If you don’t have an ear for the music of Christianity, it may be hard to make sense of why the Lenten days tracking the Gospels’ accounts of Jesus’ journey from freedom to arrest, crucifixion, and resurrection are so important to Christians.
The answer partly lies in the doctrine that Christ liberates, or saves, human beings from bondage to sin.
But what’s this about freedom from bondage to sin?
Here’s an existential way of thinking about sin or wrongdoing. If we reflect on the past twenty-four hours, a clear-eyed inventory of what we did, said, didn’t do, didn’t say, either leaves us with a comfortable feeling or it leaves us troubled. Our consciences are a built-in mechanism that detects some (not all) of the gaps between what we consider to be the good and right thing to say and do, and what we actually did say and do. When the gaps are wide, we feel bad—our conscience bothers us. We call that feeling guilt.
To do guilt is part of the human condition. True, some people proclaim they ‘don’t do guilt’ as if ‘doing’ guilt was a bad thing and nobody should ever ‘do’ it. But should Chris really not feel guilty about smacking the beJesus out of Rhianna? Those who claim they ‘don’t do guilt’ probably mean that they ‘don’t do self-loathing.’ Although we may have been taught otherwise, the anguish of a guilty conscience need not result in self-loathing. In fact, the anguish of a guilty conscience can prompt us to make some positive changes.
There’s a difference worth noticing between self-acceptance and self-approval. Guilt helps us keep the difference straight. We might accept ourselves as we are, but a guilty conscience reminds us we’re a ways off from the acts and intentions that are in keeping with out-and-out self-approval.
Back to guilt and sin. Shall we agree that nobody (except a masochist) likes doing guilt? Guilt feels bad. Downright awful. The problem then is what to do with our guilt. Live with it? Make amends to the injured party? Ignore it? Suppress it and make it ‘disappear’? Deny it? Feel sorry for yourself? Take it out on other people? Ask the wronged party for forgiveness? Ask yourself for forgiveness? Ask God for forgiveness?
We, human beings, always carry hope and despair within us. On the despair end, most of us have a low tolerance for the despair of the iron cage of guilt. We are trapped, bound, imprisoned. We want release from guilt, some way to feel better, some way to heal the hurt and be reconciled with ourselves.
Many Christians hand their guilt over to God in prayer or in ritual with the hope that God will hand back forgiveness. Many Christians believe that thanks to Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross, God forgives their wrongdoings. The way this forgiveness works differs according to the Christian tradition. Lutherans, for example, place their trust in Christ and, thanks to that trust, believe themselves forgiven by God (they know they’re still messing up as much as any of us, but they’re forgiven). Roman Catholics confess their wrongdoings to priests who assign them works of contrition and forgive them in Christ’s name. In all these Christian traditions, the key to forgiveness is Christ. Thanks to the crucifixion, the doors of the iron cage of guilt spring open and the Christian is restored to wholeness.
Wholeness! Stepping out of guilt’s iron cage! Sounds great. But if, for us, Jesus was not the Christ, then we must find other ways to seek forgiveness for wrongdoings and soothe our guilt. Going directly to the party we have harmed and asking forgiveness is one way. But what if they’re no longer alive, or we don’t know where they are?
Helpful ideas, anyone?