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  • Luigi Gioia

A Remedy To Guilt

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There is a sentence from the Psalms which invariably comes to my mind whenever I feel hurt and gives voice to my trust in the Lord.

I hesitate to mention it, because the wording is equivocal and if misinterpreted it could twist the Christian meaning of suffering. And yet, over the years, grappling with the ambivalence of this sentence has become the source of unending solace.

The sentence is from Psalm 119: It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees.[1] It is ambivalent because it implies that God positively causes or allows us to suffer to give us a lesson. Other sentences here and there in Scripture seem to vouch this interpretation, as these words from the book of Proverbs quoted in the letter to the Hebrews: The Lord disciplines those he loves and punishes everyone he accepts as a son.[2]

However, more persuasive even than the apparent confirmation from Scripture, this interpretation is welcomed by the most insidious parasite of our spiritual and emotional life, namely guilt. If this misfortune, this trouble, this accident is happening to me, it is because I have disobeyed God, I have displeased him in one way or the other, I deserve it.

This travesty of Christian faith keeps such a strong hold on us because it is the core of the pagan sense of sacred which has plagued mankind ever since the first religious feeling dawned in the conscience of our earliest ancestors.

Instinctive human piety is based on fear. Confronted with an environment that they could only partially understand, our forebears ascribed everything they could not explain to invisible agents (gods, demons, spirits) whose identity and motives were unfathomable. Nothing is more tempting than attributing calamities or misfortunes to supernatural agents we might have inadvertently displeased and which have to be appeased in one way or another.

We might think that we have overcome these primitive instincts today, especially as we are more or less persuaded that everything can be explained scientifically and that if something still seems incomprehensible we will get there one day. And yet, these instincts are still very much alive and have changed their focus only marginally.

Whether or not we believe that there is an explanation for a pandemic, a tsunami, an earthquake, a terror attack or, more mundanely, an illness, a flood of anxiety, a heartbreak and so on, whenever any of these adversities hits us we cannot evade a nagging question from bothering us: ‘Why me?’ or ‘What have I done to deserve it?’.

We might not acknowledge it, but this sentence betrays our core belief in the existence of some agent or principle at work in nature and history which inflicts retaliatory or corrective misery on us. Belief in the God of Jesus Christ does not automatically shield us from these instincts and this can condition our interpretation of the sentence quoted above: It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees [3] - “It is right that this misfortune should have happened to me because I need to be punished to learn a lesson”.

How can such a sentence then become prayer? How can it help us to relate to God in the right way? How can it have become part of the Psalms, that is the body of prayers authorised and recommended by Scripture?

The answer is that it benefits us precisely insofar as it gives voice to our guilt, unmasks it and entrusts it to the Lord. In many ways, this is similar to what happens when a child who has done some mischief cries in the anticipation of reproach or punishment knowing that the mother or the father will react in exactly in the opposite way with consoling words and hugs.

The only remedy for guilt is tenderness. The moment we entrust guilt to the Father’s love it loses its power and vanishes like fog when the sun rises.

[1] Psalm 119.71. [2] Hebrews 12.6 quoting Proverbs 3.11f. [3] Psalm 119.71.




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