Every single man and woman has experienced feelings of guilt before. Whether it was for a transgression large or small, we all know how guilt can become a debilitating sensation. It usually begins as anxiety about whatever we have done being discovered by those who were wronged or by those who will convict us. Then it becomes a feeling of regret; we look back at the decisions we made and wish we had acted differently. Finally it may become an unshakable feeling of shame and self-loathing—a sense that we are unworthy of actually making correct choices so a renouncing of our good and honest faculties as futile. In the Orthodox Christian Church, this cycle, or path, is the fundamental problem humans must answer because it lies at the core of the greatest acts of evil committed in this world.
When non-Christians or those who have left the Church hear me say that guilt is the problem Christianity is trying to fix, they will instantly object. “How can you say the Church is trying to eradicate guilt? If anything, they are the greatest fabricators of guilt. All the laws, doctrines, dogmas, rules, traditions, taboos, have only provided people with a heightened sense of guilt and thus feelings of self-loathing along with bitterness toward others.” Unfortunately this would be a correct assessment of how Christians have often presented the “good news” of Christ throughout the centuries. Frequently, Christians can apply the feelings of guilt toward struggling members of the human race without highlighting the remedies; but there is in fact a remedy. The cure is the core of the Christian faith and it has always been present despite its corruption by misguided Christians.
Before we talk about remedies let’s first go back and take a closer look at the ailment. It is the sense of shame upon us, stemming from unchecked feelings of guilt, which lead to the most horrendous crimes humans commit. I suppose we must first ask, “Is this really the condition ailing the human race?” First, many would argue that most of these “horrendous crimes” are not actually wrong outside of some religious community and labeling them as “evil” is the primary catalyst for spreading guilt and shame. These same people would argue that “evil” does not truly exist and what we view as evil can only be measured through suffering. This “problem of evil” or suffering actually becomes the main evidence for the non-existence of a benevolent god. Why do I bring this up? What we find in this explanation is an inability to diagnose the source of evil, and the conclusion that it is simply a random part of our existence. But if we take this position, we can still agree that feelings of shame are detrimental for our psyche and lead to indisputable acts of evil such as mass murder, and for this we need a remedy. Even if we do not acknowledge a primary source of evil, we can still admit to causes that would allow suffering to multiply. It is easy to see how guilt and shame can trap people in self-destructive habits even if we are not clear on what its causes are.
Let’s spend a little more time looking at what we mean by guilt and shame and how they are connected with destructive actions. There are many occasions when shame is inflicted onto a person by an abusive relationship. Children who grow up in homes where they are constantly ridiculed commonly develop a deep seated sense of shame because they are consistently told they are “not good enough”. Abused children- or grown men and women- are made to feel guilty for every perceived imperfection, which evolves into a debilitating shame and a fear to face the world. This shame can turn into anger towards one’s supposed helplessness. Other times, shame stems from guilt about an undesirable act or choice made by a person, especially if the destructive choices are persistent and addictive in nature. When the guilt remains unchecked, the person begins to feel like they have no control over their own actions and either becomes isolated or denounces their moral will as meaningless. In both these cases the resulting shame becomes a staging point for violently acting out or simply a perpetuation of self-destructive behavior.
