When I was a young priest, I never used to feel guilty when I hurried through my prayers. I told myself that I had good and important things to do, and that God surely understood that those things needed to be attended to. I would also tell myself that while I could always be more generous, more charitable, less judgmental, and more caring and compassionate, God certainly knew what I had to deal with, so surely God understood when I didn’t do these things. In the past few years, though, I have noticed that when I hurry through my prayers, or when I am not as kind, as tolerant, as accepting, or as generous as I could be, that I feel guilty. And at least for me, guilt is a good motivator to do better, or at least to try harder.
Now certainly there are many people who would suggest that guilt is a bad thing. Some would suggest that guilt can damage our self esteem and lead us to beat ourselves up with remorse or regret. When I encounter these people I politely suggest that they are confusing guilt and shame. Guilt tells us that what we did was wrong or bad. Shame tells us that we are bad because we did it. I think there is a big difference between these two.
There is something terribly amiss if and/or when we are not able and willing to admit that something we did was wrong. None of us is perfect. We all make mistakes. We all fall short of the mark at times. This is part and parcel of what it means to be human. Feeling guilty reminds us that we aren’t perfect. More importantly, it also helps us to remember that we need God’s good grace to help us overcome those faults and failings that are a part of each of our lives. Guilt can be a good motivator for us. In this, it stands in stark contrast to shame, which is ugly and oppressive. Shame weighs us down. It tells us that because we did something wrong or bad, as a consequence we are a bad person.
Sadly, all too often people come to the Sacrament of Reconciliation weighed down by the feeling of shame for something they did. In these situations I gently remind these individuals that we are all beloved daughters and sons of God and that nothing we did or could do would ever cause God to stop loving us. I then tell them that the Sacrament of Reconciliation is the ideal place to leave the shame they have been carrying, and take up instead the mantle of God’s love. If they protest that they are not worthy of God’s love, I tell them they are right. None of us is worthy of God’s love. None of us can earn or merit God’s love. God’s love is a gift. And gifts are never earned, they can only be accepted. I then invite them to let go of the shame they are carrying, so they can take up the gift of God’s love—a love that is unearned, unmerited, unwarranted, gratuitous, and undeserved, and yet, oh so very real.
During this season of Lent, one of my prayers has been to ask God to help me allow guilt to motivate me to be more open to God’s grace so that I can be a better person. I have also been praying, though, that God will help me let go any shame I am carrying so that I can more readily accept God’s grace and live in God’s love. I suspect these are prayers that could be on all of our lips.