What Does the Bible Say About Guilt?

Here’s a question that is coming up with great frequency these days – at least in my neck of the woods. As the rush of adrenaline has faded in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, folks are increasingly wrestling with their own feels of guilt and inadequacy. In my heart, I’m grateful that some are turning to the church for answers. Unfortunately, I don’t think the Bible has the ones they’re looking for.
When it comes to ‘guilt’ in the Bible, there are a couple of things we hav to deal with before we can get to any semblence of what the text “says” or “fails to say.” The first is one of language: Ancient Hebrew and Greek, the languages of the written Bible do not have simple analogs for the contemporary concept of “guilt”. There is a lot of talk about “sin”, “transgression”, “iniquity”, “conviction”, “condemnation” and even “anxiety” or “worry”, but none of these seem to bring the same aspect of how we feel about our bad actions or inactions.
Moreover, this plays right into the second thing that we need to understand about the Bible and its worldview vis-a-vis the contemporary notion of guilt. Specifically, that both the Old and the New Testaments are much more interested in our actions than they are in our feelings.   Thus, when the text ultimately does talk about something like guilt, it is always with a sense that the misdeed has already taken place. The fact that you ARE guilty seems to always trump whether or not you FEEL guilty. Easier just to talk about the transgressions, isn’t it?
Thus, ths guilt that most folks in Houston is feeling today seems to have more to do with notions of “worry” and “anxiety” in the Bible. Sadly, the Biblical answers for these two are just about as un-helpful as the non-answers about guilt.  “Consider the lillies of the field, Jesus says, they don’t worry. And neither do the birds of the air.”  But the worry expressed here seem to me to be more about uncertainty with respect to future events. Guilt feelings are about uncertainty in interpretation of events in the past. Again, no help – even if “don’t worry becuase the birds don’t worry was even helpful to begin with.”
So, gentle reader, I’m not sure if the Bible is, ultimately, too much help when it comes to your guilt feelings. But don’t worry (see what I did there), I’m going to keep on looking for a good place in the tradition to place all of our survivor guilt. God’s going to see us through this. You just keep asking questions.

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