There may be an objection building which says that guilt is a necessary aspect of moral development and if we do not feel shame for crimes, great or small, which we have committed, there would be no self-correction. This is absolutely true so let’s go back a little further to see where guilt and shame can be twisted into a vehicle for evil. Present within all of us is an innate faculty which allows us to determine whether an act is wrong or right. Some may call this a “herd instinct” but in the Orthodox Church we refer to it as a “conscience”. There are two types of conscience: a preceding and succeeding conscience. The preceding conscience is triggered when we are presented with a choice and it allows us to decide how to make a morally correct choice. Succeeding conscience is triggered after we make a choice and allows us to judge whether the act was right or wrong. Even though every individual’s conscience may be at different levels of development, it is always innately good, since it is the aspect of our greater consciousness which is the Image of God. In the Orthodox Church it is taught that while this image may be corrupted, or ill, it is never lost and therefore all humans are by nature good. This capacity is nurtured or exercised precisely through our reaction to the conscience and the inevitable feelings of guilt or shame when we act against it. So yes, guilt is necessary to correct our bad choices and to progress as moral people, and shame is good as long as it moves a person toward change. But it is when we do not react properly to guilt where problems arise. If we ignore our “guilty conscience” long enough, it becomes dulled and instead of becoming stronger in making moral decisions, we find it easier to make immoral ones. If we remain in this state for too long, the shame we experience no longer directs us towards rehabilitation, but becomes a self-identifying aspect of our personality. In other words, we no longer make mistakes; we become mistakes.
When we identify ourselves as unworthy or as mistakes, many of us are in danger of losing the ability or even the desire to listen to our conscience; we look at our conscience as part of the problem and learn to turn it off little by little. I am not saying everyone who finds themselves caught in this cycle is willing or even capable of committing horrendous crimes like mass murder. Most of us are not so deeply entrenched in our shameful self-image where we give up completely, and often we have a solid moral upbringing which serves as a foundation disallowing us to act out in a horrifying manner. But just as dangerous, spiritually and mentally, is the quiet life of shame many of us find ourselves trapped in. As I said earlier, the Orthodox Church teaches that all created beings are good, and it is only up to us to recognize our conscience as the Image of God within us in order to have that “goodness” made manifest. When we succumb to a shameful identification by not remedying the guilty feelings we have, we slowly lose the ability to make this recognition.
What is the remedy?
The Orthodox Church finds a remedy for the debilitating effects of guilt and shame in an ancient concept called metanoia. This is a Greek word which translated means “to change one’s mind” or more literally, “after perception”. The prefix meta- is “to go beyond” as in metaphysical is “beyond the physical”. The suffix –noia comes from the root nous which refers to the mind or intellect; Orthodox Christian theology teaches that humans are created with intellect or better yet, a noetic faculty that allows the soul to see. Metanoia is the remedy to the shame upon us since it allows us the move beyond our flawed perceptions and come back into “oneness” with the Image we were created as. Metanoia is translated into English as “repentance”.
The first thing people think about when they hear the word repentance is being made to feel guilty about stuff they have done wrong, but this is exactly the emotion we are trying to avoid. The fact is repentance is what is supposed to happen after we have felt guilt, and if our repentance remains at the stage where we feel guilty it is not true metanoia. “It involves, that is, not mere regret of past evil but a recognition by man of a darkened vision of his own condition, in which sin, by separating him from God, has reduced him to a divided, autonomous existence, depriving him of both his natural glory and freedom.” To remain in the place where we have only acknowledged to ourselves that we have done something wrong is a very dangerous place to be. This is the place where, if we do not change our perception, we will begin to experience shame, and/or a disregard for the good inside of us. Once we become aware of our “darkened vision”, we resolve to change that vision into a vision of light, a vision which is in tune with the innately good voice of our conscience, the conscience which is the created divine nature given to us by God the Father who made us in His Image. By resolving to move beyond our current perception, we align ourselves with the perfectly good will of our creator and realize that with every act of repentance we start fresh.
We also start fresh with the knowledge that we will have to come back to this place of metanoia very soon. This is why guilt cannot be the result of repentance, because if it is as far as we come in metanoia, we will soon become overburdened. Guilt can only serve to bring us to a low place where we are ready to stand up again. If we remain in that low place, we become comfortable in our painful state of being which is shackled to our past choices. Freedom can only come after the perception of our current state of lowliness when we change our noetic mind to perceive what is good for our soul—that is God. When metanoia is forgotten, at best we will lose a desire to walk in communion with our Creator, but at worst, human beings will be capable of true acts of evil for the twisted glory of an autonomous existence.