Saturday, April 7, 2007

Godliness and Guilt

Guilt is something we must live with in the human experience. Often it is justified and often it isn’t. We either carry it as a heavy burden in never-ending disconsolation or we can learn to deal with it in a logical, adaptive manner and go on with our lives. People who feel led to follow a spiritual path I think tend to be much harder on themselves with regard to guilt than those who do not emphasize it in their lives simply because they recognize the eternal significance of all they do, rather than just the earthly consequences of their actions. Different religious traditions emphasize different aspects of right and wrong in both thoughts and deeds. For example, In the Judeao-Christian system, individual and collective guilt is highlighted. In the Genesis account the first humans who were made conscious of personal responsibility were Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel but later in the chapter the concept of collective responsibility begins to take shape and thus the drama of Israel’s journey unfolds through time and space in the development of an ethical consciousness of duty to God. The rights and responsibilities of the nation to the individual and the individual to the collective are fleshed out as well and are contrasted with the beliefs and norms of other nations that were encountered on their journey into the Promised Land. In Eastern belief systems though, the emphasis is more toward the relationship of the individual to the spiritual world, that it is necessary to practice detachment from a deceptive, illusory world that causes those entranced by it to go astray in the acquisition of materiality, leading to misery and cynicism toward God and toward others.

So no matter what particular set of beliefs one adheres to there is always the injunction to change negative behaviors to positive ones in order to show that our faith in God is sincere but through the process of increasing one’s identification with God, our behaviors and attitudes can organically be changed as a result of that relationship. In that experience we don’t actually change ourselves. God changes us. Guilt assumes the role of a gauge to measure where we are on the path toward godliness and increases awareness of omissions and commissions that cause us to fall short of the standard set by the particular moral or ethical requirements of the belief system we follow. Guilt also highlights one’s internal motivations as well. When people of faith are aware of it they acknowledge a level of responsibility for their behavior and the amount of guilt experienced increases or decreases in proportion to the personal standards that they hold themselves to.

Too much guilt or too little can be a deal breaker between the seeker and God. When there is too much of it there is a feeling of always falling short of what is required. When there’s too little of it there is a tendency toward self-satisfaction, pride and arrogance. Now there are a lot of ‘suffering saints’ out there who can’t seem to stop beating themselves up for things they have done in the past or things they are still doing that they can’t seem to get a grip on and so every day becomes another opportunity for chest-pounding and regret for not being able to ‘cut it’ with God. In truth though, guilt should not be our primary motivator. Love should. Love is the hand of God in the world manifested by the Spirit through imperfect vessels. When folks dismiss themselves they dismiss the power of God as being inadequate to transform their lives. When going out for a walk or out in the car if you diverge from course and trail to the left or right of the lane or sidewalk you instinctively know to get back on the straight and narrow to avoid accidents. People don’t usually moan and grown about a slight turn that they made a mile back and don’t give themselves hell for it. They get back on track without even a thought and keep on going on toward their destination. Well then, why do people needlessly aggravate themselves when they sin and fall short? Not that people should never feel normal guilt since it’s an alarm system that’s hard-wired in to let us know when we’re veering off the path we want to be on, not in just moral choices, but in all the choices we make from moment to moment and from day to day. It seems wise then to chart a middle course with respect to self-judgement.
Often in the Old Testament (Tanach) God seems to alternate between doting devotion and thunderous rage against His people Israel but the silver thread within all of scripture is that the Hand of Mercy is eternally outstretched to all at all times. In Isaiah 40 the prophet speaks:

1.“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the LORD's hand double for all her sins.”

In the New Testament (Covenant) we are presented with what I like to call the “ultimate metaphor of forgiveness.” It’s actually akin to a ‘come down from the sky’ visual aid so that the average, imperfect person is better able to understand God’s love in a way that’s easily recognizable. Jesus the crucified becomes the means by whom it is communicated to us that we are loved beyond measure so that we no longer have to worry about everything we think and do that might put us in divine disfavor. It is an object lesson that we should never ever give up on ourselves. If we are our own worst enemy then God is conversely our best friend, letting us know that it’s alright to be human and though we may fail many times each day, we are still open to blessing and forgiveness since we have been created sentient by divine volition with an assurance that we will always been viewed in the light of Love.

1 Peter 1:19-21

19. But with precious blood, as of a Lamb without blemish and without spot, the blood of Christ;
20 Who was foreknown before the foundation of the world but has been manifested in the last of times for your sake
21 who through him are believers in God, who raised him from the dead, and gave him glory; so that your faith and hope might be in God.

So we have never really been under the lash of an oppressive God. Rather, we are seen through all time as being of unlimited value, protected by a benevolent Shepherd and not by a violent, brutal taskmaster. We have enough problems living happily in a material plane by virtue of the temporal nature of existence, so when we pile up emotional troubles through our own doing we only increase our sense of misery and guilt. So how do we tamp down guilt and move on? We do it by finding and following the “narrow way’ as the Sages taught and sticking to that path by fixedly focusing our thoughts and actions in the direction of the spiritual. If we do wrong to someone and we have the opportunity to make it right, then we should do so, for in making what was askew straight we can gain forgiveness from the person we have done wrong to and gain forgiveness for ourselves as well. If we can’t do anything to change what we have done, then its important to actively put it out of mind and get our thoughts back to where they should be, on the never ending abundance from that Well of forgiveness, so we can find our way back into Light of the Spirit. Think of the inexhaustible sufficiency that’s available to us in God and not of our human weaknesses and our lack of strength. Chanting, meditation and prayer can be invoked in almost any situation and even if short they can still bring us through the rough spots we encounter throughout the day. Whenever a guilty feeling or thought begins to intrude in on us it is very easy to call up a song or prayer to block them as they come and it only takes a little practice for it to become natural for us to do. In many ways we become what we think and say both consciously and unconsciously to ourselves. To stay close to the Spirit we need to think God’s thoughts and as we continue in them we discover that walking with God is not really all that hard to do. Images that have tripped us up in the past lose their power to entice us into negativity and guilt simply because we are thinking of them less often and thinking more about what does us good and it is toward the good that we are beckoned.

Have a joyful Easter and Passover, everybody!

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