Feeling Guilt: Repentance or Excuse?

Jeff Spectorbook of mormon, christ, christianity, church, faith, LDS, Mormon, repentance, salvation, scripture, spiritual progression, theology 10 Comments

Here is an idea that has been kicking around in my head for many years.  I thought I would see if I could really articulate it and get some feedback.

Premise: Feeling guilt is an excuse for not repenting.

From Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, the definitions for guilt are as follows:

1: the fact of having committed a breach of conduct especially violating law and involving a penalty; broadly : guilty conduct

2 a: the state of one who has committed an offense especially consciously b: feelings of culpability especially for imagined offenses or from a sense of inadequacy: self-reproach

3: a feeling of culpability for offenses

In other words, guilt is about two things: committing an offense like a crime, or a feeling.  It is the feeling part that I wish to address.  A survey of the  scriptures by and large deal with the offense such as:  “And if the whole congregation of Israel sin through aignorance, and the thing be hid from the eyes of the assembly, and they have done somewhat against any of the commandments of the LORD concerning things which should not be done, and are bguilty;” (Leviticus 4:13)

There are only a handful of scriptures that address the feeling of guilt and they are mainly from the Book of Mormon.

“Therefore if that man arepenteth not, and remaineth and dieth an enemy to God, the demands of divine bjustice do awaken his immortal soul to a lively sense of his own cguilt, which doth cause him to shrink from the dpresence of the Lord, and doth fill his breast with guilt, and epain, and fanguish, which is like an unquenchable gfire, whose flame ascendeth up forever and ever. ” (Mosiah 2:38)

“Or otherwise, can ye imagine yourselves brought before the tribunal of God with your souls filled with guilt and remorse, having a remembrance of all your guilt, yea, a perfect aremembrance of all your wickedness, yea, a remembrance that ye have set at defiance the commandments of God?” (Alma 5:18) (both uses in this verse)

“And behold, I also thank my God, that by opening this correspondence we have been convinced of our asins, and of the many murders which we have committed. And I also thank my God, yea, my great God, that he hath granted unto us that we might repent of these things, and also that he hath aforgiven us of those our many sins and murders which we have committed, and taken away the bguilt from our hearts, through the merits of his Son. And now behold, my brethren, since it has been all that we could do, (as we were the most lost of all mankind) to repent of all our sins and the many murders which we have committed, and to get God to atake them away from our hearts, for it was all we could do to repent sufficiently before God that he would take away our stain- “(Alma 24:9 – 11)

As many of us know, the steps to repentance include the following:

  • Sorrow for Sin.
  • Confession.
  • Abandonment of Sin.
  • Restitution.
  • Righteous Living.

See True to the Faith (2004), 132-35

Which leads me back to guilt. Feeling guilt or remorse is, by itself, not enough to begin the steps of repentance. We must feel genuine sorrow, sometimes called “godly sorrow” (2 Cor. 7:10).

In fact, I think that many of us determine to feel guilt and hold on to that guilt as an alternative to repentance.

I’ve been in conversation with someone where they say, “Why are you bringing that up? I feel guilty enough already!” Not ready to change but willing to feel guilt as their personal punishment.

So, restating my premise:  Feeling guilt is an excuse for not repenting.

Am I splitting hairs here, totally off-base? Or am I on to something.

Also, you’ve heard of Jewish guilt (been there, done that), and Catholic Guilt (A whole website dedicated to it), but is there Mormon Guilt? I’m saying yes.

BTW, here is a post from Feminist Mormon Housewife that seems to back up my premise.

Comments 10

  1. Been there, done that. It’s taken some time, but I’m starting to better recognize in myself the difference between garden-variety guilt and godly sorrow. The former tends to leave you feeling like dirt, which is fine only as a reminder that “man is less than the dust of the earth” sense of humility and dependence. But if you hold onto that feeling for too long, it ain’t godly sorrow and it’s usually a barrier to true repentance.

    I like how you call guilt an excuse for not repenting. Because the godly sorry mindset is essentially “I am a child of God and I can do better than that. I WILL do better than that.” And then you are driven to your knees to ask for help in repairing whatever damage you did and to petition the Lord to give you the strength to overcome. I always leave such prayers with higher resolve, deeper gratitude, deeper humility and much-increased willingness to follow the Spirit. But you’re right, too often I instead just feel the guilt and never really do anything about it. I hope I’m not the only one who has a problem with actually repenting, but it sounds like you’ve met plenty of people like me.

    An aside: I’m familiar with the above checklist, but I think it’s spiritually hazardous to view repentance as such. Real repentance means genuinely turning your heart over to Deity and accessing the power of the atonement. You do that and you’ll have completed the checklist and far more, but the reverse isn’t necessarily true.

  2. Lorin, thanks for bringing that up. When I taught the EQ lesson on repentance this year, I wrote up a similar checklist with the help of the class and then crossed it off. (It was deliberately provocative, of course, and it turned out to be a highly effective hook.) Regarding a checklist as the *meaning* of repentance causes us to miss the real meaning. It’s not a discrete event (any more than sin is), and it’s not even a process. It’s a state of mind, heart and soul. (I have an awesome quote from a current Apostle on this, but not handy.)

