Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Gift of Guilt . . . the Curse of it

It is a long convoluted path how I got to thinking about guilt this week. I’ll just skip the intro.

Of course all that is--reflects both the wonderful glory of the creator . . . and the echoes of the fall of Adam. The same is of course true of guilt.

One way of looking at it, is that our brains are built with a guilt “gland” (actually it is a complex interaction of several areas of the forebrain) . . . a place where guilt is processed. Like a high-end radio (sounds like an oxymoron), it is fine-tuned to the frequency of the Holy Spirit. It can function under autopilot or it can be turned on my incoming frequencies from the great convict-er.

In the perfect functioning guilt apparatus the progression starts with sin . . . followed by guilt . . . followed by remorse . . . followed by repentance. . . . and lastly, the complete confidence of forgiveness.

When guilt functions as it was intended, it becomes the salt in the throat that drives us to the well of Jesus to drink.

But a broken, fallen guilt can be either hypo or hyper active.

The hypoactive guilt apparatus is the cornerstone to many of the DSM II disorders as well as the psychopathic and sociopathic people.

As I was researching one of the psychopathic serial killers, I read his police report. He shot and killed a young man in front of the man’s girlfriend. She, like any of us, came completely unglued. Then the killer (per his own words) started stabbing her in the face and neck as she, in terror, begged for her life. He found tremendous joy . . . not wanting to rape or rob her . . . but watching her helplessly beg for mercy as he methodically stabbed her to death. He was high on joy for days . . . until he needed to kill again. There, his guilt apparatus was silent. No remorse, no guilt. But lack of guilt seems to be key in many of the lesser DSM II mental disorders as well.

But what about the hyperactive guilt apparatus? I believe such an energetic sense of guilt is like the flying buttresses that hold up the walls of anxiety. I know that I suffer from a generalized anxiety disorder and have my entire life. Some day I would like to write about it . . . if I can ever figure out how to do without sounding like I’m whining or being a member of Oprah’s mental health disease of the month club.

I was talking to my mom this morning. She’s 88. She was telling me how she suffered from anxiety her whole life. I didn’t know it but she was on Valium for several years . . . until her pharmacist explained that it was habit-forming. She stopped it cold-turkey. So I know that there is a genetics flaw (a physical consequence of the Fall of Adam), and not just a learned response.

But in anxiety disorders, and maybe other disorders, guilt and shame play a big role. There the progression doesn’t follow the script. It is sin (or perception of sin) leads to guilt . . . which leads to remorse, repentance (if the sin was real to start with), but then the guilt continues and goes to seed as shame. Shame in turn tells the emotions that the blood of Christ does not cover you . . . while you know in your intellect that it does.

Those of us with a hyperactive guilt apparatus are set up to be manipulated. Those with a low guilt sense, tend to habitually manipulate others . . . and with no remorse.

On the other side of the looking glass, where the perfect world of pretend Christianity dwells (and where I used to dwell myself) everything is well demarcated between black and white. It is odd that they see things that way because they do believe in the Fall and should know that all things are corrupt. So there, guilt always = Holy Spirit convicting as they have no concept of false guilt. They also have no sense of the lack of guilt . . . you know nice Christians like Ted Haggard who seemed to function without guilt.

It reminds me of an old friend from my college Navigator ministry. We stayed in touch over the years. One day, a long, long time ago, he sent me a letter that his wife was leaving him . . . and that she was really messed up. She had actually accused him of molesting his daughter so that she could get a better divorce settlement . . . so he said. She seemed like a witch to me . . . per his letters. It seemed odd because he had met her thought the Navigators and I had assumed that she was a "godly woman" (back when I believed in godliness.)

A couple of decades later our paths crossed. I went out with him and his new wife. Then he and I sat to the wee hours in the morning talking about the old days. The longer we sat up, the more of the layers of the onion we peeled off. Then, about three in the morning, he mentioned that not only had he really molested his daughter . . . but while my jaw was still on the floor, he told me that he was having sexual encounters with other men at that time. When I told him he must come clean with his wife, he said he would not. But then he, as an elder of a Evangelical church, said something that really blew me away. He said, "But I feel no remorse for either behavior because God has not convicted me of it." This was the first time I ever walked away from a from a friendship because of my disapproval of someone's behavior. I just didn't know how to deal with it.

