What is guilt?
Guilt names a wrongful relationship between a man or woman and their God. It differs from regret and from awareness of having made a mistake. These we recognize and our culture guilds us to correct them. But guilt? Apart from a conviction that it is a mindset bred into me by my upbringing or my culture, we do not recognize it. Yet, if we do not and do not repent of our sin, we will live – as one man in his sixties put it – with a monkey clawing into our back with sharp claws.
So what is guilt? Guilt is the burden, the first burden, that sinning lays on me. I go against my own conscience, knowingly, and “feel guilty,” which is a misery. That misery affects my head, my heart, and my hands (viz., actions).
Guilt affects my head by making me fall into erroneous ways of thinking. I get to wondering whether God thinks what I did was so bad, an offence against God’s holiness and the holiness the Spirit poured into my self at Baptism. If I keep on sinning, the misery drives me to begin to doubt that what I am doing is wrong. I offend God’s goodness by insisting that a bad act is good, or at least, should be. And if I go on to sin habitually, time and time again, the guilt of it – my misery – can drive me even to thinking that God made me like I am, a temptation to blasphemy.
Guilt fills my heart, too, with misery. From a miserable heart rise negative and ugly sentiments and desires. I do wrong, and guilt makes me feel not that the action was wrong, but that I am wrong, as though what God creates in me is somehow twisted and unnatural. I do not like myself. Then I am inclined to blame not only myself, but also anyone else involved in my sinning or even in my life. If I go on long enough and sin habitually while still believing in God, I can get to blaming God. I feel resentment against God for making me as I am or for making what I did wrongful. In the last stages of living in guilt, I can hate God. More than one penitent has said that to me. “I am tempted to hate God.” Some do.
This is how the burden of guilt can affect what we do. For guilt fills our enactments with misery, haunting us into making dreadfully wrong decisions. All of my thinking and feeling involve actions of some kind, and they are drenched in misery. When we act under the burden of misery, we enact that misery. Here is what we refer to in the Act of Contrition: “because I dread thy just punishments.” The punishment is that what we choose as a good is actually an evil and is hurting us and making us more miserable. When we get to this point, we are what St. Paul called “slaves of sin.”