We are all aware of times when we need to embrace our guilt. It is difficult to admit, for the word guilt is such a heavy and potentially damaging word. It can become the bull running frantically through the china shop.
We do not need to cultivate the type of guilt that degrades and shames, but the type that awakens and arrests our souls. When we fail to engage in dialogue, where community building or developing the type of friendship that reconciles people to one another, is abandoned, we need the guilt that enlivens us and calls us to repentance. After a decision that disregards integrity or a sacred commitment to another, we need the guilt that stops us dead in our tracks, seeking repentance and healing. We do need the guilt that opens our eyes to confession, to repentance, and to redemption.
There are occasions when we need guilt, but there are other times when we must learn how to abandon the guilt that no longer serves us well. Whereas, guilt can be the companion of redemption, it can also be its nemesis, or even its enemy. It can twist and turn our conscience to the point where we only see darkness in ourselves. The gospel sheds the light of hope; it is good news, but guilt can become a source of despair.
Guilt can lurk around the corners of our past, as Emily Dickenson so insightfully writes,
The Past is such a curious Creature
To look her in the Face
A Transport may receipt us
Or a Disgrace -
The past is a "curious Creature" indeed. It can be the small, furry creature with a thousand legs and six different colors sitting on our shoulders, so that when we turn our heads just right, we are scared senseless. We are surprised and frightened, sent into a panic. It can be a disgrace. The past may also offer a reward; it can reward us with the warm feelings of gratitude and joy, but after being frightened, the past can become a constant source of shame.
We must learn to visit the past with a sense of awareness, with our eyes open for frightening surprises. We must claim the wrongs we have done, but we also must approach the past knowing that these surprises do not define us. The disgrace does not define us, grace does.
The spiritual discipline of abandoning guilt is as important as embracing guilt. We must take inventory of our lives, seek honest reconciliation, and then we must enter the future with grace. The future is where we live, allowing the past to remain in the past. For in the future, we discover new opportunities to build community, extend friendship, maintain integrity, foster innocence, and serve others. These opportunities are not found in the past; they are only in the future.