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Dump the Guilt Someplace Else
One of the joys of Christmas is to receive cards and letters, catching up on the news, and reading inspirational messages. One of the cards we received this past week included a small bag of spice and was titled, "Seasoned Greetings."
To perfectly season your holiday,
Add a touch of joy and laughter.
Sprinkle in lots of mirth
And let rise up to the rafters.
A heaping spoon of thoughtfulness
Will make the season merry.
A generous cup of loving
Will make the mixture airy.
Enhance it all with the spices
Of understanding and tender reason,
And you will have a glorious delight
Fit for every season!
Did you notice what is missing? Season your holiday with joy, laughter, mirth, thoughtfulness, love and understanding. What's missing? There was no mention of guilt. Imagine! Guilt is not a necessary ingredient of Christmas.
Christmas didn't begin in guilt. The Christmas story never ceases to amaze me. I am continually struck with new insights. As I studied the lectionary passage for this Sunday, Matthew 1:18-25, Joseph's behavior caught my attention. It suddenly dawned on me that this fellow, Joseph, was quite a guy. He refused to dump guilt on Mary. During their engagement period, Mary became pregnant. You who are in the younger generation cannot quite understand the social shame and embarrassment that pregnancy outside of marriage caused in previous generations. Joseph knew he wasn't responsible. What would some fellows do? Renounce her, dump her, dump guilt on her? Not Joseph. 1:19, "Her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly." Because of his love and respect for Mary, he refused to shame her, make her feel guilty, and was even willing to separate quietly.
Christmas began guilt-free; but, I'm afraid that many of us assume guilt to be an important part of Christmas today. There's something about Christmas that brings out the guilt in many people. Those who have lost loved ones feel not only lonely at Christmas, but often feel guilty as well. They again think of what they should have done, or what they should not have done.
Christmas is a time when some dump their guilt on others, and try to manipulate people around them by making them feel guilty. Christmas is a time when many folks are vulnerable. They are feeling sentimental, nostalgic, and allow themselves to be dumped on and manipulated by guilt.
A key word, a clue, indicating that guilt is operating is "should." "I should do..." "You should...do more Usually the guilt dumper wants you to feel sorry for him/her. I remember a former colleague saying, "Don't should on me!" I was in a meeting the other day where we were discussing something we didn't do which someone else thought we should have done. We discussed it and decided it wasn't our responsibility. Someone said, "I don't think I'm going to feel guilty about that." Someone else said, "I refuse to feel guilty, especially when someone wants me to feel guilty."
One of the hardest parts about my job is the guilt. To be a sensitive, caring pastor, one has to learn how to handle guilt. I often wake up in the night and remember all the things I didn't get done. I think of the people I meant to visit or telephone. I think of my failures. I feel guilty. I realized years ago that I must learn how to handle guilt, or give up the ministry and do something else, or go crazy. If I am going to work with people, I must learn how to handle guilt, or should I say, I should learn how to handle the guilt, which only enhances the guilt, because then I feel guilty about not handling the guilt. What a vicious circle! How insidious is guilt! When guilt is not handled, we grind down to a screeching halt, unable to move. Guilt paralyzes. Guilt drains energy, and leaves one powerless and helpless.
How refreshing then to sit in a meeting and hear someone say, "I refuse to feel guilty, especially when someone wants me to feel guilty." Hey, dump the guilt someplace else! The good news is you don't have to accept the guilt. When they dump guilt on you, let it roll off. If appropriate, speak up and tell them what they are doing. They are probably unaware.
It is amazing how being direct in a loving, caring way can ease guilt and encourage responsible action. The other day, a person told me in an honest, direct, open manner that something I had said, and the way in which i had said it, had bothered her. We had a very positive conversation. What she had heard was not what I had intended to say. Because she spoke directly, without being critical or judgmental, I did not feel guilty or defensive. I learned something about myself, and now feeling responsible, rather than guilty, I can work on the correction. Guilt paralyzes. Accepting responsibility for one's actions is freeing.
