As stories go, I read about a man who drove by the humble farm of a Christian young woman, Nancy McDonald. A sudden gust of wind caught this traveler’s black derby hat, hurling it onto the McDonald’s property. He looked in vain for the hat and drove off bareheaded. Nancy retrieved the hat, and for forty-five years various members of the family wore it, and wore it out. At the end of the those years, Nancy McDonald finally advertised in a newspaper, attempting to find the owner of the hat. She said it had been on her conscience for forty-five years. Although this kind of guilt is beyond what we should carry with us even briefly, let alone for years, it gives us a simple illustration of how people can needlessly hang on to guilt.
The truth is, if we are honest, we have all made some pretty big mistakes and some of us have made bigger ones than others; mistakes in our relationships, our finances, careers and employments, spiritual lives, and many more that we could slip into other categories of serious blunders and missteps. Saint Augustine cataloged the more memorable sins in his life in the classic work The Confessions of Saint Augustine. Recently, I revisited this work while on retreat. It is an inspirational piece of literature revealing that even the best of us have much to work through, and much to gain from doing so. As in Augustine’s case, and in ours, guilt is a clear sign that we are passionate about our faith, sorry for our past failures, and looking forward to a better future where we are hopeful that our choices will be more in line with God’s intentions for us. Guilt is a way for us to feel genuine. Guilt does not work against our faith – it authenticates our faith.
When we feel guilt for past or present failures we are also motivated to get closer to God. God has chosen many pathways for us to get more passionate about Him; The desire to clear the conscience is one of them. For instance, we might feel some guilt when reading the Bible or some spiritual writing. Guilt will drive us to a fresh up to date repentance. In prayer, we might remember poor choices we have made or are making. This often gives us the energy we need to get serious about asking God for guidance so we can make better choices in the future. Guilt is not bad for us. God uses it to cleanse our conscience and to get closer to Him.
Unfortunately you have felt guilty for something for a very long time now. It is time to let it go! It has been my experience that it is easier to accept that God has forgiven us. A little harder to accept that the people we have hurt have forgiven us. But much harder to forgive ourselves. Yet, it can be done. It must be done. Guilt has done its work, it needs to be over with once and for all!
Joseph C. Hutchison