Guilt conditioning

I recently stayed at a hotel with a rather modest fitness room—one treadmill, one elliptical trainer, a multi-function weight machine, and a couple of sit-up benches—but enough to get a minor workout if no one else was competing for the equipment. The décor was rather modest too, so as I was pumping away on the elliptical trainer and staring at the opposite wall, I read the posters, including a couple with cool quotes from Muhammad Ali: “I’m so fast that last night I turned off the light switch in my hotel room and was in bed before the room was dark,” and “Champions aren’t made in gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them: A desire, a dream, a vision.”

Between these two posters was a word from the management, which ended with this warning, “Use these facilities at your own risk. Exercise caution when you work out and stop at the first sign of discomfort.” I guess they hadn’t caught Ali’s vision of reaching deep inside to become a champion, letting the dream and the desire drive you to greatness, or at least to a significantly higher fitness level. If you stop pumping when your body starts to complain of discomfort, you miss the whole point of a work-out.

When I read those posters together they reminded me of a common befuddlement in the religious world. We employ the noblest and loftiest rhetoric we can muster in calling people to sell out for God and to abandon all to follow Messiah. But if people actually start to hear us or think they need to do something specific about what we’re saying, we warn them to “stop at the first sign of discomfort.” It reminds me of a friend from my early days as a believer who said he’d never been able to exercise the spiritual discipline of fasting. He’d tried a few times but always got hungry, so he had to quit the fast and have a bite to eat. “Stop at the first sign of discomfort” doesn’t work any better for spiritual conditioning than for physical.

So, during the season of spiritual inventory leading up to Yom Kippur, tradition recommends the practice of heshbon nefesh, or taking an account of ones soul, an honest look deep inside to bring our soul into alignment with the standard of God’s Torah. But if someone does heshbon nefesh and starts to actually feel guilty about what they see, or feels like they might need to do something radical about it, we’re likely to start alleviating the guilt and reminding them that God is merciful and, after all, doesn’t expect anything unrealistic from us.

In his book Addictive Thinking (Center City, MN: Hazelden Foundation, 1997), psychiatrist Abraham Twerski, who is also an orthodox rabbi, suggests a better response to guilt by contrasting it with shame:

  • The guilty person says, “I feel guilty for something I have done.”
  • The shame-ridden person days, “I feel shame for what I am.”

Why is the distinction so important? Because people can apologize, make restitution, make amends, and ask forgiveness for what they have done; they can do pathetically little about what they are. . . . Guilt leads to corrective action. Shame leads to resignation and despair. (p. 67)

I’d agree that we can do pathetically little about what we are, but the spirit of God can change even that. Twerski’s right about guilt, however; it is essential for corrective action, and I’d add for spiritual formation, just as physical discomfort is essential to conditioning. Of course, there’s false guilt and guilt used manipulatively, but if we try to get rid of guilt altogether, we create an insipid and fruitless version of spiritual development. Preachers and teachers draw flak for making people feel guilty, but sometimes, as I once told a young guy I was trying to help, “You feel guilty because you are guilty.” Using shame to motivate is bad news, but guilt might be part of the regimen that brings us to spiritual wholeness. That’s not pop psychology—it’s Torah, as David writes:

When I kept silent, my bones wasted away because of my groaning all day long;

day and night your hand was heavy on me; the sap in me dried up as in a summer drought. (Selah)

When I acknowledged my sin to you,

when I stopped concealing my guilt, and said, “I will confess my offenses to ADONAI”;

then you, you forgave the guilt of my sin. (Selah)

This is what everyone faithful should pray at a time when you can be found. (Ps. 32:3-6, CJB)

Guilt can be terribly misused, of course, and misapplied. But it can also be a yearning after the possibility of change.  Shame, to follow the contrast that Twerski draws, is caught up in impossibility. Guilt can lead us to make amends and gain forgiveness, to inner renewal empowered by the Ruach, unless we are too quick to suppress or alleviate it at the first sign of discomfort. And that would be a shame.


1 thought on “Guilt conditioning”

  1. Our Creator has endowed us with a divine spark which comes out of guilt. This divine spark motivates us to perfection and right standing before Him. Our proper response to guilt perfects the soul and quickens the spirit. May we ever be vigilant to respond to the mighty hand of our Father. Thank you for sharing these words with us.

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