A number of years ago there was a young man helping around the church. He was quite handy. He enjoyed fixing little projects. He was not a skilled carpenter by any means however he was useful. Oftentimes, he was given a wide leash in order to tackle projects. Therefore, he would be in some part of the building without direct supervision. There was never a major concern as he had proven trustworthy. Until one day I was walking through the church boiler room. I was looking for some supplies. I noticed something tucked away behind some boards. I dug a little deeper and noticed that someone had hidden a hookah as well as its accompanying supplies. Immediately, I suspected it belonged to this young man. Yet, I had no proof. Rather than confront him directly, I thought I would try a different tactic. I took the hookah and stored it in my office. I figured that whoever owned it would come looking for it. Once they discovered it missing they would panic and begin to ask about it. My prayer was that they would feel guilty about it and fess up. The only catch was that it needed to happen quickly. I certainly could not store it in my office for too long. Can you imagine the janitor, an elder, or someone else finding it in my office? It would be hard to explain when they asked, “Why does pastor have a hookah?”
One day turned into two days. On the afternoon of the second day, my secretary buzzed me to say that someone wanted to see me. It was this young man. He came sheepishly into my office. He asked if I found something in the church basement. I told him I had. He then confessed to placing it in the building. He felt remorseful. He shared how he could barely sleep the night before due to the guilt. He decided in the middle of the night to come clean. This led to a long conversation about integrity, accountability, stewardship of the church, and yes forgiveness.
Guilt can be a very good thing. It is the means by which God prompts us to respond to His desires for us. It serves as a reminder that we fall short of God’s standards. It reinforces in our hearts His standard of right and wrong.
Why then do we run from guilt? We downplay it. We hate how it makes us feel. It stirs in us regret and sometimes depression as we think about disappointing those around us. Because of these feelings, we resist it. At times, it can lead to a numbing of our consciences in order to protect us from those feelings of discouragement. It also impacts how we parent our kids. We don’t want our kids to feel bad. We are afraid that negative feedback can harm a child’s self-esteem. We are concerned our kids won’t like us. I have talked to numerous parents that oftentimes withhold punishment because of these reasons. Redirect them. Lift them up. Teach them. But one should never punish them because we don’t want them to feel the weight of guilt. Interestingly I read a study this past week where researchers found the exact opposite occurs. They documented how children with a robust view of guilt led to them not only having a healthier self-esteem but also making better moral decisions. It seems guilt helped a person internalize right and wrong. It reinforced a moral compass in their lives. As a result, it helped them make better decisions because they weighed consequences more heavily. And, most surprisingly, they felt better about themselves by responding positively to the guilt. In other words, it nurtured strength.
Paul states in 2 Corinthians 7:9-11, “Yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led to repentance….See what this godly sorrow had produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done.” Does this sound like a person that has low self-esteem? Granted we should not layer guilt upon guilt towards people or our children. Yet, we should definitely not run from it because of the short-term feeling it produces in us. It is that very feeling that nurtures in us growth and strength and moral convictions.