It could be a scene from a Neil Simon play or a Woody Allen movie. As the curtain opens we see our character, a young mother of two. She has just finished cooking a large pot of chicken soup, filling her Minneapolis house with the fragrance of well-being. The phone rings. It is Mother—her sick mother—who has been in bed with the flu for a week. Mother lives in Miami, 2,000 miles away:
Daughter in Minneapolis says hopefully and cheerfully, but doubtfully: Hi, Mom, are you feeling better?”
Mother in Miami says in a small, weak but husky voice: “A little—I was just lying here thinking about how much I would love to have a home-cooked meal, or even just some soup. That would make me feel much better. That’s what I would really like—chicken soup. But I really can’t let anyone into the house because of the germs. I wouldn’t want anybody to catch what I’ve got.”
Daughter (now standing) shifts her weight nervously from one foot to the other. Her eyes are now fixed on the simmering pot of chicken soup.
“Can’t you get someone to bring some food over to you? How long has it been since you’ve eaten? Do you have any food in the house? Why don’t you call somebody and see if they can bring you something?”
She fires these question/suggestions one after another with no hope of getting a satisfying answer nor any reason to believe that her mother will do anything.
Mother: “Please, don’t worry about me; I’ll survive. I was just thinking about how much better I would feel if there was someone to make some chicken soup. Maybe I even have a can of it in the cupboard. Of course, you know the taste of canned chicken soup. Mrs. Swanson might have been a nice lady but she wasn’t Jewish, and neither was Mr. Campbell. But when I feel better I’ll go look. Don’t worry about me; I’m sure in a few more days I’ll feel better. But right now I’m doing the best I can to get to the bathroom.
“So how are you feeling? The kids? Are they doing all right in school? It’s been so long since I’ve seen any of you.”
More words are exchanged, but the conversation is strained and cut short by cries of “Mom, we’re hungry!” from the oldest. Good-byes are said. The mother in Miami leans back in her sickbed.
The daughter and her family in Minneapolis sit down to enjoy the chicken soup. But the daughter does not eat. She is choked by something—not a chicken bone, but by some unsettling feeling she cannot quite put her finger on. The feeling intensifies and she pushes away her plate. The soup has lost its appeal. She tries to give her feelings a name. There it is: guilt.
And so it strikes again—guilt, the old familiar thief of joy. Devastating, depressing and defeating guilt has returned as the unwelcome, dominating resident of that Minneapolis household.
But What is Guilt and What Does it Mean?
We all feel it at sometime or another, but few of us try to find out what it means. The dictionary defines guilt as “the fact of having committed a breach of conduct, especially violating law and involving a penalty.” But guilt seems to mean so much more. Perhaps it is not entirely coincidental that the definition preceding guilt is the one for guillotine: “a machine for beheading by means of a heavy blade that slides down in vertical guides.” Those who are plagued by guilt are caught beneath an emotional guillotine, which stands poised and ready to sever even the most secure individdual from his moorings. Guilt delivers a harsh message: “We’ve blown it, we’re not perfect, and there’s a price to be paid.” Faced with such news, who can stand?
Our actions become a cause which has an effect. Negative actions or inaction has the negative effect we call guilt. But the guilt caused by our negative action is real, and not necessarily a feeling to overcome. Often guilt is teaching us, telling us there are standards we need to meet. There is a right and a wrong and we feel guilty when we don’t do what is right. Healthy guilt tells us truthfully that we ought to do this or avoid that.
When we feel uncomfortable with that guilt, we may try to excuse ourselves by saying “the standards are unfair.” Instead of facing our failures we might call them “not failures.” We don’t know how to be rid of the negative way guilt makes us feel about ourselves, so we try to change the rules. We try to blame our failures on others.
Guilt strikes hardest when we are caught between wanting to feel assured that we did the right thing and wondering whether we have done it. When guilt finds such moral uncertainty it becomes relentless in its attack. The aftermath of the blow is doubt. We are somehow unable to believe that we are what we ought to be. With all our protestations of “I did the best I could,” we’re aware that “No, I really didn’t.” We could have done better. We could have been there with the chicken soup—or if not, we could have arranged for a proxy soup-bearer. And so guilt is a nagging heartache we would love to lock away in a vault called Private Nuisance.
A Theological Interpretation of Guilt
There is a great market for solutions to this malady called guilt. People will turn to books, magazine articles and, of course, the psychiatrist’s couch hoping for relief. Anxiety caused by guilt is a problem as old as time itself.
