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January 27, 2013

Question:  Can guilt be good?

Whether we speak of collective guilt or individual guilt, guilt is one of those psychological realities that has not served religion well. A sense of excessive guilt does no one any favours. Carried to excess, it can be paralyzing, even pathological.

Guilt has been used as a tool of manipulation to induce conversion or conformity, and even to scapegoat an entire people. On the individual level, wallowing in guilt could be taken as an indicator of obsessive preoccupation with self, or a curious, subtle form of self-love.

The reality of guilt is something of a conundrum. We have “survivor guilt,” by which an individual feels guilty simply for having been spared death when others have not. Psychiatrists have noted that even little children, for no explicable reason, sometimes feel guilty for the death of their parents or grandparents. The irrational roots of guilt lie deep.

But whatever the psychological roots of guilt may be, the natural human tendency is to want to have one’s guilt expiated. And, of course, the notion of seeking forgiveness and pardon exists in all of the world’s religions in one form or another.

A healthy conscience should feel guilty or remorseful when it has violated its own dictates. When we have hurt others, we should acknowledge our wrongdoing and seek to make amends. But the Bahá’í Faith knows no sacramental confession and absolution from sins through another human being.

This practice is actually forbidden by Bahá’u’lláh (1817-1892), the Prophet-Founder of this religion. He states that “such confession before people results in one’s humiliation and abasement,” and he affirms that God “wisheth not the humiliation of His servants.” Bahá’u’lláh has revealed prayers for the forgiveness of one’s sins and shortcomings; he has assured us that if contrition is sincere, forgiveness is assured.

The challenge remains, of course, to avoid falling into that natural pattern by which wrongdoing is repeated. To avoid the cycle of repetition, self-awareness, vigilance, patience and, if necessary, counselling may be required. But the anatomy of sin or wrongdoing would seem to be relentless. They have of way of returning until we begin to face and seriously attempt to overcome our weakness.    
-  Jack McLean

Printed in the The Ottawa Citizen January 27, 2013
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