I’ve been thinking about guilt for some time now, and of late I find myself struggling with it. Guilt is one of my personal demons, and in me, it manifests as a guilt of not being good enough. It’s an innate tendency, the result of a natural desire to please people coupled with the reality of that being impossible, with a healthy sprinkling of hearing I wasn’t good enough during a period of my life. Although in the last few years I have gained a lot of self-confidence, and become an emotionally healthier individual, guilt is something I have never gotten rid of, just pushed deeper into the metaphorical cave.
Why write about guilt in my religion blog? The obvious answer would be that my guilt, my feeling of inadequacy, has to do with religion (as Tori Amos put it, “Got enough guilt to start my own religion“), but this isn’t the case, not entirely. There is an element of guilt I struggle with that has to do with my faith, yes (I’ll get to that later), but it isn’t the be-all, end-all of this feeling. I bring this here because it is through my faith that I am trying to deal with this bothersome monkey on my back.
The problem with this guilt of not being good enough is that it’s not rational at all. I mean, no one is perfect, therefore no one will be good enough (whatever that means). But it still eats away at me. Not all the time, though. For the most part, I am able to ignore anything that would feed that guilt, that insecurity, but there are important people in my life from whom anything that sounds like a criticism works like a charm to bring it out. Which is dumb, because it’s the important people in my life whom I need giving me constructive criticism so I can grow and better myself, and sometimes I can keep it all in check, but other times it takes over like a cloak of darkness. And when that happens, it’s always like raccoons spilling all the trash about.
The reason I used that particular image relates to a message I heard from Pastor Mark Johnston from The Journey in Newark, Delaware (which I consider to be my non-local church). During his last series, he compared wild animals to bad traits that eat us up, and in this particular case, he spoke of The Raccoons of Remorse, those little critters that like to dig in the trash, spilling it all around, stirring things up, and making a mess.
The Raccoons of Remorse from The Journey on Vimeo.
See, we all carry trash around, the memories of not-so-good moments when we weren’t the best we could be, when we made the wrong choice, when we hurt others and ourselves. It’s part of being human, no one gets away without accumulating this trash. We find ways to keep it in bins, put away, but when guilt attacks, when these raccoons of remorse swarm out, they go for those trash bins and they ransack them good. Unlike normal messes (say, like those made by my 1-year old daughter with her toys) that you can clean up fairly easy, who wants to clean up trash? It’s smelly, disgusting, and it seems to spill twice as far as any other substance. Which means all those bad feelings are now out in the open again, stenching it up, metaphorically speaking.
Now, instead of only dealing with guilt associated with one minor event, I’m dealing with the combined guilt of all that emotional trash that has spilled out. What actually made me feel guilty of not being good enough actually doesn’t matter anymore, because once this spillover happens it isn’t about that one event any longer. Now I’m dealing with the combined guilt of a lifetime of feeling I’m not good enough, and I’m simply not strong enough to fight that much guilt at once. It overpowers me, drowns me, changes my demeanor, erodes my self-confidence, makes me clamp up and throw walls up so that my miasma won’t affect others, so they won’t be blighted by the poison cloud that says I’m not good enough for my most loved ones, for my family, for my friends, that I’m not good enough for God.
I mentioned that I carry guilt related to God. When you’re a seeker, it’s hard not to. In seeking for the way to connect with God I have made a number of changes in my life, and at each junction I’ve had to deal with the question, what if this is wrong? What if this isn’t really what God wants? What about what I did before? What if I can’t believe strongly enough? What if my faith isn’t sincere? What if my trust isn’t complete? What if God doesn’t love me after all? What if I’m not good enough for God to love? These are questions that can, in a very real sense, destroy you. These are questions that at points in my life very nearly did. This is why I bring this reflection to this place, because I cannot deal with this kind of guilt on my own. When those raccoons mess up the place and spill my emotional trash all over my heart and my soul, I cannot clean it all up by myself. I need help. I need God.
Although Pastor Mark’s message was said a few weeks ago, it was only now that I had a chance to catch up, and it’s because it is now that I needed to hear what he had to say. I won’t try to sum up his message because it’s great and it needs to be listened to in its entirety, but I can tell you what the heart of the sermon is:
Guilt says we owe, but God says, “No.”
Hearing this was transformative. Realizing that guilt is a feeling of owing others, of owing God, something that I cannot deliver was monumental. It’s not that I can’t be a better person, someone who learns from mistakes, who gets up after a fall. Guilt says that I am simply not good enough to be even that, that I owe people something that I am not, something that I can’t ever be, that I owe them perfection, that I owe God perfection. There’s no way to win that fight. But God is saying, no, you do not owe anything. God is saying I am loved and accepted. God is saying I am good enough, for Him, and for others.
I heard my church’s Teaching Minister, Zach Van Dyke, say that emotions are real, but they aren’t Truth. And so it is with my guilt: it is real, but it isn’t Truth. Having emotions is part of being human, but realizing that God loves me, accepts me, wants me, that’s Truth. God takes the metaphorical trash strewn by those pesky raccoons and not only disposes of it, He performs pest control, and cleans the place up to a shine. And if I am well with God, then I can be well with people around me. If God says I am good enough, then I can be good enough for those in my life. It doesn’t mean I don’t or won’t make mistakes, but it does mean I am capable of fixing those, learning from those, growing as a result. It means I am good enough for life.
When I started writing this post I was in the throes of that guilt, in the middle of the spilled trash. As I finish it, I am looking at a place that’s been cleaned up with God’s help, and it’s shinning and smells of Pine Sol. And it’s not like it won’t happen again (although I can hope it won’t), but if it does, I’ll be better prepared to deal with it, I’ll know I have help.