Consider, just for a moment, the woman at the center of today’s gospel drama. Scripture presents her to us as nameless and faceless, and we can only speculate about the circumstances that led to her predicament. What we do read is that she stood face-to-face with Jesus, guilty of a "sin of the flesh." Her fate rests in his hands, and most probably she’s filled with terror, thinking that Jesus wants her stoned like all the other men who encircle her. How grateful and dumbstruck she must have been when Jesus received her with gentleness and mercy, sending her away with nothing more than an admonition not to sin again.
In a similar fashion, there are many people today, conscious of having sinned, who find themselves terrified at the prospect of facing Jesus. Like the gospel woman, they confuse Jesus with the stone throwers. And so they go to great lengths to avoid him, and the run away if they think he’s getting too close. Why is this? It’s possible that they’re literally overwhelmed with guilt. You might say that they’re paralyzed by guilt. Maybe some of us here this morning are paralyzed with guilt!
But being paralyzed by guilt is not what Jesus wants for us. Instead, Jesus wants our guilt to be a "call to action." He wants us to face it and decide to make a real and positive change in our lives. Because Jesus knows that when we do this we will know freedom, enjoy peace, and restore our self-respect.
This has been the experience of the Irish rock band, U2. Now their music may or may not be your cup of tea. However, their lead singer, Bono, is an internationally respected advocate for the world’s poor and needy. He even met with Pope John Paul II about these issues, and I happen to know for a fact that he’s on Cardinal McCarrick’s Christmas card list. With refreshing honesty, Bono attributes his activism, at least in part, to guilt. "One thing I am very sure about," he admits, is that I’m a spoiled rock star." "I’m over-paid, over-nourished, and over-dressed. And I’m sure that the work that the band and I do is some kind of Catholic guilt. But it’s working, so I’ll continue with it!"
Guilt, in other words, can be a good thing. Unfortunately, it has something of a "bad rap" there days. Pop psychology tries to convince us that guilt is unhealthy. It’s something we need to ignore or eliminate so we can feel good about ourselves! In reality, however, a person unable to feel guilt is not healthy, but a sociopath.
Now this is not to say that there’s not unhealthy guilt. There certainly is! Guilt is unhealthy when we cling to it long after we should have let it go. When we endlessly beat ourselves up for something we did long ago, and keep ourselves from getting on with life, our guilt is unhealthy.
Unhealthy guilt can also arise when we forget that although we are responsible for our actions, we are NOT responsible for how other people respond or react to what we do. In other words, just because someone is angry with us does not mean that we’ve actually done something wrong. Just because we feel guilty doesn’t mean that we ARE guilty.
Another source of unhealthy guilt is perfectionism. When we set impossible standards for ourselves and fail to meet them, we feel guilty as a result. But if you think about it, this really is pride at work, because sometimes it’s easier to feel guilty than it is to admit that we’re less than perfect.
Healthy guilt, on the other hand, is a sign that our conscience is active and that we’re in touch with reality. It means, at a very fundamental level, that we can tell right from wrong. Healthy guilt leads us to change our behavior; it compels us to repair any damage we may have done, or heal any hurt we may have caused; and it moves us to seek the forgiveness of God, the forgiveness of others, and to forgive ourselves. Healthy guilt does not keep us trapped in the past. Instead, it inspires us to move forward and build a better future.
When we feel guilty, there are some things we can and should do to address the situation. First of all, we need to take a long, hard look at our guilt and see if it is healthy or unhealthy. If it is unhealthy, we need to make a conscious effort to gently, firmly, and consistently stop the thought patterns that contribute to our guilt.
If our guilt is healthy, however, we need to bring it before God by making a good confession in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. If guilt makes us feel bad, then making a confession can certainly make us feel good! But confession is more than just about feelings. It’s about liberating us from the past and healing our friendship with God, which in turn gives us hope for the future.
Second, facing our guilt should impel us to try to make up for the wrongs we’ve done. Sometimes this springs from a penance given in confession. At other times, however, it comes from our own initiative. In practice, perhaps we can directly redress some harm we’ve caused, such as by asking forgiveness from a person we’ve hurt. Or maybe the best we can do is simply add to the world’s goodness, knowing that we’re responsible for some of the world’s hurt. I know of a woman who felt terribly guilty after refusing to help a homeless woman with a sick child in her arms. She never did see that woman again. But now she never refuses her help to those who need it.
My friends, the bottom line is: If you are feeling guilty this morning, please don’t ignore it, and please don’t cling to it. Instead, give it to Jesus. There is nothing he cannot or will not forgive! And he can use your guilt to change you, so you in turn can change your world.
(My book of daily meditations for Lent is now available from Ave Maria Press:https://www.avemariapress.com/product/1-59471-363-4/The-Living-Gospel-Daily-Devotions-for-Lent-2013/ It is available also at Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Daily-Devotions-Lent-Living-Gospel/dp/1594713634/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1335995419&sr=8-1 )