The Paradox of Guilt
I've been thinking lately about the complex nature of guilt. In rudimentary lessons on sin we are taught that it is one of the basic required steps of repentance to feel sorrow for what we have done; to feel guilt.
It is, in fact, in our moral nature to feel this. Eugene England quotes the words of Christ in John 9:41: "If ye were blind, ye should not sin, but now ye say, We see; therefor your sin remaineth" while pointing out that it is in acting in contrary to what we know to be right that we experience "the inner estrangement of guilt" and then goes on to explain: "We all know sin. We are inescapably moral by nature in that we cannot evade the question that finally comes into all reflection: "Am I justified?" We have eaten of the tree of knowledge of good and evil and find the self of action tragically divided against the self of belief" (That they might not suffer: The gift of the Atonement 1).
We are divided in two -- what we know we should do and what we actually do. This division is exquisitely painful. So much so that in Alma 15:3 Zeezrom is described as being sick with a fever as the result of "the great tribulations of his mind on account of his wickedness" and his sins "did harrow up his mind until it did become exceedingly sore, having no deliverance; therefore he began to be scorched with a burning heat."
There is such despair in knowing your have sinned -- that you have turned from God and rightness. This is compounded if you have hurt or brought down others as well. And then, worst of all, there is the disgust you feel for yourself when it something you have done before... something you tried so hard not to do again... and yet here you are again in your utter lack of self-control and total weakness.
Ultimately however, our sins and the accompanying guilt and sorrow are not meant to define us or rule over our lives. Our recognition and suffering is meant to springboard us to healing. In Alma 39:7-8 Alma explains to his erring son "I would not dwell upon your crimes, to harrow up your soul, if it were not for your good. But behold, ye cannot hide your crimes from God; and except ye repent they will stand as a testimony against you at the last day." We must see our guilt and feel guilty in order to have the impetus necessary to turn and face justice -- and with it, mercy and healing.
Elder Uchtdorf did a beautiful job of explaining this concept in a way which encourages us all: "The Apostle Paul taught that “godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation … but the sorrow of the world worketh death.”Godly sorrow inspires change and hope through the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Worldly sorrow pulls us down, extinguishes hope, [tells us we are broken, damaged goods] and persuades us to give in to further temptation."
"Godly sorrow leads to conversion and a change of heart. It causes us to hate sin and love goodness. It encourages us to stand up and walk in the light of Christ’s love. True repentance is about transformation, not torture or torment." (You Can Do it Now Oct. 2013)
Unfortunately too many suffer under the burden of guilt more than is necessary. Alma lovingly told his son that he "should let these things trouble you no more, and only let your sins trouble you, with that trouble which shall bring you down unto repentance" (Alma 42:29). When we choose to turn our face back to the Lord we must learn to let go of our guilt, and to permit others to do the same.
I feel like there is an unpleasant tendency in the church to turn sin into a monster. I understand why, and the intentions behind it aren't altogether bad. Our leaders are just trying to impress upon us the pitfalls of certain choices -- and that it is good for us to avoid the suffering the accompanies our mistakes (though ultimately I think it is arrogant to assume we can avoid doing what we were sent here to do i.e. live, sin, & repent). But turning sin into a monster, to try and scare us away from it, just makes our association with the monster when we (inevitably) fall a major problem, because it makes us monstrous in our own eyes and often in the eyes of others. Think about who is often on the fringes of the church? It is those who keep making mistakes -- who we then distance ourselves from because they have been marked by the monster and we shake our heads at their association. We take a kind of pride in being someone who "doesn't make those kinds of mistakes" [never, not once] which, as pride always does, places enmity between us and God as it puts the emphasis on our works over His grace. It also makes our fall much harder if we do make "that kind" of mistake. Rather than being just a fallible human being making totally natural errors, we are marked as a sinner who associated with the monster -- and even once we have resolved, repented of, and been forgiven we carry "the mark" and its attendant guilt.
It is common in the church to overly-dispense guilt. It seems to be common to many churches -- and is the general stereotype of religion; one fairly accurately born of historic roots [see: every hellfire and damnation sermons of the 19th & 20th century] as obedience has been so often taught as something we must do to avoid being a sinner i.e. scum. We heap it on ourselves and others. We slip into taking what is meant to be merely an ignition and we fan it into a roaring blaze that consumes us.
