For one thing, I was born with what mum calls a ‘guilty face’. It looks like I did something bad, even when I didn’t. But the more I’m quizzed, the more I start to think I did it. Like at primary school when someone blocked the toilets and the headmaster said we weren’t leaving until the guilty person owned up and I had to sit on my hands to stop myself confessing even though we all knew it was Barry (it was always Barry).
Dogs are guilty. Cats – never. When we first tried to litter-train ours, they used to eyeball me during Don’t Tell the Bride, then coolly poo just outside the box. Such was their skill, that I would end up apologising and blaming myself for buying cheap catfood. (We upgraded and it made not a button of difference).
You name it, I’ll feel bad about it. Not ironing pants. Using the dishwasher. Buying cheap cling film. Giving up on books. An eating disorder. Being bad at hugs. Stockpiling licorice tea. Pretending to listen when I’m not.
Serious things. Stupid things. Stuff I did in the past. Stuff I might do in the future.
You read a lot about Catholic guilt, but I think Protestants are the ones with the issues. After all, as a Catholic, even if you do something really bad, you’ve got someone whose job it is to tell you it’s forgiven. In Protestant culture (well, mine at least), you’re never really sure.
I can’t help feeling if we actually confessed our sins – not necessarily to a priest but – to one another, there might be a tangible way of moving forwards. James 5 says:
Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.
John puts it like this (and it’s a decent bet that he had some kind of public confession in mind):
But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:7-9)
When it comes to guilt it seems like a case of ‘better out than in’ – especially as we ‘walk in the light.’
I don’t mean telling the world your secret shame. Obviously we need to be wise. Nor do I just mean ‘accountability groups’. These can be good. But they can also be bad. Bad as in terrifying and an exercise in sin minimisation, where you confess to not praying for missionaries but are too scared to admit to the real stuff.
Instead of playing down our mistakes, James and John are talking about something else. Sin maximisation. Not a competition to be as bad as possible or a chance to glory in your wickedness. Instead, a commitment to naming our worst before a trusted friend or friends and allowing them to pray for us and declare to us the forgiveness of Jesus from the Bible.
Maybe what stops forgiveness feeling real is a dislike of being real with other Christians. Maybe the path upwards to living in grace begins by heading downwards to vulnerability and confession. Don’t just think accountability group (scary). Think friendship, (great). If we’ve all got the guilties, let’s fight ’em together.