There’s Guilt, and Then There’s Guilt

English is a really weird language. My German teacher in high school commented that, when he immigrated to America at nine years old, he thought we were crazy when he had to figure out how to deal with thought, though, rough, and through. I rather don’t blame him.

One language quirk that I’ve thought about a little bit here and there is the issue of how to understand the word, guilt or guilty. In one sense, it’s not that hard, but in another, there’s a quirk to it, and I wonder if that quirk causes more problems than we might think.

The issue is that guilt has two very intertwined and yet different meanings. On the one hand, guilt is the state of having violated a rule or law. I am guilty of double-parking or I’m guilty of snacking before dinner. On the other hand, guilt can also be an emotional state that can come as a result of violating a rule.

I think the emotional state is supposed to be a result of the factual state, but it doesn’t always. I might be guilty of snacking before dinner, but I might not feel guilty at all. Charles Manson was guilty of murder, but he felt no guilt over it.

Then there’s the opposite problem: the emotional state can occur in separation from the factual state. I might feel guilty of hurting somebody without actually having hurt them. Or I might feel guilty about breaking someone’s confidence despite their having already forgiven me for it.

Come to think of it… maybe there’s three kinds of guilt. Here, let me make this even more complicated. There’s existential guilt (I did something wrong), emotional guilt (I feel bad for having done something wrong), and functional guilt (I am held in debt of some form for or a relationship is broken due to a wrong committed). You can’t exactly erase existential guilt. It’s a historical fact. But forgiveness can eliminate functional guilt.

But perhaps I’m just making things needlessly complicated. The thing that I’ve been pondering is the problem that emotional guilt may be equated, perhaps unconsciously, with existential and/or functional guilt. So if I feel guilty, then I am guilty, and if I do not feel guilty, then I am not guilty.

This assumes that emotions are always an accurate portrayal of reality, which isn’t always the case. We know this, I’m pretty sure, though I don’t know if we always think about it too carefully. For many years, many evangelicals sort of took this concept too far and tried to dictate that emotions weren’t relevant or accurate at all (and yet simultaneously tried to make them too relevant in worship, conversion experiences, assurance of salvation, and so forth), while others have gone the exact opposite route and made emotions too relevant and determinative. Either way, there wasn’t enough care about how to connect emotions to reality, and things became nebulous. This left some folks ignoring guilt and others swallowed up by it, often determined in large measure by their personality type.

Not that the psychological complexities have all originated due to a word having two meanings, but I wonder if it’s only made things more complicated. I wonder if we’d confuse things a little less if we did’t use the same word for two different issues. There are other words, particularly for the emotional state, like contrition and remorse, but we don’t use those much anymore, and maybe they don’t quite carry the meaning we’re looking for anyway.

But it just gets me thinking… When you feel guilty, do you immediately link that to being guilty? What might God want to say to you about how you experience guilt (or contrition, remorse, fault, etc.)?

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