Instead, we should be much quicker to move on, and not try and "use" guilt to promote obedience. Joseph Smith stated: "Nothing is so much calculated to lead people to forsake sin as to take them by the hand, and watch over them with tenderness. When persons manifest the least kindness and love to me, O what power it has over my mind, while the opposite course has a tendency to harrow up all the harsh feelings and depress the human mind" (History of the Church, 5:23–24). Fanning the flames of guilt only makes the course of repentance more difficult -- the the depths of despair seem increasingly bottomless.
The division between us and God -- between what we want to do and what we are able to do, is already great enough (see Romans 7:14-25 & 8:1-6), we don't need to wallow in it or rub it in each others open wounds.
It is the purpose of the Atonement to resolve this division and reveal the truth within the paradox of guilt that debases... but ultimately exalts. Because the law, and our morality, point us in the direction we should go, what we must do, and who we must become, it also becomes "a terrible burden because humans always fail to some degree in living it fully; it therefor stands as a continual reminder of our failure -- a failure that the law's framework of justice demands be paid for, but which we are incapable of paying for. God pierces to the heart of this paradox through the Atonement, and it becomes possible for us personally to experience both alienation and reconciliation, which opens us to the full meaning of both evil and good, bringing us to a condition of meekness and lowliness of heart where we can freely accept from God the power to be a god (That they might not suffer: The gift of the Atonement England 7).
"O my son, I desire that ye should deny the justice of God no more. Do not endeavor to excuse yourself in the least point because of your sins, by denying the justice of God; but do you let the justice of God, and his mercy, and his long-suffering have full sway in your heart; and let it bring you down to the dust in humility."
We must not deny the guilt of sin or the justice of God -- but we must not deny the humility it brings and thus the promised healing -- of inner & outer conflict as well as forgiveness from others as well as the power to forgive oneself, and find that which is "large enough in love to reach past the wrongs we have done and can never fully make restitution for; that there be hope in the possibility that anyone can be renewed by specific means to a life of greater justice and mercy toward others" (That they might not suffer: The gift of the Atonement England 2).
Someday I will get to stop failing. In the meantime, the redemptive forgiveness of God makes my failure a school of Godliness.
It takes a kind of emotional self discipline not to allow ourselves to give into guilt, regret, and despair. Continually reminding ourselves of the meaning of God's love can provide the sustenance necessary to give our will the power to maintain realistic expectations of ourselves and others -- and not give into regret, which is ultimately useless. Instead we should respond with "Now that I know more from my mistake, I'll understand things, and myself, better and I will do better next time." After all, “Good judgment comes from experience; experience comes from bad judgment" ((Why the True Church Cannot be Perfect Terry 99).
We must not to sit under the weight of our mistakes, but see them as experience and knowledge -- a chance to better understand ourselves and the human condition; what this all says about me, the truth of my weaknesses, and what it means for me to be in mortality.
Adam and Eve chose to give us the venue for this experience, a fallen world where we experience life as fallen creatures. We were perfect spiritual beings -- and now we are having the experience of imperfection; to be humbled by it, to learn about and experience good & evil, to acquire empathy and charity, and to become like God. Rather than thinking of this life as a test that we often "fail," (though I would go so far as to say that sinning is not failing -- and is in fact what enables us to actually succeed) I think it's more useful to think of it as a laboratory "God’s grand laboratory — where we are allowed to experiment with dangerous substances" and through trial and error "we are able to apply our minds, hearts, ingenuity, initiative, and faith in creating crude approximations of something truly wonderful" ((Why the True Church Cannot be Perfect Terry 100).
As part of the process of repentance we must learn look at ourselves objectively -- and be as fair and kind as God. He loves us in our sins. His love permits us to be at one with ourselves, even in the midst of our continual inability to always do what is right. This is the peace that the Atonement offers us, to live daily in "the shock of eternal love expressed in Gethsemane" and the be infused with the power to resist needless suffering from our mistakes though the understanding that "If God can have this kind of love for me, who am I to withhold it from myself?" (That they might not suffer: The gift of the Atonement 11-12).