps defeated one of the purposes of the post.
Guilt means that we’ve done something wrong or that we’ve violated someone’s rules, whether or not it’s actually something wrong. Once that’s in place, punishment follows, or at least some kind of negative consequence. An experience of forgiveness or continuance or restoration of relationship can demonstrate to our hearts that the punishment is over and there is no longer any need for a feeling of guilt or anticipation or fear any longer.
Consider, though. What happens if you do something wrong, and someone holds it against you somehow, and it happens over and over again. You’d surely start to expect it from this relationship. In fact, if it’s drastic enough or if it happens enough, you might start expecting it from all your relationships. You’ve learned that doing something wrong means that punishment or something you don’t like or want is going to linger for a while. Or perhaps without a direct experience of forgiveness, you’ve learned that there’s really no definite end. It just sort of hangs there, and you’re uncertain if anything’s ever resolved.
Our hearts learn this in a pretty similar way to our heads. If we experience a lingering anger or punishment or a break in relationship, our hearts will come to expect it, even if our heads are telling us otherwise. We’re not dogs, but we’re not completely different from them either, and when the bell rings, we salivate if that’s what we’ve learned to do.
Guilt feelings linger because our punishment and consequences have lingered in the past. We expect them to now.
We need experiences to counteract what we’ve learned. In a strange way, we need to be retrained to believe at a deep level that forgiveness is real. We can’t simply be told, because while our minds may take that in, our hearts are still uncertain. Our hearts learn through experience, not through rational analysis.
For our hearts to take in that we are forgiven, we must experience that forgiveness in a tangible fashion. Someone must forgive us or demonstrate to us that it’s okay in a way that doesn’t just sound real, but feels real. The most tangible way for this to happen is for it to happen through Christ’s body, for physical, visible people in front of us to do it.
But that also means that we have to risk opening up to that. That can be scary since we’re still expecting punishment. “They don’t really mean it,” says our hearts. “The anger is still coming,” or “Underneath, they’re still holding it against me.” But might they not be? Might they really be forgiving and loving? Escaping the persistence of guilt requires that we risk that with good, safe people.
The sensation of guilt sticks around because we’ve learned that that’s what guilt does – that forgiveness isn’t coming or isn’t real. We have to learn, not just with our heads, but with our hearts, that it might not be true. You get better at the piano not by analyzing the notes, but by giving yourself over to it and playing them over and over. You get better at being forgiven not by hearing about it, but by being forgiven and giving yourself over to it over and over.
I suppose learning to take in forgiveness is just part of “train[ing] yourself to be godly.” (1 Tim 4:7, NIV)