    Back to guilt. I think Jeff is right, but not universally. My wife is a naturally guilty person. She’s also a worrier, and she’s discovered that she worries because it *feels productive*. It gives her something to do about things she can’t do anything about. Guilt may be similar for her: it feels like something productive, whether there’s a good reason to feel it or not. If there’s a reason, she can use it to avoid something that actually is productive (repentance). Not that she does that, but she could.

    Me? My guilt needed serious training from the beginning. It’s also uncomfortable enough that I never use it strategically – in my more rebellious moments I just push it away until I can’t ignore it anymore. In my case, guilt always works properly but needed training; in my wife’s, it didn’t need training but often works improperly.

  3. Sunstone had a lighthearted essay about Mormon guilt way back when… I absolutely believe in Mormon guilt, and it usually centers on home teaching/visiting teaching. I think you’re on the right track, that guilt is a pre-repentance condition that we live with, uncomfortably, until we either give up on our ethical standards or do something to change.

    Here’s a link to the Sunstone piece:


  4. “Religions are all the same. They are basically just guilt with different holidays.”
    -Can’t Remember Who Said It”

    I’m convinced that God doesn’t want us to go around feeling guilty. He wants us to feel loved and forgiven. When I finally understood that it suddenly became so much easier for me to repent.

  5. Post
  6. Guilt, schmilt. I’m not big on guilt.

    Yes, I think there’s such a think as Mormon guilt, and I agree it’s an excuse. Even saying “Mormon guilt” or “Catholic guilt” or “Jewish guilt” implies that the guilt is exerted from the outside into the person, which isn’t accurate either. Some people choose to hang on to feelings of guilt. Do they not forgive themselves? Do they not believe in the atonement or think it can apply to them? Or do they just not want to change?

    Of course, at the other end you have your sociopaths incapable of feeling guilt. I think guilt is pretty worthless. A twinge here and there that prompts action, but more than that is just unproductive twaddle.

  7. #4 – I agree completely, Andrew.

    I believe most of the things that cause us the most guilt and heartache actually are things that have been covered already by the Atonement – those things that we inherited through the Fall, did not choose and for which Jesus paid unconditionally. We still need to “repent” (simply meaning “to change”), but there is no need to beat ourselves up over our inherited condition. I believe the Atonement frees us (“the truth shall make you free”) to act as agents of personal change outside of the shackles that would be placed upon us if we were not redeemed.

    Iow, in a very real way, we ARE “guilty” of transgressing the perfect law, but we are not sentenced (“jailed”) for that guilt. We need to understand our guilt and work to change our actions to stop the continuation of that guilt, but we are not judged to be “guilty” – or, at least, we are given a continuance prior to sentencing. We are redeemed (bought and paid for or “bailed out”) and freed to change from a “guilty” state to an “innocent” state – over a process of time, not immediately in totality. To me, that’s the heart of the Atonement – that even though we still are technically guilty, we can remain free to pursue potential innocence.

  8. Iow, I think the issue is removing the connotations of guilt as a feeling and returning to the scriptural meaning of guilt as a condition. I think even the last three passages that Jeff quotes in this post describe guilt as a condition and not a feeling.

  9. My wife and I had a discussion about guilt the other day and she put forth the question of, “Is guilt from God or a external source or is it internal?” My first reaction was that it was internal and not received from God, but that godly sorrow is from God. I would appreciate the insight on this if it is not too off topic.

  10. Personally I couldn’t forgive myself. After all of the things I had been shown all the gifts I had been given I couldn’t understand how anyone could knowingly and intentionally commit a sin. Someone once told me when we sin it is because we love the devil more than God or we love evil more than good. Now I know it is pride. As Ezra Taft Benson said “The central feature of pride is enmity—enmity toward God and enmity toward our fellowmen. Enmity means “hatred toward, hostility to, or a state of opposition.” It is the power by which Satan wishes to reign over us.
    Pride is essentially competitive in nature. We pit our will against God’s. When we direct our pride toward God, it is in the spirit of “my will and not thine be done.” As Paul said, they “seek their own, not the things which are Jesus Christ’s.” (Philip. 2:21.)
    Our will in competition to God’s will allows desires, appetites, and passions to go unbridled. (See Alma 38:12; 3 Ne. 12:30.)
    The proud cannot accept the authority of God giving direction to their lives. (See Hel. 12:6.) They pit their perceptions of truth against God’s great knowledge, their abilities versus God’s priesthood power, their accomplishments against His mighty works.
    Our enmity toward God takes on many labels, such as rebellion, hard-heartedness, stiff-neckedness, unrepentant, puffed up, easily offended, and sign seekers. The proud wish God would agree with them. They aren’t interested in changing their opinions to agree with God’s.
    Another major portion of this very prevalent sin of pride is enmity toward our fellowmen. We are tempted daily to elevate ourselves above others and diminish them. (See Hel. 6:17; D&C 58:41.)
    The proud make every man their adversary by pitting their intellects, opinions, works, wealth, talents, or any other worldly measuring device against others. In the words of C. S. Lewis: “Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. … It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition has gone, pride has gone.” (Mere Christianity, New York: Macmillan, 1952, pp. 109–10.)
    Well I now know I have been forgiven… but now I have to contend with the sin of pride. We need to think about everything we do, say or write. If the things we do in life aren’t to help our brothers and sisters or for the glory of God; it’s a sin.

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