The Bible opens with a story where the first people do wrong and thus acquire consciences that condemn them. Even if one does not hold to a literal interpretation of the creation account, there are some wonderful insights that speak to our situation today.
As the Genesis account is related, Adam and Eve were well-acquainted with guilt. When God called out, “Adam, where are you?” He was not inquiring about location. It was a question of relationship. In effect the Almighty was asking “Have you left me?” God, until then, had freely interacted with Adam and Eve. His relationship with them was such that he never needed to ask “Where are you?”
The Scriptures tell us that the First Family shared a casual, friendly and free relationship with God. They were always on speaking terms with each other. Adam and Eve lived within God’s rules. Their needs were fully met, and they spent their days delighting in God and caring for his creation. The Scriptures tell us that there was only one thing forbidden: they were not to eat of the “tree that was in the middle of the garden.” Surrounding this tree was a promise: if they ate from it, they would die.1
Even for one who struggles to accept the Adam and Eve account literally, there is a clear message which makes sense. God tells humanity what is required to be right and subsequently blessed. Then God gives us the free will to be able to choose to do right and be blessed.
Jews, God and Guilt
Though Adam and Eve were not Jewish, Moses certainly was. Through Moses, God reached out to the Jewish people and gave a new standard of obedience. This “tree” by which we were to obey Him was Torah, the Law. The people of Israel were given the privilege of enjoying God’s presence in a unique way. However, this relationship also involved a cause-and-effect principle of obedience. “And you shall remember all the ways which the Lord your God has led you in the wilderness these forty years, that He might humble you, testing you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not.” (Deuteronomy 8:2)
The Israelites were guaranteed a return to the Promised Land, cattle, crops—all the blessings of God. But they would receive these blessings only if they followed his commandments. The people of Israel throughout all the generations to follow were included in the promised blessings and the threatened curses recorded in Deuteronomy 28.
Perhaps it was out of this sense of higher obligation that the stereotype of the guilt-ridden Jew arose. We Jews know to whom we are accountable, yet our theologically conditioned conscience plagues us with that inner voice, “You’ll never make it; you’ll never measure up.” We were given the standard of the Torah by which we could measure our devotion to God. But even those who earnestly try to follow God’s Law know we will inevitably break it and fail to obey our Creator.
Since the Law is an objective standard and does not change, it should not be manipulated or re-interpreted. Yet teachers of the Law have done this. They acted to assuage man’s guilt over not being able to obey God; nevertheless, the Law continues to stand as a reminder of the character of God, which is perfect holiness and perfect righteousness. Perhaps this is the reason why the Jewish people, who are among the most literate and learned people of the world, avoid acquiring knowledge of the true nature of Torah with its many demands.
The Law of God is perfect, and was designed so we could know the goodness and holiness of God. Yet in its perfection it exposes our guilt. It shows us how far we are from being like God. And the Mosaic law with all of its blessings and curses cannot give us the power to obey. In that sense, the Law has failed.
The guilt we experience as a result of breaking God’s Law does not enable us to keep from breaking it again. This is seen in the story of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev who, when he became old, adopted the following practice: Each night before he went to bed he would review the events of the day that had passed. And he would say of whatever was evil in it, “I shall not do this again.” Having looked at his deeds and having said this, he would say to himself, “But so you promised last night and the night before.” “Ah, yes,” he would answer himself, “but tonight I am in earnest.”2
We see that God’s “greater obligation” is the cause for our turmoil, for we are eternally called his people of choice. Although guilt is a universal problem, for the Jewish people it is a special problem. We are the people to whom the Law was given at Mount Sinai. But where there’s a rulebook there are bound to be rule-breakers. We have the freedom to choose, and sometimes we choose wrongly, selfishly, sinfully. Breaking God’s laws does not simply mean that when we feel guilty we simply try harder and do better next time. Our trying hard doesn’t work because we don’t have the spiritual power either to discern or to do what is right. The Law is a statement unto itself, that those who transgress it are guilty. They are guilty because they cannot measure up to the standards of a holy God. This guilt is a state of being, a fact—not merely a feeling.
The Link Between Parenthood and Guilt
It is not only at the Garden of Eden nor at the foot of Sinai that we see God’s principle of obedience=blessing. God’s relationship with us is also reflected in our relationships with others.
Perhaps no clearer picture of the obey-me-and-you-will-be-blessed promise is seen than in the parent-child relationship. Because parents have rules (or “commandments”) for children, there is also some transgression. Then the cause-and-effect principle between the two parties is experienced, especially by the children who endure the consequences! But the parent might also experience guilt that asks whether the punishment was “right.” Where there are rules and principles there is transgression: subsequently, there is bound to be guilt.