Guilt dumping is a sign of unresolved inner conflicts. Luella Sibbald in her book, The Man With the Water Pitcher, writes, (p. 25)
We have been so cut off from the inner world that it has ceased to exist for many. We have repressed our anger, our unholy thoughts, our prejudices into the unconscious, and we pretend to ourselves that they do not exist. If they do appear, our sense of guilt is so great that we have pressed on the lid even more tightly.
She calls the anger, unholy thoughts, and prejudices our inner darkness. Too often we have been taught that good Christians should repress the inner darkness. We are taught to be kind, smiling, and sweet, and to cover up, ignore, and pretend there is nothing inside us that is ugly, unChristian, and unsweet. We try to press the lid on tightly, but the lid doesn't always hold, and like a pressure cooker letting off steam, the ugliness spews out into the environment.
Isn't that a vivid image of guilt dumping? Guilt comes spewing out into the environment, spreading poison. Guilt is repressed anger and disappointment, anger at self, disappointment with self, anger at others. Touch an angry person, and the guilt spews forth. "You should have done...You should not have done...Why didn't you..etc." Do you sometimes spew guilt into the environment, trying to find someone you can dump it on? Do you ever attempt to motivate someone with guilt?
How can we handle guilt? What can you do with guilt?
First, accept the darker side of your nature. Admit you have one. Confess it. Don't try to pretend you are always perfect. Admit there is something unpleasant about you. Admit there is some learning and changing you need to do. We're all sinners. The difference between a Christian and a non-Christian is the Christian admits and confesses, his/her sin.
Secondly, lay your sin, lay your guilt on Jesus. Give it to God. Picture Jesus taking your sin and your guilt on his shoulders, in his body, and going to the cross. He died to free you. He died to forgive. He died to cleanse. Picture his blood washing you, cleansing you of guilt, transforming your inner world into a thing of beauty. In the Bible, life is symbolized by blood. Jesus gave his life for you, now he is here in Spirit to work in your life, freeing you to live responsibly. Another card we received this past week included this message,
He was born into poverty lest we think Him a monarch.
He came not to dominate, but to motivate;
not to condemn, but to forgive;
not to oppress, but to free our souls.
Third, claim your salvation, and live responsibly as a child of God, one of God's people, a disciple placed here on this earth to do God's work. You are a responsible member of the body of Christ. Christ is present on this earth through you. Take that responsibility seriously, not out of guilt but freely deciding to be God's person.
There's a fine line between acting responsibly and acting out of guilt. Acting responsibly means you are making the decision, acting freely. Acting out of guilt means you are reacting, controlled, dictated by some inner unresolved feeling of your own, or by someone else. Guilt is a popular motivational tool in church. Churches have long played the guilt string, trying to make people feel responsible by making them feel guilty, especially when trying to raise funds.
Our church consciously and intentionally tries to downplay guilt when we make the financial needs known. We often hear the criticism, "All the church does is ask for money." Or, "You take too many offerings." Well, I refuse to feel guilty, refuse to accept the guilt being dumped on me. I make the needs known, and present opportunities for you to express your Christian stewardship. You are free to choose what you will support, and how you will support.
I must admit I get nervous when I realize there is only one week left in the year, and that giving is behind, which I understand is the experience of most churches and charities this year. We need approximately $ 80,000 to end the year in the black, without making severe cuts next year. I get nervous, but my responsibility is to present the need. How you respond is your choice. May you respond out of grace, not guilt; out of love, not law; out of joy, not judgment. May you love and serve others out of grace, not guilt; out of love, not law; out of joy, not judgment. May you share your abundant resources to do God's work out of grace, not guilt; out of love, not law; out of joy, not judgment.
Dump the guilt someplace else, not on those around you. Dump your guilt on Jesus, and responsibly live the life he has given you, heavily seasoned with joy, laughter, and love.
© 1989 Douglas I. Norris