I was on a Zoom call for work and one of the participants had a coffee mug with the phrase, “Grace over Guilt.” She said it was her Pilates motto because as a daily self-practice, Pilates, has its moments of blame and dissatisfaction. These moments carry with it a level guilt. Excessive negative emotional energy (guilt) has the capability of physically manifesting in our body, causing aches and pains that work against the benefits of Pilates. The emphasis is to forgive and let go of the guilt. To extend grace to ourselves when we go off track and to pick right back up where we left off.
Guilt can be a useful emotion. Studies show that guilt activates a keen sense of responsibility for one’s actions. It makes people tend to work harder and perform better than those who are not guilt prone. There is also a strong connection with altruistic and positive social behavior. The guilty are more willing to make charitable contributions and assist those in need. Research shows kids who have a little guilt get better grades in school, engage in more volunteer work, and are even less prone to racist attitudes.
Guilt can be a first step to self-reflection and self-improvement. These feelings can confirm that we’re no longer honoring our values. Psychologists since Freud have argued that guilt plays a huge role in the development of morality. It can deter us from bad behavior while keeping us in check.
The issue is when we let guilt control our emotions. For examples, we let an obsession over the numbers shown on a bathroom scale devalue our self-worth, or we wish for a different reality versus acceptance of where we are today. Guilt is not a state to cultivate. We cannot let it grow or linger. That will make us feel even more guilt for not moving on. A guilt trip is a journey that triggers remorse and causes us to take responsibility for unethical behavior. It needs to have directional movement forward to repentance.
Worse is when we let guilt morph into shame. Shame is incredibly unhealthy, causing feelings of unworthiness and then behaviors that reinforce that self-image. Shame neither encourages nor motivates positive behavior change. Basically, this is the difference between “I did something bad,” and “I am bad.”
How do we choose Grace over Guilt? Mindfulness. Paying attention to how we feel on the inside. When we fall, don’t stay down. Get up, dust off, and forgive ourselves. Inevitably, we will cheat on a diet or miss a morning jog to stay in bed a bit longer. We need to appreciate where and who we are, and not stress about where we believe we are supposed to be. Like in the Pilates it is the grit that brings the grace.
Thomas Merton makes an odd comparison between Adolf Hitler and Theresa of Avila. He portrayed Hitler as feeling no quilt. Hitler saw everyone else as less pure, less noble, less intelligent, less beautiful, and less perfect. Saint Theresa saw everyone else as her equal because we are all sinners. It is the saints who know they are not perfect and do not get discouraged over their faults, for they recognize that a person who feels no guilt can never find healing. Neither can a person who wallows in guilt. Guilt only serves its designed purpose if it presses us towards God and His grace. I once thought that as a Catholic Christian, I was destined to go through life saddled with guilt. I now realize that guilt is the instrument that drives me towards the cure, God’s grace.
Christians live their lives with an almost constant low-level sense of guilt. Most of that falls under the ambiguous category of “not doing enough.” We could pray more, serve more, love more, give more, evangelize more. Christians can also fall into the trap of motivating each other by guilt rather than grace. We forget that we have all been made in God’s image and called to love one another.
American author, James Carroll, wrote, “We cling to our bad feelings and beat ourselves with the past when what we should do is let go of it, like Peter did. Once you let go of guilt, then you go out and change the world.” Then there is a saying I saw on a billboard, “The moment you asked for forgiveness, God forgave you. Now do your part and leave the guilt behind.”
In scripture there are the final lines of the book of Micah (7:19) which contains a hymn of praise for the incomparable God, who pardons sin and delights in mercy. In John’s first letter (1:9), “If we acknowledge our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrongdoing.” Then in Hebrews 8:12 “For I will forgive their evildoing and remember their sins no more.”
Let’s practice daily mindfulness to not allow guilt to build or linger. Let’s forgive ourselves. Let’s use grace over guilt as a catalyst for change. Let’s realize that guilt is only a symptom that drives us towards the cure, God’s grace.