October 7, 2018
You will recall that when I mentioned The Way of the Cross as a discipline that will enhance one’s sense of Christ’s love, I cautioned against those ‘patterns’ that lead to (on purpose or not) a sense of guilt in the user. I want to take time to clarify that.
Guilt is an objective fact; it is the state of someone who has done something wrong. Guilt does not depend on whether one feels it or not; it is not even a feeling.
In the spiritual newbie, however, it can seem that guilt is too much to bear and too much to forgive. This leads to despair. It can seem that guilt is too great to be deserved. This is a kind of pride and self-justification. It can seem that crushing guilt is not something a good God would want us to feel. This is idolatry.
God does not much care what we feel. Some of the greatest saints have confessed frankly that they have no ‘feelings’ for God, at all; and sometimes ‘feel’ abandoned by him or like they want to abandon him. Feelings are important; but their principal importance is to us. We will have to talk about feelings on another occasion.
But feelings of guilt are no place to start one’s conscious effort to come to know God. Human weakness and wickedness can’t lift us up to him. That is why ‘fox-hole’ conversions are so seriously suspect of opportunism.
But knowledge of God’s love for us can make us see our guilt in new light; in all its darkness and malice, as the evil that it truly is. Actually, it is only as we come to know God’s love for us that we are able to see evil as what it is … a so-much-less goodness that it barely merits the name of goodness at all.
Back to the great saints: the more they are aware of God’s love for them, the more eloquent they become in their self-condemnations and in the more certain they are as they describe the utter folly of their former way of life. Think of Amazing Grace. You and I would hardly describe ourselves as ‘lost’, ‘blind’ or a ‘wretch’. But one who has come to know ‘amazing grace’ can know himself as ‘saved’, ‘enlightened’, ‘found’.
Likewise, the third verse of How Great Thou Art has things in just the right order. First comes thinking that God has not spared his Son, sending him to die. The consideration of God’s love is first. Then comes the wonder that this was done ‘to take away my sin’. The appreciation of guilt comes last.
Lest you think that I have only Protestant music to cite, let me point out that the Act of Contrition that most of us learned at six or seven speaks of the dread of losing heaven and suffering the pains of hell as our first motive for contrition. But the ‘most of all’ contrition is that which comes upon the realization that God is ‘all good and deserving of all my love’.
You see, we have always known these things. We needed only to think about them more.
Really and truly and penitently yours,