I approach this post with considerable hesitation, almost with trepidation. Although it’s something I’ve thought about over the years, I'm in no position to pontificate about it (or, indeed, about anything.) Nor have I come to any very clear conclusions. But perhaps it won’t hurt to give it an airing and maybe some more clued-up souls out there can shed light.
There’s a lot of talk about guilt in Christian circles. You only have to scan the hymn books. This very morning we sang, ‘Guilty, vile and helpless we…’ Admittedly this was in contrast with One compared with whom those words describe us humans accurately. (The second line runs, ‘Spotless Lamb of God was He.’ ) I guess few would deny that compared with Jesus we are all foul, and it doesn’t take much probing to discover that our default is to be mired in sin. Maybe your default isn’t the same as mine; perhaps the temptation to gamble away the housekeeping isn’t something that plagues me, but something else will, and does.
I don’t have any problem with shame. If I do, say or think something dishonourable, or fail to do some good that was within my range of possibility, it’s the reasonable way to feel, and might even result in a tiny and temporary improvement. But what of that sense of ingrained unworthiness – whatever I do, however hard I try, I’m still a worm? My default sinfulness is simply inescapable by my own efforts, as part of me as the blood swishing round my veins or the crow’s feet adorning my eyes. If I ever doubt this, it isn’t for long; an unguarded moment sees that particular bit of the old Adam that is mine rearing up in all its ugliness.
And then there are those scary bits of Scripture that tell us sternly that a great deal is expected of us to whom much has been given (Luke 12: 48.)I certainly count myself among that blessed band, being the beloved child of good people, with all that flows from that happy condition, and having received innumerable benefits both material and spiritual, the greatest of which is knowing Jesus and being known by him. If only by this measure, I have fallen short time and again. It’s not usually that I have done something particularly horrible; sometimes it’s simply a question of wasting time in self-indulgent activities, or forgetting someone else’s need.
Of course we know that the only answer to our predicament , the only means of wiping away this damning tendency, is Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. Our job, as long as we are in the body, is to seek to know ourselves and to battle day by day, with the Holy Spirit’s help, to deny our sinfulness and become more like him who freely gave himself to save us.
What bothers me is the expression of guilt where, it seems, there is none. Wrongly or rightly I’ve spent almost twenty years trying robustly to rid a very dear friend of her feelings of guilt and shortcoming which are (to my eyes) patently undeserved. These feelings have most frequently manifested themselves in respect of her performance as a parent. (Would it be terribly sexist to suggest that this is something most fathers don’t worry about?) My friend is, by human standards, a fine person and an excellent parent. Her children would I am sure agree. So who has set the impossible standard to which she has aspired? I can claim some success in my efforts: she says she can hear my voice when self-doubt creeps in. ‘Did you make their packed lunches, listen to them read, stay up late concocting fabulous birthday cakes, help with homework, pick them up from dark places at creepy hours?’ Of course she did, and much more. Is she responsible for their happiness as adults? No, not really. She gave them what children need: much love, and a sense of their own worth. The rest is up to them. I may, possibly, have managed it. A bit.
But the picture is not entirely clear. Scripture also tells us that we will be assessed by what we have done, and neglected to do. Although we can’t rely on our works, they have importance. (Romans 2:6; 2 Corinthians 5:10; 1 Peter 4:17; Revelation 20:13 – for example.)
The picture is becoming increasingly, and worryingly, complicated. Add to this our natural (if theologically incorrect) tendency to rate wickedness on a sliding scale, and compare ourselves to others, and it gets worse. Can we really equate forgetfulness, small self-indulgences, a sometimes shifty attitude to truth - for example- with abuse, neglect, arrogance, cruelty and violence? I confess I am little further ahead.
This post is already far too long, so I shall cease thinking about these things for now, in the hope that wiser heads may help me. Once again I am taken back to the most important piece of knowledge I possess – perhaps the only really important piece. In the words of the heroic Horatio Spafford:
‘Though Satan should buffet, if trials should come,
let this blessed assurance control,
that Christ has regarded my helpless estate,
and has shed his own blood for my soul.’