What Is Guilt For?

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Guilt: that racking, nagging and debilitating sense that you should have done better, been better, that you messed up again. What’s it for? What good is it?

Recently I’ve written about dealing with the past. It’s something I and many others have to confront when coming out of something like evangelical Christianity. One of the biggest issues I’ve had to face is my own sense of guilt: guilt over evangelizing others, condemning gay people, teaching my kids they could burn in Hell for eternity. Yikes.

So again, what is guilt for? What does feeling bad get us? Why do we run ourselves through the wringer like this?

We can’t change the past; it’s not like we can hop in our Delorean, hit 88mph, and go back to fix our mistakes.

We can, however, affect the present, but guilt isn’t action. It isn’t the same as doing something about whatever you’re feeling guilty about.

Is guilt supposed to make you feel like you’re doing something about the problem? Is it supposed to make you compliant with authorities like family, church or society? Is it a way of showing someone you’ve harmed that you care about making it right?

Maybe it’s all those things, but the best I can dredge up is that guilt is usually like a pastor who only ever uses fear as a tactic. You may get some motivation in the short term, but it wears you out. You can’t keep it up over the long haul.

But what if you could do better without depending on guilt for motivation? What if you could be kinder and more gracious without feeling bad about what you’ve done? Or at least obsessively, persistently feeling bad?

My point is this: guilt seems to be optional. It’s probably even harmful and less effective than alternatives, at least most of the time.

So what?

Well, to start with, don’t expect to stop feeling guilty overnight. It takes time.

Also, don’t feel guilty for feeling guilty. (Ain’t the mind a funny thing?)

But do consider whether you should give yourself permission to skip the guilt altogether. Treat yourself with compassion, look ahead to who you want to be, and keep walking!



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