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Gauging Guilt

A Sociologist may tell you it’s the result of a violation of the accepted norms and values of your culture, or social group. A Pastor might tell you it can be the result of sin. A Freudian Psychologist could tell you it’s the infringement of the internalised rules of a primary caregiver, and the consequence of giving in to the id over the super ego. An evolutionary biologist would probably tell you it’s the result of evolutionary forces acting at an individual and group level through group selection. A Neuroscientist may tell you it’s caused by a function of the prefrontal cortex in conjunction with other parts of the brain. What I am talking about is of course guilt.

Guilt is an emotional response with many root causes. Whilst being mindful of the philosophical agenda behind some explanations, if we wish to understand the multifaceted reality of it, no one description of guilt will do. If we’re going to accurately identify the causes of guilt we have to put away our professional or dogmatic bias to understand it beyond common clichés. An Adventist missionary in Nepal wouldn’t tell a recent female convert that the guilt she was experiencing – due to forsaking her polyandrous marital duty – was simply the result of her own sin. You probably wouldn’t tell a mother who felt guilty for losing her child that her guilt was no more than the result of breaking a social norm. It wouldn’t be terribly helpful to tell a confessing child who had raided the cookie jar not to worry because his feelings were simply the result of his prefrontal cortex doing its job. If trying to appeal to a Nazi gas chamber operator’s sense of guilt one wouldn’t have found it very useful to tell him his actions were simply the result of the evolutionary impulse towards supremacy over a competitive group, he may agree with you and continue his course. Likewise it would be just as pointless to tell a sociopath that he should follow his conscience.

It can be helpful to understand some of the categories of guilt and their causes before touching on some solutions. Some of those categories can be drawn from what has already been said. The idea of theological guilt involves breaking God’s law. Legal guilt stems from breaking the laws of a particular state. Social guilt may find a twofold cause: failing to live up to the expectations of one’s family and/or breaking the laws of politeness or propriety of a particular social group, and finally personal guilt can come about by breaking one’s own preferred way of life, or not living up to ones goals. So clearly our response to guilt should depend on the offence and the offended. Success with self soothing, constructive self criticism, and personal growth will seldom occur unless one first understands the cause.

Perhaps in self reflection we can see points at which the lines between these categories have been fudged in our own lives. You might find yourself asking God for forgiveness because of a personal goal you’ve failed to reach. Whilst it can be useful to be accountable to someone outside yourself – helping you achieve personal goals – the danger might be the attachment of personal desires with the divine will. As the habit grows stronger our own goals are vested with the same authority as right and wrong and may lead us to believe our will is God’s will. Or you may have been the victim of unrealistic parental expectations, which can lead to severe inferiority complexes and self loathing. When immigrating to a new country with a vastly differing culture one may be judged for infringing on the majority cultures sense of propriety to the degree that one gives up on the idea of societal integration altogether, and grows to view the majority culture as a serious threat to one’s personal image and self esteem on the one hand or severely questioning ones personal abilities and perhaps even intelligence on the other. The expectations of one’s family or social group might have been pitted against the law of the land causing disastrous results. These are just a few of the consequences of misunderstanding or incorrectly prioritising responsibility, and as a Pastor I worry about how this fudging warps our understanding of what divine salvation means.

If we are going to point in the direction of positive growth in light of all this one can begin to see the importance of parental training. A child’s development begins at home. Perhaps this is where the church might provide support to new parents and to members of the local community. During the everyday life of a church the fostering of an attitude of acceptance to the those who are suffering from guilt caused by the breaking of arbitrary social norms seems to be a much needed response, whilst it may be crucial to hold others accountable for the social damage done by forsaking morality in favour of personal desires and self gratification.


BBC Podcast on Guilt:

Christian Counselling: A Comprehensive Guide by Gary R. Collins

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