When Guilt Is Good

Recognizing and responding to the source of guilt with wisdom, maturity, and compassion liberates us to live in a healthy relationship with others and with ourselves. by Victor M. Parachin
woman looking up

None of us like to feel guilty and certainly some of us feel it when we shouldn’t. But it’s not entirely without its purpose. Imagine a world in which no one felt guilty about anything.

Maria Schriver

In three sentences, journalist and author Maria Schriver offers an important yet often neglected insight about guilt – it’s an essential component to a healthy conscience and a sign of spiritual sensitivity. Though guilt is most often presented as a negative and destructive emotion, there is a positive and constructive aspect of guilt. This was something Ben Franklin was aware of when he said, “A good conscience is a continual Christmas.” Here are six instances when guilt is good.

1. When it moves us to accept responsibility for our actions.

“Someone who can’t acknowledge responsibility and guilt cannot and will not change. And just as a disease cannot be treated until it first is diagnosed, a sin or an evil cannot be corrected until it is acknowledged and admitted,” notes Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, author of “The Book of Jewish Values.” In his book, he provides an example of an acquaintance who seldom acknowledges his errors. Whenever an issue emerges, the man blames others and refuses to identify his complicity in the matter. “I once told him that of all the people I knew, he was the one for whom I felt least optimistic about the future. Since he was never to blame for any of the bad things that happened to him, there was nothing he could do to improve his increasingly unhappy life.”

2. When it prods us to apologize.

When we have wronged someone, the first step in repair is a heartfelt apology. This was something Reverand Jesse Jackson did when the media reported an ethnic slur he made about Jews. Aware that his language caused harm, he promptly offered this public apology. “If in my low moments, in word, deed, or attitude, through some error of temper, taste, or tone, I have caused anyone discomfort, created pain, or revived someone’s fears, that was not my truest self. If there were occasions when my grape turned into a raisin and my joy bell lost its resonance, please forgive me. Charge it to my head and not to my heart. My head – so limited in its finitude; my heart, which is boundless in its love for the human family. I am not a perfect servant. I am a public servant doing my best against the odds. As I develop and serve, be patient. God is not finished with me yet.”

3. When it develops humility.

Two of the hardest words to say are “I’m sorry.” Generally, there are three reasons why apologizing is difficult. The first is pride. Apologizing means admitting fault. It’s pride that prevents us from simply saying: “I was wrong.” “I messed up.” “I shouldn’t have done or said that.” The second is blame. Rather than apologize, it’s easier to blame someone or something for our actions. We justify our actions by shifting the responsibility elsewhere. The third is embarrassment. We feel foolish, and it’s easier to pretend it didn’t happen or that no one noticed. Yet when we’ve spoken or acted in ways that have created a wound, the path to healing that relationship emerges from the humility to apologize. For that reason, humility is a high-value virtue in the Bible. “Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3 NLT); “Always be humble and gentle. Be patient with each other, making allowance for each other’s faults because of your love” (Ephesians 4:2 NLT); “If you are wise and understand God’s ways, prove it by living an honorable life, doing good works with the humility that comes from wisdom” (James 3:13 NLT); “No, O people, the Lord has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8 NLT).

4. When it prompts us to make amends.

The word “amend” has Latin origins and means “to correct, to rectify, to free from fault.” When we’ve blundered causing another person discomfort, the remedy is to “amend” the situation as quickly and completely as possible. It’s guilt that sends us to rectify.

Etiquette authority Letitia Baldrige shared an example when her friend failed to pick her up from the airport. She waited an hour before arranging new transportation. Baldrige explained that what happened after her friend realized his mistake. “He sent me a long message of apology, sent me a dozen long-stemmed roses, took me to lunch, and ordered a car to pick me up at my office and take me back again after lunch.” Of course, the apology was accepted, and their friendship was unaffected.

5. When it heals hurt and anger.

When remorse moves us to act in remedial ways, the hurt and anger experienced by the wounded party is softened and even healed. When Stacey Hylen checked into the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Tucson, Arizona she requested an important wake-up call. That routine request was overlooked, and when she work up late, she was furious. Understandably, she called the front desk to complain. However, within moments, her frustrations eased and her anger was transformed. The hotel agent promptly apologized and offered to send a complimentary breakfast to Stacey’s room. She declined breakfast, but when she returned to her room later in the day, she found strawberries, candy, dried fruit, and a handwritten note of apology. The result was this. Instead of an angry rating on the hotel’s website, she advocated for the hotel, highly complimenting their “5 Star Customer Service.”

6. When it causes a person to seek God’s forgiveness.

Recognizing that something isn’t right about our behavior and seeking forgiveness is hard. This very problem appears in the Bible. When Adam and Eve made the wrong choice and were confronted by God, they refused to accept responsibility. Adam blamed Eve saying “It was the woman you gave me who gave me the fruit, and I ate it.” Similarly, Eve blamed the snake. “The serpent deceived me. That’s why I ate it” (Genesis 3:12-13 NLT). Later when God demanded to know what happened to Abel whom Cain had killed in a jealous rage, Cain deflected the issue arrogantly saying, “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s guardian” (Genesis 4:9 NLT)?

However, another person in the Bible recognized his fault and responded. This happened when the prophet Nathan criticized King David for engaging in a variety of wrongful acts. David’s response was the opposite of Adam, Eve, and Cain. He accepted responsibility confessing “I have sinned against the Lord” (2 Samuel 12:13 NLT). Because of his immediate confession, Nathan declared that David’s punishment would be reduced.

When guilt is in our lives, it’s a signal to take a second look at what is going on. Recognizing and responding to the source of guilt with wisdom, maturity, and compassion liberates us to live in a healthy relationship with others and with ourselves.

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