Apr 28, 2015

We Live in Daily Repentance, Not Daily Guilt

By Anna Ilona Mussmann

Even though modern culture rejects the Christian concept of sin, we Americans still describe our actions and our self-image in moral terminology. We speak of atrocities like those of ISIS as “evil.” We claim to be “good people.” Of course, we also refer to high-fat foods as “sinful” and say things like, “I’m going to be bad and eat a big slice of cheesecake.” The greatest terminological confusion, however, is evident when we as a society try to cope with feelings of guilt.

On the one hand, popular psychology encourages us to simply deny our guilt--to assert our own worth, value, and goodness and to look on feelings of inadequacy as a mental weakness from which we must be liberated. On the other hand, society also seems to find guilt useful (one of my college professors remarked that whereas the Japanese are motivated by shame, American society is motivated by guilt). When, for instance, someone chooses to feed the homeless or to visit annoying relatives simply because she would feel guilty if she didn’t, she is helping to keep the social wheels turning.

Moms especially seem inclined to use guilt as a combination of self-flagellation and self-motivation. We read articles about all things things we should be providing for our children (enrichment activities, organic food, quality time, chemical-free laundry, more religious training, enough iron and vitamin D, positive body image, successful discipline, etc.) and feel guilty about not measuring up. We notice that someone else’s kid at church does X thing better than our child, and perhaps feel guilty over that, too.

However, moms are not alone in the tendency to expend significant brainpower wondering exactly how guilty we should feel about hitting only the low rungs on the ladder of perfection. It is as if we all unconsciously see some kind of moral superiority in guilt. I wonder if, afflicted by an inborn sense that something about ourselves is deeply flawed, our culture has substituted “guilt-wallowing” for the religious penances of medieval Christendom.

Modern guilt may help prop up secular morality (and sell magazine articles reminding us of things we ought to be doing), but it is also destructive. For one thing, it is not tied to any objective measure of right and wrong. The scale is always evolving. This means that instead of comparing ourselves to changeless maxims, we are forever comparing ourselves to each other. We must forever reassure ourselves that others are doing a worse job than we are ourselves. Perhaps this is related to the oft-discussed problems of insecurity and envy that accompany social media. For another, unless we all become psychopaths without consciences, there is no way to resolve the tension of knowing that we have done wrong. We are forever stuck trying to perform the actions of “good” mothers, bosses, neighbors, friends, and citizens while also telling ourselves that regardless of our failures, we are not “bad.” Thus, our guilt isolates us within our own heads. That is a scary place to be.

This phenomenon of cultural guilt can create a trap for the Christian. Because we live in the modern world, the baggage of our era can make it hard not to slip into a false way of thinking about ourselves. We too can become slaves to guilt (some of it produced by failings that are genuinely sinful, and some that probably aren’t sins at all). We too can find ourselves playing the mental games of self-centered, self-defined guilt.

How liberating it is when we instead look at ourselves through the lens of Scripture and acknowledge that we are poor, miserable sinners (utterly guilty before a righteous God), and that we are saved only through the sacrifice of a Savior who took our guilt upon Himself. Of course we don’t measure up! Of course we cannot reach the top of the moral ladder (or be the perfect mom). We do not need to. Christ is perfect for us, and His righteousness is imputed to us.

A truthful recognition of our own sinfulness is different from the guilt-trap. Both begin with comparison, but as Christians, we contrast our miserably inadequate selves with God’s perfect and unchanging Law. In his Small Catechism, Luther advises the Christian to,

“[C]onsider your station according to the Ten Commandments, whether you are a father, mother, son, daughter, master, mistress, a man-servant or maid-servant; whether you have been disobedient, unfaithful, slothful; whether you have grieved any one by words or deeds; whether you have stolen, neglected, or wasted aught, or done other injury.”

When we remember the Ten Commandments, it becomes clear that we have failed to measure up (most especially, perhaps, in light of the First Commandment). However, this recognition, and the subsequent feelings of grief and guilt, is not where Christian Confession stops. Again, Luther explains it with beautiful simplicity when he says,

“Confession embraces two parts: the one is, that we confess our sins; the other, that we receive absolution, or forgiveness, from the confessor, as from God Himself, and in no wise doubt, but firmly believe, that our sins are thereby forgiven before God in heaven.”

We do not examine ourselves so that we can feel guilty. Instead, we examine ourselves in order to ask for--and to receive--forgiveness. Not only that, but the focus is not on ourselves. Instead, it is on the God who has given us faith in the first place. Christian repentance is about Christ.

When societal guilt taps us on the shoulder, let us examine ourselves in light of Scripture, repent of our sin, and rejoice in Christ’s forgiveness. That is where we find the freedom and joy that modern culture cannot give.


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Anna writes as often as she can. After graduating from Concordia Wisconsin she taught in Lutheran schools for several years and became so enthusiastic about Classical Education that she will talk about it to whomever will listen. She is a big fan of Jane Austen, dark chocolate, and the Oxford comma. Anna and her husband live in Pennsylvania with their small son (and are awaiting the arrival of baby #2, due in July). Anna's personal blog is Don't Forget the Avocados and her work can also be found in The Federalist.

Image: "A Quiet Read" by Walter Langley, 1880-1890

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