Good Guilt?

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, March 1, 2015

Psalm 32:1-7 CEB

Consider these scenarios with me.  A friend or neighbor’s spouse passes away, and you intend to send a nice sympathy card.  But your life is hectic, so you never do get around to sending that card.  Then a few weeks later, you run into your friend or neighbor at the grocery store, and when you do, you remember that you never got around to sending that sympathy card.  You feel guilty about it.

You snap at your child or grandchild for moving stuff around on the dining room table and misplacing an important file or computer flash drive.  Even though your child swears he or she didn’t touch it, you send them to their room anyway.  Later that day you find the “misplaced” file or flash drive in your work bag, where you had placed it and forgotten about it.  Now you feel guilty for yelling at your child.

You stop at a traffic light at an interstate on ramp.  A homeless man walks up to the car trying to sell you one of those newspapers that gives homeless people a small source of income and that is intended to help them get back on their feet.  For a second you consider rolling down your car window and giving him a dollar, but then you decide not to and press the gas pedal hard as soon as the light changes.  Later you feel guilty for not doing your part to help the man.

Guilt.  As progressive or liberal Christians, we don’t talk a whole lot about guilt.  But whether we want to admit it or not, most of us experience a fair amount of guilt on a regular basis.  As stated by Swiss physician and writer, Dr. Paul Tournier , “The question of guilt arises in every man, and it demands an answer” (Tournier, 211).1  Drawing on Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son, Tournier says, “All . . . are exiled, impoverished and all feel guilty; all yearn for the wealth of the home they have abandoned, and for forgiveness” (Tournier, 212).  And an article on guilt in the Wall Street Journal, of all places, notes that “By fifth grade, children have pretty well-defined tendencies to feel guilt and shame. . .”2

Today’s scripture reading gives us a peek into the mind of the psalmist for whom guilt was a powerful force in his life and faith.  For the psalmist, guilt was like a heavy hand weighing upon him.  It was like a great flood that threatened to overwhelm him.  Guilt for the psalmist was like an unwelcome force within his body that sapped the energy right out of him.  And so the psalmist could proclaim, Happy is “the one the Lord doesn’t consider guilty. . .” (32:2 CEB).

The subject of guilt gives rise to any number of questions: Is guilt always justified?  Is guilt ever justified?  Can there be “true guilt” and “false guilt”?  Can guilt actually be beneficial to us?

Now, at the onset, we need to acknowledge that guilt often is used—and misused—as a form of power and control.  It is used by some people to get others to do what they want them to do, as in the case of abusive situations.  There are many churches that use guilt as a motivator, in order to boost attendance and offerings.  In such churches, if you miss Sunday morning services, or don’t attend Sunday evening services, or Wednesday evening prayer meeting, or don’t give a full 10% or more of your income, you are made to feel guilty.

I can tell you a funny story in this regard.  Many years ago, when Mary Lou and I were very young, we got up one Sunday morning to find that a 4-5 inch snow had fallen overnight.  We were every-Sunday church attendees and never missed, but we decided we would not try to go to church services that morning.  Rather, we would listen to a service on the television or radio (I don’t remember which).  Well, it turned out that the television or radio preacher we listened to poured on the guilt for staying home and missing church because of a little bit of  snow.  So, letting the guilt get the best of us, we decided we needed to get ready and go to church, even if we were late.  It just so happened that the house we were living in was on a hill.  As I drove down the gravel driveway in our Ford Maverick, the car slid off into the ditch, and there we were—stuck.  Luckily there was no damage to our car.  But we did learn a good lesson: You shouldn’t let others impose unfounded guilt upon you.

Which brings me back to the book by Paul Tournier that I discovered while in seminary titled Guilt and Grace.   Tournier distinguishes between what he calls “true guilt” and “false guilt.”  What I find most important is what Tournier has to say about “False guilt . . . that which comes as a result of the judgments and suggestions of men” (Tournier, 67).  It was Tournier’s definition of “false guilt”—that most impressed me at a time when I needed it most.

In that Wall Street Journal article, it is noted that “Susan Krauss Whitbourne, professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has identified five types of guilt . . . four types of guilt are unproductive, she says.  These include guilt about something you didn’t do but wanted to . . . guilt about something you only think you did [but didn’t really] . . . guilt about not doing enough to help someone else . . . and guilt about being better off than someone else.”2

But could it be that guilt can sometimes actually be our friend, good for us?  Tournier thought so.  “Guilt becomes ‘a friend because it leads to the experience of grace,’” Tournier said.   During those times in our lives when we, like the Prodigal, feel overwhelmed with guilt and feel that we may have sunk to our lowest, we—also like the Prodigal—are in the best position to feel like we are the recipients of the greatest experience of grace.  And Elizabeth Bernstein in her Wall Street Journal article, agrees.  She says, “A little guilt can be good for you.  If you’ve engaged in bad behavior, you’ll probably benefit from feeling guilty about it,” Bernstein says.2

Guilt also is beneficial as a form of societal control.  We have to admit that a lot of crimes never take place because of the force of guilt that acts like a psychological monitor of sorts—at least in most people.  “A study of criminals, published in the journal of Psychological Science in March 2014, found those who felt guilty were less likely to break the law again than those who felt no guilt.”2

Closely related, guilt can be beneficial as a sort of moral compass that helps keep one on track—in most people, at least.

Finally, guilt can be helpful in prompting us to restore broken relationships.  Bernstein contends, “Guilt is a useful emotion.  It pushes people to repair the harm they did.”Returning to a scenario I used in the beginning, when we yelled at our child or grandchild for moving things around and losing an important file or flash drive and sent them to their room, once we realized that the lost file was our own doing, we felt guilty.  Our sense of guilt for falsely accusing our child or grandchild leads us to ask forgiveness and make things right, which results in the relationship being restored.  That may be a simplistic example, but you get the idea.

As noted earlier, most of us suffer guilt on a fairly regular basis.  Sometimes guilt can be a positive motivator in our lives.  But often the guilt we experience may be unfounded or self-imposed, without any real basis.  Bernstein asks, “How can you tell if the guilt you are feeling is good or bad?  First,” she advises, “ask whether what you feel is rational.”2

The short of it is, sometimes the guilt we experience is justified.  In those cases, we do well to address our guilt by seeking to correct the wrong we have done or restore the relationship that has been broken.  But often the guilt we feel is unfounded, self-imposed, false guilt.  At such times, may we have the grace to just let it go.  Amen.


1Paul Tournier, Guilt and Grace.  New York: Harper & Row, 1962.

2Elizabeth Bernstein, “A Guilty Feeling Can Be Good, as Long as It Isn’t Misplaced,” Wall Street Journal, Nov. 4, 2014



About randykhammer

Minister and writer
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