For many of us who suffer from an overactive guilt complex, it is a constant effort to see the cross clearly and to feel the father’s pleasure. I think that is why church campaigns to “root out our personal sin,” feels a little like a burn victim being asked to take a soak in a hot tub.Some of us need to hear about grace . . . every single day.


Johan said...

Thanks for the thoughts on guilt.
I'm in the 'too active guilt-gland' partition clearly. Anxiety, self condemnation and yes, manipulation.
I also need to hear about grace daily ...

I find it very hard to see what the correct place is of guilt in my life. i've felt guilty over so many things I don't need to feel guilty over (and yes, in the past I thought it was the holy spirit every time). I tend to really question whether what I feel is real guilt, and whether God would communicate in that way.
But your examples of people with an inactive guiltaparatus shows that the absence of a conscience is also a bad thing.
So how do we recalibrate our conscience?


Don Hendricks said...

Very very helpful and needful discussion of the complexity of this issue. Thank you.

Heidi said...

"...feels a little like a burn victim being asked to take a soak in a hot tub. Some of us need to hear about grace . . . every single day."

yeah. It hurts. I sometimes think it would be a relief to skip to the end but on the other hand I want to experience grace in this life (don't know a non-religious way to say grace).

MJ said...

Yeah Johan, I really think the best we can do in this life with healing, is what psychologists call cognitive restructuring or what the Bible calls renewing your minds. I do think it starts with thinking differently and trying to build mental habits build around truth . . . I am forgiven, I am forgiven, I am completely forgiven, completely covered . . . when God looks at me He only sees Christ's righteousness!

Steve Martin said...

"Some of us need to hear about grace . . . every single day."

Count me amongst that number.

Jaimie said...

I have generalized anxiety as well. I started Klonopin this year, which I only take occasionally, at most twice a week, so I don't become addicted to it. I never take it more than two days at a time. My family always asks me if I'm addicted to it. It's funny, since the pill that relieves my anxiety has become an anxiety of its own.

Anyway, you should write about it. I'd love to read it.

MJ said...

Steve, Yeah, I think a lot of us need to hear about grace everyday . . . more of us than would admit.

Maybe I will Jaimie. I know that blogging is a narcissistic exercise in itself . . . to talk about one's own issues is more so. But, some day if I can find the proper context.

You have courage to even mention it. I think anxiety disorders are some of the most poorly understood within the church. I have never mentioned it in my church setting because I know what response I would get. They would see anxiety as the polar opposite of faith etc.

If I were to write an article I would title it "Fearfully Made." Fear, anxiety is a gift (like guilt).

Jaimie said...

I am seeing a therapist and it's helping the lesser subconscious anxiety. But sometimes, obviously, it gets so bad that literally nothing helps except the meds. The anxiety defies all reason. You cannot reason with it. It's like you're in a battlefield getting shot at... it would be foolish for anyone to tell you to trust God there. (to a point, lol: you can trust God, but you won't magically feel safer.)

For some reason, I am really honest about it even at church. I doubt anyone is looking down on me. I'm in a young group; everyone has problems.

Jaimie said...


You can't use narcissism as an excuse since I specifically ASKED you to talk about it. :P

MJ said...

"The anxiety defies all reason. You cannot reason with it. It's like you're in a battlefield getting shot at... it would be foolish for anyone to tell you to trust God there."

I know exactly what you are talking about. I can hardly have this conversation with anyone . . . unless they've been there.

It is also not the same as simple fear (like you said irrational). A few years ago I was in a pup tent in pro-Talaban area of Pakistan and the body guard told me that where I was camping, I was going to have my throat cut during my sleep. That didn't brother me too much. I slept fine, moving my tent the next day. But social anxiety, the irrational kind, is unbearable.

MJ said...

Jaimie, if you are still there, I'm still considering your request and starting to put together some thoughts about anxiety disorders including my own. Just wanted you to know.


Jaimie said...

I am still here. Thank you! I really do search the internet for more information about it, so it's awesome to have someone I already read discuss it.