Thank God for Guilt

As we continue in this Lenten season and reflect on our faith in this Year of Mercy, I would like to offer this article about guilt. What is guilt? What role does it play in our lives? What is the difference between shame and guilt?

Let’s take a simple scenario. Upon his arrival home from school, Johnny’s mother surprises him with a batch of freshly baked cookies. Mom sets out three cookies and reminds Johnny that dinner will soon be served so no more cookies until dinner. As soon as Johnny hears Mom go down to start some laundry, he helps himself to three more cookies. Mom returns, discovers the misdeed, and immediately expresses her disappointment in his choice to disobey her. Johnny feels bad about his behavior, recognizes that he did wrong, and quickly apologizes to his mother and receives her forgiveness.

What I have just described is an experience of guilt.   Johnny is caught doing something he was told not to do.   His mother focuses her attention on his behavior and helps her son see that he has made a bad choice.

Guilt is an awareness that we have done something wrong which has hurt someone and even hurt ourselves. It works with conscience to convict us of our sinful behavior. In our Catholic view, we always measure our behavior against a standard of love for God and for our neighbor. In this light, we are able to see that some of our choices fall short of showing this love. By contrast, shame is the belief that there is something wrong with us because of what we have done. While guilt instills in us a healthy awareness of our sinfulness and of the need to seek God’s mercy, shame distorts our view of the mercy of God, making us feel unworthy and unlovable. We enter into an all or nothing mindset that tells us that we are inherently bad because of what we have done. Our self-image is distorted, and we lose our sense of inherent worth as a beloved child of a loving and merciful Father.

The reality is that we are all sinners. At every Mass, we begin by looking at our lives and asking God to forgive us for the times we have sinned – “In my thoughts and in my words; in what I have done, and in what I have failed to do.” Just as Johnny’s mother quickly forgave her son once he recognized his bad choice and apologized, so too is our loving God ever ready to pour out his abundant mercy upon us through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Not only do we receive forgiveness for our sins and a restoration of our broken selves, but we also receive grace and healing!

The Jesuits have a beautiful end of the day exercise called the Examen Prayer. It can help us to enter into a loving conversation with God in which we recall, not only our faults and failings, but also to remember the blessings of the day. You can find many resources for praying the Examen Prayer online or by checking out a good Catholic bookstore.

Just as our bodies have ways of letting us know when we are not in a state of good health, so a well-formed conscience and awareness of our sin helps us to recognize when we need to make that trip to the confessional. Our loving God has made a way for us to be restored and renewed when we fall. . . and fall we will! Let us thank God for those little pangs of guilt that bite us when we know we have failed to love and do His will. Guilt helps us to recognize that we are fallen, but loved, and never without the mercy of God, who is always ready to forgive a repentant sinner.

May we all grow closer in our walk with the Lord by readily and humbly admitting our faults before Him and receiving the grace and mercy that helps us to get up and walk again.

In the Spirit of Our Loving Father,

Deacon Tim

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