All upbringing is a cultivation of the sense of guilt on an intensive scale. This is seen in even the best education, that by parents who are most anxious about the moral training of their children and their success in life. It consists above all in scolding; and all scolding, even if it is only discreet and silent reprobation, suggests the feelings of guilt. “Are you not ashamed to behave like that?”3
But mothers and fathers everywhere suffer from the negative stereotype of being harbingers of guilt. In fact, The New York Times relates that a computer game has been created where one can punch in “Mom” and get a Jewish mother who appears sitting in an overstuffed chair, knitting and “making (you) feel guilty and dispensing advice” (December 5, 1985). Chances are, a goyische version of this game has also been invented!
Admittedly, most parents want to do and be the best they can for their children, and hope that by their example their children will follow suit. But it becomes evident early on in the parenting experience that even the best intentions fall far short. Parents wish their children would just believe them when they say, “Do what I tell you; I know what’s best for you. I know how to make your life turn out okay.” Children do what they want anyway, and the parents can only hope that their lives will indeed “turn out okay.”
Facts of Guilt vs. Guilt Feelings
You don’t have to be a parent to feel guilty! Everyone experiences guilt at one time or another. But there is a common belief that the feelings brought on by guilt are unhealthy and we need to eliminate them. True, the “guilt trip” that is often laid on us makes us uncomfortable and perhaps angry. Yet the constant nagging tensions of guilt feelings are often an indication that something truly is wrong. We need to pay attention to what guilt is telling us. Guilt reminds us that there is more that we should bee and do. Guilt can be a friend who stands ready to remind us that there is a gap between what we are and what we could be. Guilt could encourage us instead of condemning us if it could tell us: “You have the strength under God to do it right.” Conscience can commend action as well as condemn it. Our guilt feelings are sometimes a healthy indicator that something is wrong and needs to be fixed. These feelings may cause us to spring into action, to change course. In this way, uncomfortable though they may be, guilt feelings can even help us.
Unfortunately, the advertising media have distorted this connection between action and guilt. Modern thought has trivialized the role of conscience as a positive force. We are encouraged to partake in cheesecake, ice cream and chocolate: “Go ahead, indulge a little…flavors that are utterly sinful…all the taste, none of the guilt.” If we believe the values portrayed in the media, guilt is little more than the innocent by-product of overindulgence.
Self-indulgence is a newer, gentler word for “sin.” But according to the One who sets the standards, guilt is not simply a by-product of overindulgence. Self-indulgence is a newer, gentler word for “sin.” But according to the One who sets the standards, guilt is not simply a by-product of eating a thousand calories too many; it’s the consequence of far weightier actions that God calls sin, not cheesecake.
What’s So Bad About Guilt?
Perhaps the reason most people do not want to deal with guilt is that they fear there really is no solution. It is far easier to point towards someone else’s failures than to cope with one’s own sins. It is far easier to see our failure to keep God’s Law as merely our failure to meet our “potential.” We would more readily confess our failures if we could be assured of receiving a fair trial. Yet the good news is the bad news that we’re all guilty. Release begins by admitting our guilt. We cannot face our Creator who set the standards. Even when we do not want to acknowledge his existence, the world still revolves and exists because of God. The Holy One of Israel set those standards of what ought to be.
The recognition of guilt is our first step toward being healed. Yet one of the obstacles toward admitting guilt is our fear that there is no remedy. Perhaps that is why disobedient Adam didn’t call out, “God, where are you? I have some bad news to tell you.” Very few of us are willing enough or believe enough to seek out God with the bad news of our own sin.
But for those who will believe God, the prognosis is promising: he knows our condition and has a remedy. He has already initiated the restoration process. We read of it in the Hebrew Scriptures:
“For the life of the flesh is its blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls; for its blood shall make atonement for the soul.” (Leviticus 17:11, Septuagint)
We can see this clearly in the New Testament portion of the Bible:
“For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled, sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Messiah, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (Hebrews 9:13,14).
Yet a popular new book, What’s so Bad About Guilt?, by Rabbi Harlan Wechsler, offers a vastly different prescription for release from guilt: “Change your ways. Become better people. Consider the emotional motivations for your deeds and consider the rational need to control your actions. That is what God wants from man.”4
Indeed, it is true that God is always looking for us to improve. But he also knows that the outward changing of one’s actions is only possible through a complete, inward changing of one’s true nature, a cleansing and sensitizing of conscience. The nature that is bent like Adam’s, with a willful decisiveness to do whatever the soul wants even if it’s against God’s laws, needs to be straightened out. We need to be cleansed from within in order to walk correctly without.
