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Last week I had a wonderful twitter conversation about guilt with the pastor Brandon Mouser. In it we explored whether guilt was something that was worthwhile as a human emotion or if it was something that should be rejected. Coming from a background that taught that some emotions were spiritual while others were sinful I am loath to now call any apparent human emotion only bad. Yet, Brandon asked me a question that I could not answer in 140 characters on twitter. He asked me the role that guilt had played in my life. This is a great question and one that I have thought about for years. Coming from a holiness/charismatic position that denotes that some sins would separate me from grace I always felt guilt and accusation. The fact that guilt dominated my existence is a understatement. I spent many sleepless nights as a child pleading that God would forgive me and not deny me His Holy Spirit.
Yet, to not talk about the secrets that originated those guilt feelings would be to look at bad responses to something that ultimately needed to be dealt with. When I stop at my anger for how I was told to respond to my guilt I get into a dangerous loop. It is one that perpetuates my guilt and made me respond in mere people pleasing fashions. So, here is a personal story (granted an embarrassing one) to illustrate my point.
Crystal was my foster sister. One day while I as watching a Don Knotts movie in the basement of our Nebraska home my mentally ill grandmother dropped by for a visit. It was no ordinary visit, she did not visit often. On this visit she was leaving behind Crystal, unannounced. Crystal was an abused high school distant relative that she had adopted. Crystal had been separated from her sister and family because of the extreme abuse that she had endured. My grandmother claimed that she could not control her and decided that my parents were now responsible for her.
I was in grade school at the time. My sister and I attended a private fundamentalist school that my working class parents could not afford, but were told that they were sinning if we didn’t attend that school. Public school was filled with sin and we would probably stray from God through temptation if we left the safe confines of Lincoln Christian School. This meant that my parents would be paying tuition for one more person.
In full honesty I hated Crystal. She caused trouble, lied to my parents and I resented one more person in the family. It was like all of the sudden I had a new sister and I felt like she was a cruel one. In reality she was a very broken person who needed love.
Everything exploded one summer day that two of my friends came over. I was in the fourth grade and we were outside playing. I had not seen them in some time and we were across the street playing on the Catholic Church’s playground. Upon returning to the house I found myself locked out. Crystal stood at the door telling me that she would not let us in. She was babysitting and we were not allowed in the house. I do not know why this made me snap. I began banging on the door loudly. Locked out of my house? I went to the back and threw tomatoes from the garden at the house, kicked at the door and yelled until she finally relented to let me in.
I seethed in my room long after I had been let in. Who was she? This was not fair! Every childhood anger that I could conjure was focused upon Crystal and the fact that I hated her. So, I went to the kitchen and got a knife. Looking back I am sure that I only wanted to scare her. I made it obvious I had a knife and the child I was proved no match for a 17 year old. Yet, when I realized what I had done I went to my room and cried. I was a fourth grade attempted murderer.
My parents were understanding when they returned. Crystal had run across the street to the swing set at the Catholic Church. I had to immediately cross the street and apologize to her. She accepted my apology and seemed very sad. Obviously that could not be the end for me.
When my grandmother found out she cut me out of her life completely. Every time I would visit she would refuse to talk with me and ignored my very existence. Yet, I was left with my deep feelings of guilt.
It was with a sense of kinship that I read the passages about Cain and his mark. For many years I could only find hope in the fact that Peter was forgiven even after denying Christ three times. My guilt over this event followed me for decades.
I know that it seems easy to dismiss what a 10 year old would have done in a moment of anger, but tell that to the adult that feels they have done something unforgivable. In the faith tradition of my youth it seemed that there was no hope for me. Inside me was a murderer. I dreamed of being put in prison for life and burning forever in hell. I felt if I was capable of this then I was incapable of knowing and repenting of every sin that I knew or that might slip through my defenses. Convinced that God would eventually reject me I slowly gave up on God. It took years for me to come to the point were I would reject God before God could reject me, but it eventually came.
Yet, God was not the problem. My problem was guilt.
A few years back I was told that it was time to let go of the past. I could not create a better past by destroying my present. People who loved me asked me to confess my faults. At first I thought that meant that I would be forced to reveal my terrible secret about Crystal. Struggling with my fear of revealing my childhood experience I finally relented and told the story. Funny thing, no one thought it was important. They were more interested in the guilt that I was carrying with me like a backpack. It took me years after revealing the “secret” to realize that it was time to let go of the guilt.
For someone who has had guilt as a central function of keeping their faith pure this has been no easy task. I will not lie and say that it is always complete. But today I look back upon that child I was with a little more sympathy. I look back at Crystal’s life with a tremendous amount of sadness. Most of all I do not regret the guilt that caused me to begin to forgive myself. Even though it was a distortion of how guilt should be felt in children, it has made me realize that my guilt is often a distortion. Yet, it is a feeling that I must deal with and not ignore. I wish that the troubled child who I was then could have gotten the obvious help he needed, but that doesn’t excuse me from getting the help I need right now.
So, Brandon I hope this helps in explaining an extreme case of guilt in my life. Honestly, I wish I didn’t have to deal with guilt at all. For me I need community to guide me through my guilt. I am not necessarily the best judge of how guilt is functioning in my life. This takes a trust that I must conjure even more strength to exhibit. Even now I am hesitant to publish this, but I know that I do not desire guilt, but freedom.
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