Accepting Guilt and Sinfulness, A Psychologist’s Perspective
Hobart Mowrer was Research Professor of Psychology at the University of Illinois. Mowrer critiqued Freudian psychology and its assumption that guilt was merely a pathology to be dispensed with. In this excerpt, he describes the importance of forgiveness as it pertains to guilt and sin:
Just so long as a person lives under the shadow of real, unacknowledged, and unexpiated guilt, he cannot…‘accept himself’….He will continue to hate himself and to suffer the inevitable consequences of self-hatred. But the moment he…begins to accept his guilt and his sinfulness, the possibility of radical reformation opens up, and with this…a new freedom of self-respect and peace.
Hobart Mowrer, The Crisis in Psychiatry and Religion, 1961, p.54.
A few years ago, HBO released a gritty (surprise!) crime drama called True Detective. The show starred Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as the two detectives responsible for catching a serial killer. Towards the end of the series, McConaughey’s character reveals his philosophy of human nature behind his detective work:
“Look-everybody know’s there’s something wrong with them. They just don’t know what it is. Everybody wants confession, everybody wants some cathartic narrative for it. The guilty especially. And everybody’s guilty.”
Stuart Strachan Jr.
A Messenger of the Divine Mercy
In a series of sermons for the Lenten season, pastor and author John H. Baumgaertner shares one of the greatest moments that can ever happen to a pastor, though, in truth it is available to all who have experienced the joy that comes from receiving God’s grace:
Every Christian minister from time to time is visited in the privacy of his study by some person who is completely crushed by a guilt that the despairing individual believes to be beyond forgiveness. And it is precisely then that a pastor is most grateful for the privilege of being what he is by the grace of God. A messenger of the divine mercy, a spokesman for the suffering Son of God. For he can say something like this “Let’s forget about you for the moment and talk about Jesus.
It’s because He came that I’m here, and I know it’s because of Him that you came to me. And you’re right. He has something He wants to say to you through me. He is saying to you, i came to make it possible for you and for anyone to find forgiveness in the love of the Father. That’s why He sent Me. He wanted Me to take the burden of your guilt on Myself.
He wanted Me to share your whole life that you might share Mine. I’ve done that. I’ve lived for you, and I’ve died for you. And I’ve been raised from the dead, and I’m living now to tell you that My Father loves you that much. And ai/ We ask of you is the willingness to believe that, to accept it We want you to know the joy of a penitent heart that has found forgiveness. We want you to live the changed and the radiant life of one who knows what it means to be born anew.
The Relief of Getting Caught
Years ago, visiting one of the London prisons, I heard a statement made by one of the prisoners that impressed me very much. He said to me, ‘You do not know what a relief it is to be found out.’ We discussed the matter at some length because I wanted to understand and I wanted to see what he meant. What I discovered was that for years he had been aware that being a professional thief was not exactly what he had aimed at. He had a sense of honesty, of loyalty, of integrity, and yet this sense of integrity did not help him overcome his problem, because whenever he made an attempt at changing his life, everyone around him pricked up their ears.
On the one hand people said, ‘What nonsense! Are you going to join the opposite camp? Are you going to become an honest man with all the evils that means–becoming as hypocritical as those who exploit others, as untruthful, as conventional, as lacking in authenticity, as alien to your most natural impulses? And others began to look at him with suspicion. People who had never discovered in the past that he was a thief began to see changes in him and began to imagine that he might very well be one. And even those people with whom he had a quite natural, good, honest relationship began to treat him with circumspection and suspicion.
So every attempt he made to change his behaviour, and to allow other sides of his personality to take over, was nipped in the bud – on the one hand by the reactions of his own clan, his own gang, his normal surroundings, and on the other by the people he wished to join, but who became the more alien to him as he began to try to become more like them, because every change exposed more of his predicament.
One day he was caught. There was a very very great feeling of shame, of distress, and then a sense of liberation: ‘Now I have no need to hide who I am, or rather, who I was. There is no need to be hypocritical, to be what I am not. I can now become whatever I choose. I can either remain a thief, in which case there are ways in which I can behave well enough in prison to get out of it soon enough to go back to my job, having learnt a great deal from my fellow inmates – or else I can choose to change and start anew.
Shifting Our Focus
By shifting the focus away from myself and onto Christ and his love for me, I have noticed that everything comes into view. When Martin Luther was suffering under the weight of guilt, his spiritual director, Johannes Staupitz, said, “Martin, quit looking at your sin and start looking at Jesus.”
The Three Basic Truths About Guilt
There are three basic truths about guilt. If you’ll come back to these concepts anytime you begin to feel guilty, you will understand better what is going on emotionally and how you should approach the issue. For now, read these three truths and commit them to memory:
Guilt is a message.
Guilt is a debt.
Guilt is an opportunity.
I’ll break down each of these truths in a moment, but first, say them out loud: Guilt is a message. Guilt is a debt. Guilt is an opportunity.
1. Guilt Is a Message
Guilt is information.
It is your conscience trying to tell you that either:
- you caused harm or did something wrong, or
- you are telling yourself you caused harm or did something wrong even though you haven’t. Your job is to accurately read the message of guilt so you can take the right next step to address it appropriately.
Remember this: if you misread the message of guilt, you will react in ways that are unhealthy and counterproductive.
2. Guilt Is a Debt
Guilt means you owe something. Just as a defendant found guilty deserves a sentence, guilt tells you there is a consequence to your actions or lack of actions. Someone must be compensated. You must give up something—your rights, your freedom, your money, your voice. It might mean you do not deserve the good you might otherwise enjoy if you were not guilty. Remember this: guilt costs you something, and that cost can drive the decisions you make when you feel guilty.
3. Guilt Is an Opportunity
Most powerfully, guilt is an opportunity to change something or accept something. It is up to you to decide which it will be. Rather than using guilt to beat yourself up and make decisions, intentionally choose your response to it. Be curious about guilt, and use it as a chance to
- clarify your values and expectations;
- forgive or be forgiven;
- set or strengthen your boundaries;
- have meaningful conversations;
- grow spiritually and strengthen your faith; or
- be a more courageous, authentic, better version of yourself.
Still Looking for inspiration?
Consider checking out our quotes page on Guilt. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!