“It is in the face of God that we feel guilty at not having become what He expected of us.”5
It is before God that we stand guilty, yet God knows what is in man and still loves us. He wants us to be his and has provided for our deficiency. He delights when we are able to admit our guilt, and even provides us with the strength to face it.
Though the concept of grace is alien in a society that gives very little away for nothing, grace earmarks the very character of God. It means “unmerited favor” extended by God toward us. It is this grace that enables us to admit our guilt and receive pardon from it.
There is a clear example of God’s grace in the New Testament account of a woman caught in adultery (John 8:3-11). The characters are an adulterous woman, the accusing scribes and Pharisees, and Yeshua. The woman was caught in the act, for which the Law requires a penalty of death by stoning. Her accusers brought her before Yeshua, demanding that he agree with the verdict and uphold the penalty. Instead, amidst all their protestations of righteousness, the Messiah seems to ignore them. It is only when their argument becomes persistent and insistent that he addresses the trial: “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” Stunned by these words, one by one, the scribes and Pharisees walked away. When they were left alone, Yeshua asked the woman, “Where are your accusers? Did no one condemn you?” She answered, “No, one, Lord.” And Yeshua said, “Neither do I condemn you; go your way. From now on sin no more.”
Even for those who do not, or will not, take the New Testament account seriously, it is difficult not to see that something radical is being offered to the guilty party: grace. For all intents and purposes, the woman should have been stoned; the Law of Moses required it. Instead, the woman is pardoned, but has done nothing to earn that pardon. It is freely extended as divine favor. In this story we see that there is only one category of people before God: the guilty. Not the guilty versus the righteous. The adulterous woman is guilty for the act she has committed, but her accusers are guilty as well, for the sin that exists within them.
And so the message extends to us as well; we are all guilty. All find grace when they admit their own guilt. “Guilt is universal…repressed, it leads to anger, fear and anxiety…but consciously recognized, it leads to repentance, to the peace and security of divine pardon…”6
Are We Bad?
Repressed and unconfessed, sin can cause us to carry on a silent conversation within ourselves: “What I’m doing is wrong. I must be pretty bad to be doing it. I’m guilty.” Guilt is our accuser. The message we tell ourselves is, “I’m bad.” But being bad is not the problem; being sinners is the true problem. Sin is as real a problem today as it was in the beginning. Perhaps the reason so many will not admit they are sinners is that they fear nothing really can be done about it. But God stands ready to forgive our sin, and what’s more, to remove it far from us and remember it no more. God can choose to vacate his memory (unlike our own guilt, whose memory is relentless). Ours is not a hopeless situation. It only remains hopeless when we decline to act, to refuse to admit our sins and turn to God.
Love as the Antidote to Guilt
Question: How many Jewish mothers does it take to change a light bulb?
Answer: None. “Don’t worry, I’ll sit in the dark.”
Guilt makes us sit in the dark. God’s love illuminates and frees us to walk in his light. The antidote for guilt is love, as seen in the story of the Baal Shem Tov. One day a man came to see him because he was having great difficulty with his child. The boy had committed many, many wrongs. The father put his case before the Baal Shem Tov, showing the rabbi that he had been careful not to spare the rod, lest his master think that the boy was a spoiled child. The Baal Shem Tov listened to the father’s plea for advice and finally told him simply, “Try loving him more.”
Rabbi Wechsler makes this surprising observation about faith, love and the Jew, Jesus:
“With brilliance, Christianity transformed the culture of ancient man so afflicted with…evil and…guilt…The way to liberate man was to conceive of his sin as atoned by the most powerful means of all: the sacrifice of a man who was God.”7
Rabbi Wechsler implies that the brilliant plan was contrived by Christians to liberate humanity, but the New Testament states that the plan was God’s:
“Since therefore, brethren, we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Yeshua, by a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience.…” (Hebrew 10:19-22)
We can admit our guilt, face it squarely and turn to God for his provision in Yeshua. He alone has “loved us more.” We no longer need to sit in the darkness of our guilt.
- Genesis 3:3.
- Steinberg, Milton; 1951, A Believing Jew. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, p. 213-228.
- Tournier, Paul; 1962, Guilt and Grace. New York: Harper & Rowe, page 10.
- Wechsler, Rabbi Harlan; 1990, What’s So Bad About Guilt? New York: Simon & Schuster, page 133.
- Tournier: page 55.
- Tournier: page 152.
- Wechsler: p.119.