Let’s Talk About Guilt
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Truth About Guilt and Forgiveness
Guilt, the GBU
Let’s talk about Guilt — the good, the bad, and the ugly.
I have often said there are two primary motivating forces in people: fear and love. Guilt is an extremely powerful, albeit secondary, motivator because it combines both fear and love in way that is unique and, often, terrible.
Guilt is loving, because it recognizes that we are not the center of the universe. Narcissists, psychopaths, and sociopaths (among others) struggle to feel guilt, because their capacity to put others ahead of themselves is impaired. Because such people rarely feel guilt, they exhibit behavior towards others that is uninhibited by the socially beneficial feeling of guilt. Such behavior is often harmful.
Those who love others often carry a great burden of guilt, because when they, intentionally or unintentionally, do things that damage their relationships with others, they experience feelings of genuine guilt and remorse because they have empathy or compassion for how the way their behavior has negatively impacted others.
Guilt is fearful because it recognizes the challenge in repairing a damaged connection with those we most highly value. Guilt is frightening, because it speaks to the worry that a harm we caused might not be able to be fully healed or repaired.
As powerful as guilt is, though, forgiveness, the genuine expression of which necessarily entails the acceptance of the penitent person and the restoration of the injured relationship, is far more powerful.
When we forgive ourselves, we acknowledge that we are worthy of love, we are worthy of the honor of loving others, and we are worthy of being loved by others — we are not unloving or unlovable. The converse is true, too; when we refuse to forgive, our actions are communicating, “I refuse to love, because I am unlovable and there is no love in me.”
Unforgiveness, the refusal to forgive and restore relationships, is actively hateful. Willfully refusing to forgive a penitent person is an expression of active hatred, born of intense personal dislike, extreme aversion, or hostility towards another.
Hatred, by definition is “intense dislike or extreme aversion or hostility.” The willful refusal to forgive a penitent person can be ascribed to no other motivation but hatred. Therefore, willful refusal to genuinely forgive, which necessarily entails restoration of the relationship between the penitent person and the one forgiving them, is an expression of hatred.
What does the Bible say about “Christians” who don’t forgive others?
John, the Evangelist, in his First Epistle has strong words for those who hate others while claiming to love God:
1 John 2:9–11 — “He who says he is in the light and hates his brother is in the darkness still. He who loves his brother abides in the light, and in it there is no cause for stumbling. But he who hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.”
Joh, the Evangelist, again makes his point even more clearly:
1 John 4:19–21 — “We love, because he first loved us. If any one says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should love his brother also.”
When we repent, seek forgiveness, and do penance, those who truly follow Christ, demonstrating their sincere love for Him by obeying his commandments,* must grant us their forgiveness, absolve us of the wrongs we have committed against them, and work diligently to restore our damaged relationships.**
Those who have truly experienced Christ’s forgiveness, therefore, cannot refuse to forgive. In fact, they so actively and eagerly seek to forgive that they seek out opportunities to forgive others and restore relationships. Forgiveness, healing, and restoration is a hallmark of their interpersonal character. They are overflowing with forgiveness for others, no matter how naïve it may seem, because they are overflowing with Divine forgiveness in their own relationship with God.
Clearly, one cannot both love God and refuse to forgive others, an intrinsically hateful act. Even if you disagree that willfully refusing to forgive others is intrinsically hateful, Jesus was absolutely clear in his command to forgive others, and said that only those who obey him love him. Take it from a lawyer, there are no loopholes, here. If you are a Christian, forgiving others when they seek your forgiveness is an absolute requirement for your own salvation.
In Matthew 5:48, when Jesus commanded us, “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect,”✝︎ he was commanding us to love with perfect love, just as God perfectly loves us.
A Beacon of Loving-Kindness
Guilt is powerful, but forgiveness is greater still, because it comes from that perfect, Divine love with which we are commanded to love one another. First, therefore, forgive yourself, thereby opening up your spirit to God’s perfect love. Then, forgive each other person who has committed any transgression against you, thereby opening up yourself as a conduit of God’s perfect love for every other person you encounter in your life.
By practicing this kind of forgiveness, you will become a beacon of loving-kindness that offers sanctuary from the caustic effects of guilt on the human heart and mind.
Dive Deeper with these Resources:
• DeMarco, D. (2002, March). Forgiveness. Catholic Education Resource Center. Retrieved July 23, 2022, from https://www.catholiceducation.org/en/culture/catholic-contributions/forgiveness.html
• Akin, J. (2019, February 19). The limits of forgiveness. Catholic Answers. Retrieved July 23, 2022, from https://www.catholic.com/magazine/print-edition/the-limits-of-forgiveness
Comments & Citations
* We are commanded to forgive all those who repent and ask for our forgiveness. (Matthew 6:14–15. Cf. Matthew 18:21–35; Mark 11:25; Luke 6:36–38; Luke 17:3–4; 1 Corinthians 2:5–11; Colossians 3:12–14.) Jesus expressly said those who love him keep his commandments. (John 14:15,21. Cf. John 15:10; 1 John 5:2,3; 2 John 1:6.)
** See this illustrated by the father’s actions described in the parable of the Prodigal Son. (Luke 15:11–32.)
✝︎ Various (Trans.). (2022). Christ’s words. Matthew 5:48 You will then be perfect, | Christ’s Words. Retrieved July 23, 2022, from http://christswords.com/main/content/mat-548-you-will-then-be-perfect