Love means never having to say you’re sorry, proclaimed a sappy romance novel from the 1970s. I have come to believe the opposite, that love means precisely having to say you’re sorry. A sense of guilt, vastly under appreciated, deserves our gratitude, for only such a powerful force can nudge us toward repentance and reconciliation with those we have harmed.
Yet guilt represents danger as well. I have known Christians who go through life with a hyper-attention to defects, terrified that they are somehow offending one of God’s laws. A mature Christian learns to discriminate between false guilt inherited from parents, church, or society and true guilt as a response to breaking God’s law clearly revealed in the Bible.
A second danger flows directly from the first. Some people tend to wallow in guilt,as if unaware that guilt, like physical pain, is directional. Just as the physical body speaks to us in the language of guilt so that we will take the steps necessary for healing. The goal in both is to restore health.
In his book Legends of our Time, Elie Wiesel tells of a visit to his home town of Sighet, in Hungary. Twenty years before, Weisel and all other Jews in that town had been rounded up and deported to concentration camps. To his dismay, he found that the current residents of the town had simply erased the memory of those Jews. It struck Wiesel that forgetting one’s sins may be as great an evil as committing them in the first place, for what is forgotten can never be healed.
In my reading of spiritual masters, I have noticed that persons we now view as saintly have a finely calibrated sense of sin. Aware of God’s ideal, aspiring to holiness, free of the vanity and defensiveness that blind most people, they live in full awareness of falling short.
True saints do not get discouraged over their faults, for they recognize that a person who feels no guilt can never find healing. Paradoxically, neither can a person who wallows in guilt. The sense of guilt only serves its designed purpose if it presses us toward a God who promises forgiveness and restoration.
“Back Page” column, Christianity Today, November 18,2002(112)