Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Value of Guilt

Recently I received a forwarded piece from George Carlin on the subject of "How to Stay Young." Much of his advice was common sense and reasonable. One point, however, caught my attention. He wrote: "9. Don't take guilt trips. Take a trip to the mall, even to the next county; to a foreign country but NOT to where the guilt is."

Now I understand that there is an excessive and unhealthy side to guilt. I've been there. Too often we can beat ourselves up over false guilt, taking on responsibility that is not ours. In that sense, I agree. Don't take such a 'trip.' It only leads to misery.

On the other hand, our society regularly tells us that any guilt is unhealthy, and that we should do whatever makes us happy and content. Our mores are self-serving credos that elevate freedom as the highest aspiration. And this lack of restraint has brought untold damage to marriages and families, cheapened sex, increased violence and substance abuse, and somehow reasoned that "personal choice" trumps the higher need to protect life. In this sense, we are greatly in need of more guilt, not less. Yet guilt assumes regret over breaking a law outside ourselves. If this law is not recognized, there can be no real guilt.

Guilt is most unhealthy when it knows no absolution. But thanks be to God that in Christ we have true forgiveness for repented guilt. The law that brings guilt in this sense is good, for it humbles our pride. Then the Gospel can awaken true faith. If Carlin wants to avoid this "guilt trip," he is to be pitied.

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