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Grace and Guilt

Grace and Guilt

Michael Jinkins


Within ten minutes I read in the paper two stories about guilt and COVID-19:

In the first, a woman in New Orleans expressed guilt that her beloved husband had not gotten the funeral he deserved. He was a business owner renowned for his generosity toward people who couldn’t afford to pay for his company’s services. She wished his memorial service could have been an opportunity for their community to say thank you for the life of a good and generous man who never asked for anything for himself.

In the second story, a man in Chicago who lived at home with his aged parents is overcome with guilt because he brought home to his elderly father what he thought was a cold. It turned out to be the novel corona virus. His dad was a retired coach, an army veteran, a big tough guy, who died within days after catching the virus. Holding his father’s picture, he asks how he can live with himself.

Stories like these have multiplied during the past several weeks. Grief is enough to deal with all by itself, but, add guilt, and the emotional and spiritual weight can be almost unbearable. There are no easy words that can take away the hurt. No words at all. And the pain comes in such a variety of forms for such a variety of reasons.

As I sat quietly feeling the sorrow and suffering of these stories, I found myself reaching deep into the storehouse of our faith, digging and scratching for that Word or that Image that might bring a modicum of solace to our hearts.

The Lutheran scholar and teacher, Joseph Sittler once remarked that human life makes no sense at all unless at the center of it there stands a cross on which a man suffers and dies, and that man is God in the flesh. There’s not a good reason for that man to have died. There was shame and remorse, grief, anger and fear among his followers, and guilt, lots and lots of guilt. His devoted followers and friends ran for the hills. One betrayed him. Another denied even knowing him. As this man lay in his grave, these followers mourned and were ashamed. And when he returned to them, he had risen to new life and showered upon them pure, undeserved, unmerited grace and mercy and compassion. That story does stand at the heart of our faith and our life together as Christians.

Guilt is among the most natural responses we can imagine. It tells us when we believe that we have done something we shouldn’t or left undone something we should have. It is natural for this feeling to invade our hearts when something we have done causes pain to someone we love or when we have been unable to do for someone what we believe they deserve. And, especially in such times, the only remedy I know of is the application of a truth that must be repeated as often as necessary until we can believe it: Guilt applies and repentance is necessary when we have intended to do something hurtful, but not otherwise.

I learned this one day from my Roman Catholic, Jesuit-trained spiritual director, after I (a thoroughly Protestant minister as you well know) asked him to hear my confession. I was, at that time, President of a seminary.

A very dear, elderly woman who had worked for the school for a couple of generations, had become very unsteady on her feet. She tended to get dizzy and to tip over easily. She had begun to fall at work. We were worried about her, but our worries were raised to a new level when she fell in a campus cafeteria and one of the cafeteria workers was injured trying to help her get up. The fact that she had been dozing off while on the job for the past few years didn’t trouble any of us. We loved her, and usually tiptoed by her work area so as not to wake her up. But when she became a danger to others and an insurance liability to the school, a Vice President came to me on behalf of her supervisor and advised that we let her go. I approved the recommendation.

The day she was let go by her supervisor, I showed up at my spiritual director’s office. It was our usual conference time. But it was not our usual conversation.

“Will you hear my confession?” I asked shortly after sitting down.

“Well, first, I would prefer that we talk for a few minutes about why you feel you need to confess,” he said.

So I told him the whole story. And I told him how guilty I felt for having deprived a very dear, very elderly woman of her reason to get up in the mornings.

He asked me one question.

“Did you intend for your actions to cause her harm?”

“Of course not,” I answered.

“Then you did not sin. And I do not need to hear your confession.”

“Well, I may not have sinned,” I answered, “but I sure as hell participated in the Fall today.”

He nodded in agreement.

Then we talked about how to receive grace for being human, and being bound up in the relationships and challenges of being human. And, I believe, that’s where we are today in so many instances of guilt and grief. We definitely do not intend to injure, but there are lots and lots of unintended consequences.

How do we live knowing that we track the seeds of the Fall around wherever we walk?

A loving son thought he had a cold but shared a deadly disease with his father; a loving wife wished her husband could have received the funeral his life deserved: the guilt is unearned by both of them, but real. Grace, every bit as unearned and even more real than any human failing, is available. But allowing that grace to sink into our hearts and minds and to remove the stain of that guilt will not be quick.

I suppose it reminds me of exorcism, a subject about which I know woefully little, except what I’ve read in the New Testament.

How does that sort of devil come out of the possessed? a disciple asked Jesus. It had been a tricky exorcism, and the disciples doubted that they could have pulled it off.

“Only with a lot of prayer and fasting,” said the Lord.

And so we pray and so we fast. Even though Lent is long past, until we know in our hearts that there is nothing we can do or leave undone that is nearly as powerful as God’s grace.

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