Friday, June 7, 2019

Christianity – A Religion of Guilt

            One of the problems with the spiritual condition of the modern world is that so many people are seeking guilt-free forms of spirituality, both within and outside of Christian churches. Those who have abandoned traditional denominations often talk of how happy they are to have left their feelings of guilt behind – and in response, some people try to defend Christianity by burying the role of guilt in the Lord’s gospel. But such a quest is futile: Christianity, when practiced correctly, is a religion of guilt.

            The scripture says that “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” It is natural for someone who discovers that he has harmed his fellow man, or neglected his duties, or defiled something pure, to feel an awful sense of guilt when he realizes what he has done.

We all do such things from time to time, and only a blockheaded fool can fail to see the ill effects that his shortcomings have in his own life and the lives of others.

In light of this, no Christian can claim to be truly righteous. We can at best claim to be Godfearing – that is, when we realize we have made a mistake, we repent and change course. But we do not see our errors as soon as we ought, and we don’t change course as fully as we ought, so we aren’t really righteous.

Christians are not unique among religions for believing in the concepts of sin and repentance. Muslims, too, believe that men have been called to repentance, beginning with Adam, who obtained forgiveness for eating the forbidden fruit. The process is fairly straightforward: a man regrets his wrongdoing, repents, and changes his ways, and God forgives him.

But that paradigm is too straightforward for Christians, who insist on adding another step, in which God must send his only Son to suffer and die for their sins. In other words, a Christian feels his guilt so intensely that it isn’t enough for God merely to say that the sin has been forgiven. No, the only way that sin is going away is for God himself to come to Earth and SUFFER.

The concept of the atonement is difficult to understand for unbelievers, who are often baffled at the idea of a God who is willing to forgive sins if and only if an innocent man is punished in the sinner’s place. But I do not think that is quite how it works – rather, I believe that Jesus had to suffer in order to gain the power to forgive sins. A being who has never suffered cannot grant meaningful forgiveness, and it is only by suffering the consequences of human viciousness in the way he did that the Saviour is able to forgive our acts of viciousness.

Just as Christians, in general, are united by an acute feeling of guilt for their shortcomings and a desire for forgiveness, progress in the Christian faith often consists of a man becoming increasingly aware of his guilt.

When I was young, I hadn’t quite internalized the concept that I was a sinner, and thought of myself as a righteous person because I didn’t commit the kinds of sins that the Bishop wanted to hear about – drinking, fornication, etc. But as I got older, I realized the severity of the sins I had committed, such as idleness, pride, and neglect of friends and family, to the degree that I more and more often found myself wallowing in guilt.

I was beginning to understand Christ’s rebuke to the Laodiciean Church: “Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked.”

Obviously, it isn’t right to spend all, or even most of our time wallowing in guilt. The Protestant Work Ethic requires us to be up and doing. Alma the Younger worked very hard to preach repentance and build up the Church after coming to terms with his guilt as a young man. On the other hand, Nephi, one of the workingest men in the scriptures, penned the following:

Nevertheless, notwithstanding the great goodness of the Lord
In showing me his great and marvelous works
My heart exclaimeth: O wretched man that I am!
Yea, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh;
My soul grieveth because of mine iniquities.
I am encompassed about, because of the temptations
And the sins which do so easily beset me.
And when I desire to rejoice
My heart groaneth because of my sins…

To the outside observer, it seems that whatever sins Nephi committed were trivial compared to what Laman and Lemuel had done. But they weren’t trivial to Nephi. Both Nephi and his brothers had reason to feel guilt, but only Nephi felt the need to sing about it – because Nephi was a better Christian than his brothers.

            Guilt is also responsible for building Christian civilization.

         Most of the societies that have ever existed on earth are what sociologists call “shame societies.” People do what they’re supposed to because to be seen doing otherwise will bring shame on themselves and their families. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and most reformers who say they want to do away with shame are in reality only interested in destigmatizing sex sins; for example, very few people would argue that stealing should have no negative social consequences.

            But a guilt society is better than a shame society, because even though shame and fear are still necessary to control the amoral segment of the population that doesn’t feel guilt, most people, having a functioning conscience, will do the right thing even when no one is looking.

            One effect of this is in sexual equality. In a shame society, women are expected to be chaste, but men generally aren’t; this is because men have always had a much easier time hiding their infidelities, and they aren’t at risk of getting pregnant. But in a guilt society, chastity is valued in both men and women.

             Nowadays, as American civilization has dechristianized itself and abandoned both guilt and shame, we can expect its future to hold only a brutal collapse.

            In the meantime, those of us who can still feel guilt will have to make a choice. Either suppress those feelings, become an amoral being, and join the enemy – or else acknowledge our guilt and, in consequence, commit to living the rest of our lives in a radically different way, as Saint Paul did.

            When Paul saw Jesus in a vision on the road to Damascus, and realized how wrong he had been to persecute the Christians and consent to the martyrdom of Saint Steven, he didn’t fight the feeling of guilt and seek refuge in cheap grace – instead, he repented, and spent the rest of his life bringing forth fruits meet for repentance, in the hope that Christ would one day say to him, “Son, be of good cheer, thy sins be forgiven thee.”

            All of Paul’s travels, and preaching, and his writings, and his sufferings for the faith, and his eventual martyrdom would not bring Saint Steven back from the dead. But they could make it so that, after Paul’s own death, he and Steven could embrace in the Celestial City with no ill will between them – only gratitude that Paul had done so much to keep and spread the faith for which Steven had lost his life.

And that is the joy that springs from the Gospel of Guilt.

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