Wednesday, January 12, 2005

The "Gift" of Guilt?

[This is my latest column submission for the Community Press newspapers in the Cincinnati area. I've been writing them for ten years now.]

“Guilt,” the late writer and thinker E. Stanley Jones once wrote, “is one of the divinest gifts from God.” Apart from any grammatical qualms we might have with that statement, is it true?

Truth be told, we don’t want it to be true. “Don’t guilt me,” we’re likely to tell one another in exasperated tones. In a culture that’s come to see guilt as an almost neurotic response, is it reasonable to see guilt as a gift from a loving God?

According to Jones, “guilt can be pushed into the subconscious and there fester, or guilt can take you by the hand and lead you to God.”

To buttress his claim about guilt’s festering properties, Jones cites the true example of a well-trusted man who stole $200,000.00 and covered it up through creative accounting. Nobody was suspicious. “But,” Jones writes, “he developed stomach ulcers and migraine headaches, the result of the strain of living a double life.”

Guilt, though, can also contribute to our mental and emotional health, leading us to what the Bible calls, “repentance.” The Old Testament’s Hebrew word for repentance conveys the picture of a person who has been walking in the wrong direction and makes a 180-degree turn to proceed the right way.

The New Testament’s word for repentance, reflective of the more cerebral orientation of the Greek in which it is written, literally means, “change of mind.” In the New Testament, repentance is seen not only as a change of direction, but as what I call a “holy lobotomy”: a change in our brains. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” a famous passage of the New Testament begins as it commends a turn from self-interest, toward concern for the interests of God and others.

When we repent, according to the Bible, our slates are made clean and the power of God for living life at its best is sent to us. That power comes through Jesus Christ, the God-Man Who accepted our punishment for sin on an executioner’s cross and then rose from the dead, to open up eternity between God and all those who have allowed guilt to be a gift, leading them to repentance.

Jesus once told the story of two men at the temple in Jerusalem, praying. The first was proud of his religiosity. His prayer went something like this: “Thank You, God, that I do good things and that I’m not a lowlife sinner like the tax extortionist crumpled in a heap over there in the corner.”

Meanwhile, Jesus said that the extortionist, for whom the first man had so much contempt, was offering a different prayer. “Have mercy on me,” he cried, “a sinner.”

Jesus said that the second man walked away from the temple restored. The divine gift of guilt had led him into the arms of God, to the new life God offers us all through Jesus Christ. The same thing can happen to all of us.

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