I’ve been doing even more thinking about guilt over the last few days. It has come to my attention that the English language is totally appalling when it comes to variety. Either that, or my use of it is paltry. In any case – I have uncovered what I think is the problem that I was left with in my previous post. What follows is a little half-baked, but I wanted to share my journey so far.
When I think of “guilt”, I think of doing wrong by something or someone. Usually that someone is God, or, at least, God’s law or the Church’s law.
Wait, the Church’s law?
The Church has turned Paul and Jesus’ teachings on a good morality into a law. On the surface, salvation sola fide is taught. On a deeper level, you must conform. For if you do not, then you risk the fires of hell, or, at the very least, social exclusion.
So there’s religion-guilt. That is, there is the feeling of not conforming well to the standard of the Church. Then there is faith-guilt – that is, the feeling of not conforming to God’s standard. Then there is people-guilt – that is, when I recognise someone is hurt or offended by my (lack of) words or (in)actions.
There’s also crime-guilt. If I break civil law, I can be found ‘guilty’ of a crime.
Guilt and law seem to be intertwined.
Civil law leads to legal guilt.
Religious law leads to sinner guilt.
Church law leads to “sinner” guilt (note the quotes).
Social ‘laws’ lead to ‘people’ guilt.
Paul talks about how in Christ’s death on the cross, the law is fulfilled. If this is true, then there is no need for sinner guilt, or indeed “sinner” guilt.
Guilt under civil law is not a personal feeling of guilt. This is encompassed under social guilt (i.e. you can be convicted of theft without having remorse, but if you feel remorse it is because you recognise that you have harmed someone in society through your actions).
So, the guilt with which we are left that is necessary, valid and helpful is social guilt, which really, isn’t guilt at all but remorse. This makes a lot more sense to me. Remorse is the recognition that things weren’t as they should have been.
In the Old Testament, the Law brought about a lot of guilt but not a lot of remorse. The difference here is stark. It was possible to be guilty of sin, and atone for that sin via a sacrifice. Far be it from me to say there was never remorse. I’m sure it is more complex than that. But certainly, the system became systematic, normalised, day-to-day. It became meaningless and without remorse.
Similarly, Christian confession – either Catholic or collectively during liturgical services can fall foul of the same problem. It becomes run-of-the-mill and begins to lose its remorse because it is required. It is precisely because it is required that it loses its power to be transformative.
I think this is what Paul is getting at when he says that because of Christ, we are no longer bound by the law. With the law “dealt with” our guilt is no longer comparable to civil law, nor religious guilt. It is reduced down solely to the guilt we feel as a recognition of the consequences of our actions – remorse. When we leave behind the law, we lose the moral absolutism that can rob us of this recognition.
Perhaps that’s why Paul says that we can be made right with God (free of religious/sin guilt) and yet goes on to beg us to live morally upright lives. There’s a temptation to use the new-found freedom to do whatever we like. But at the end of that path, as the prodigal son quickly discovered, lies only darkness and despair. Instead, we must live in harmony with one another – we must love one another. Not because we are obliged to by guilt, but because we are consistently reminded to do so by our remorse. And that isn’t a bad thing.