When I was a child, one of my family’s favourite places for a weekend meal was the Flower Drum Chinese restaurant in Colombo. The food was delicious, the jasmine tea was hot and plentiful, and the staff were gracious and efficient.
One day we sat around the table looking at the menu, and I absent-mindedly picked up my big soup spoon. As I perused the menu, I dangled the spoon from my mouth, licked the smooth inside bowl of it and the flat outside surface, pretended to sip soup from it and licked its sides, and placed it back into its original position on the table as I closed the menu to signal my readiness to order.
The friendly server came along and took our orders. To our disappointment, our favourite crab-and-corn soup was not available. We decided to forgo the soup course – so the server efficiently gathered up the menus and the soup spoons. She placed the menus in a pile in the reception area, and she put the spoons back in the clean-cutlery drawer. I watched all of this industry open-mouthed; and my astonishment gave way to mortification as I watched that licked spoon being placed with the clean spoons for re-distribution…
Of course, my family saw the expression on my face and we all saw the funny side of it – my face alone, I’m told, was utterly hilarious – and we were pretty helpless with mirth for a while. And then we were helpless with indecision because, I mean, what do you say?? There just seemed no remedy for it. I guess we were all healthy so hopefully nobody would’ve got sick from using the spoon; but I still felt rather guilty about that dirty little secret.
Another time during my childhood (back in Canada), on a trip to Ikea my sister and I spent some time in that favourite little germ-circus known as the ball pit. We had (‘scuse the pun) a ball. And when I got home, I discovered that I still had a ball – one had come home with me in my jacket pocket (how??!). This realization gave me heart palpitations and cold sweats – that’s how guilty I felt. As far as I was concerned, I had stolen that plastic ball. I wasn’t sure if Ikea would phone my house first or just go to the police. Or maybe they’d just bar me entry next time I wanted to go there for meatballs with my family.
As if my criminal past weren’t enough, I have experienced this kind of guilt more recently as well.
A few weeks ago I was at the physiotherapy clinic for some work on my shoulder. When my appointment was over, I pulled my jacket from the hanger on the wall. As I did so, I thought I’d dislodged a metal hook that had been hanging there with some pulley-ropes. I searched the inner pockets and folds of my jackets and gave the whole thing a shake, because I could just picture the hook clanging out and making me appear to be some sort of kleptomaniac. But my search came up empty, so I assumed that it had landed up somewhere on the floor.
I bid my physio goodbye once again and pulled the jacket over my arm, and as I walked away what should fall out of the sleeve with jangling resonance but that blasted hook.
And of course, I hadn’t taken the hook on purpose – but I felt kind of guilty anyway.
I thought about this funny phenomenon as I walked away from the clinic that afternoon. What is it about the possibility of being perceived to be guilty that makes us actually feel guilty? And what purpose does the feeling of guilt serve, anyway?
Well, I have this theory about guilt. I think that it is, by and large, a wasted emotion. I mean, does it motivate us to do better? Or does it just make us wish we hadn’t been caught (or imagined to have been caught) doing something wrong? Do we do better because of guilty feelings – or do we do worse? My money’s on the latter.
And that may seem like a strange theory for a Christian to espouse, especially to those of you whose experience of religion has been that it is an instigator and perpetuator of guilt.
But here’s the thing:
My God is not a God of guilt-trips.
Jesus didn’t come and walk our earth to point the finger. He didn’t waste time telling all the people what all of them were doing wrong. That’s not to say that he didn’t think that those wrong things were wrong things – and his call to follow him did require people to leave their old lives (and sins) behind. But that was it. He didn’t lay guilt trips on them and parade their past transgressions before those forgiven people. He doesn’t do that to us, either.
We are changed through love, not through guilt. We are motivated by hope, not by the despair of feeling like I’m so bad.
As it turns out, God redeems us. When we are called to be his we are refined into more precious things by his love, not bludgeoned by his censure. To him, we are golden – precious and beautiful and, through his grace and forgiveness, brand new.
So God isn’t a God of guilt.
He’s a God of gilt.
This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!
2 Corinthians 5:17