Jan Johnson
Jan Johnson

WisBits Archive

September 2010

Guilt Can Be a Temptation

For the last ten years or so, I’ve had suspicions about whether guilt is helpful. When I do something (that seems) good just because I’ll feel guilty if I don’t do it, then I do it with the wrong heart and my attitude shows—people can tell I’m reluctant, not whole-hearted.  They’re not blessed. I’ve found that this lack of wholeheartedness is corrosive to my life with God.

On the other hand, I’ve felt the relief of what I shall call compunction.  I like that funny-sounding word that can also mean guilt but it’s very different.  It’s more relational toward God and much closer to repentance. When I feel compunction, I don’t feel like a jerk but I feel much loved by God. I run to God and say, “What a dumb thing I did!  And You are so good to me. Please forgive me.” After pausing to receive that forgiveness, I ask God for a next step.

So compunction works well because it sends me to the arms of Jesus to confess. Guilt (or my current view of it) just makes me hate life. Because compunction sends us into the arms of Jesus, it pinches at first but overall it feels good.  It feels clean. We feel relieved.

So it’s with interest that I recently read an observation that when people like Ignatius of Loyola and Francis of Assisi and Amy Carmichael felt unholy (because of their sin) in light of God’s goodness, they didn’t feel depressed and guilt-ridden about it. It didn’t make them hate life and not want to think about God. They didn’t feel that God gloated over them or felt exasperated with how dumb they were. Instead they focused on God’s power to change them and sensed God’s empowerment.  They felt courageous enough to pick themselves up and cooperate with God in being changed.

Ignatius talks about the effects of guilt on two different kinds of people. As an experienced man of the world who found Christ, he said this:

  If your life is headed away from God and toward doing only what you want, guilt will be helpful to you because it will point you to God. Whatever delights you will probably point you away from God.
  But when our life has begun heading toward God—we really want God for God’s own self and we’ve begun to live in tune with God’s intentions for the world—guilt prevents us from moving forward. The self-absorption of guilt distracts us and leads us away from God and into self-obsession. So guilt isn’t helpful.
When we’re headed toward God, what helps is to recognize God’s action in our life through how God encourages us and gives us strength and peace (even through tears—but good ones—at times).
Ignatius stresses that the constant spiritual naval gazing that comes with guilt seems spiritual, but it’s not. It doesn’t draw us toward God but further into self-absorption:  continual thoughts of me, myself and I.

So if we’re on a path to know God, we ask ourselves:  What is God drawing me toward today? Where is God delighting me and inviting me into adventure?  Pedro Arrupe put it best:

    Nothing is more practical than finding God, than falling in love in a quite absolute, final way.  What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything.

    It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you will do with your evening, how you spend your weekends, what you read, whom you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.  Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.   -- Fr. Pedro Arrupe, S.J.

Grace and peace,
Jan Johnson




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