Understanding Guilt in Eastern and Western Christianity
In the Orthodox Christian tradition, The Philokalia (Greek: love of the good) ranks as the authoritative compilation of teaching about Christian life and discipline by the Fathers of the Church. In the reference work The Philokalia: Master Reference Guide, author B.S. Stapakis notes there is no reference to "guilt" in the first four volumes of the Philokalia. The reason for this absence is that the Western Christian concepts about how guilt factors into salvation differs markedly from the Christian East.
The late Orthodox historian Fr. John Meyendorff wrote:
"The development of penitential practice and theology in the Byzantine world was distinct from its Western counterpart in that it never knew the influence of legalistic interpretations of salvation...Byzantine theologians never succumbed to the temptation of reducing sin to the notion of a legal crime, which is to be sentenced, punished or forgiven..."
He goes on to say that the prevailing view sees penance as "liberation and healing rather than that of judgment."
Contrast Meyendorff's conclusion with the Catholic Encyclopedia where guilt is described as liability to punishment incurred by transgressing a law. The process that pronounces a person guilty of transgression is compared to a "court of law," and that "in the Christian life, guilt has this primary objective sense." The subjective ramification of this objective decree is psychological remorse, or from the other direction, psychological remorse is the evidence of objective guilt.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church approaches the matter a bit differently. It does not have a specific entry for "guilt" but states that in the confession or disclosure of sin "...man looks squarely at the sins he is guilty of, and takes responsibility for them" (1455).
Nevertheless, despite this softening of the juridical motif where the pronouncement of transgression is likened to a court of law, the theme of psychological remorse remains. This is evident in the belief that "a temporal punishment for sin remains" even when sins are forgiven as well as the subsequent practice of granting indulgences that continues even today. Indulgences, "Opens...the treasury of merits of Christ and the saints to obtain from the Father of mercies the remission of temporal punishments due for their sins" (1478).
Orthodox Christianity does not hold to the notion that guilt is a punishment for sin. Guilt certainly exists as an indicator that sin has occurred, but confession and repentance are understood in more therapeutic terms, as a means by which the sinner is restored to communion with God and through which spiritual healing is affected and not as the process by which punishment is imposed.
One exception to the Orthodox understanding occurred among some teachers who came under the influence of the western ideas in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. A prime example is St. Tikhon of Zadonsk (1724-1783) who "borrowed heavily from the west," according to Bishop Kallistos Ware. St. Tikhon "... drew upon German and Anglican books of devotion; his detailed meditations upon the physical sufferings of Jesus are more typical of Roman Catholicism than Orthodoxy." St. Tikhon's prayer life was influenced heavily by St. John of the Cross' Dark Night of the Soul.
St. Theophane the Recluse, a student of St. Tikhon wrote a magnum opus, The Path to Salvation, a reinterpretation of True Christianity written by his beloved teacher. "Judge and condemn yourself, and only yourself...your bad will alone is to blame (guilt of your sin). So blame yourself," wrote St. Theophane.
St. Theophane's western approach to guilt is demonstrated by his view of the majority of Christians as "...people who are more or less depraved in their present lives..." wrote Bishop Ware. The problem here is not acceptance of responsibility within which St. Theophane is in total conformity with the spiritual fathers of the Church. Rather the problem is in his emphasis on the depravity of the individual as such as a "state of being" that functions as a component of guilt and is only realized through the experience of guilt.
Understanding Guilt Today
Modern society holds back no barriers discussing guilt. Barnes and Nobel lists no less that 1,143 titles dealing with guilt. Some psychologists posit that guilt is a developmental stage that a person may pass through (Erickson 1950). Dealing with the deleterious effects of guilt is also a focus of clinical research psychologists. Bandura (1974) argues that guilt, shame or dissatisfaction occurs when an individual compares their behavior to their internal standards and finds that it either violates or falls short of those standards.
Cognitive-behavioral psychology has done much to define the meaning of guilt and distinguish between the functional and dysfunctional uses of the term. One of the basic premises of the cognitive-behavioral approach is to distinguish between the individual (their being, so to speak) from what they do (their thoughts, feelings and actions). From the outset patients are taught this important distinction. Treatment focus starts with the evaluation of the thoughts, emotions and actions without evaluating the "self" (Morelli, 2001, 2004). The value of the individual is simply they are "human" and humans can do good or bad things.
This view is congruent with the Christian view although the Christian view goes further. The scriptures teach that we are created in God's image and called to be like Him. Further, "...God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. (Gen. 1:31). The things we do may be wrong or even evil but our actions cannot negate the existential truth that we are made in God's image and thus good remains.
St. Isaac of Syria stated, God "...has created all for man and has given him mind and word, by which, rising on high, he can enter into communion with God, contemplating and glorifying Him." From the Christian perspective the value of the human being rests in this capacity to contemplate, commune with, and ultimately glorify, God.
Humans made in God's image are called to be like Him and experience theosis, or God dwelling in them. St. Maximos the Confessor wrote that, "Deification is an enhypostatic and direct illumination which has no beginning but appears in those worthy as something exceeding beyond their comprehension. It is indeed a mystical union with God, beyond nous and reason in the age when creatures will no longer know corruption." Bishop Hierotheos Vlachos (1994) concluded that "...the vision of the uncreated light is man's deification."
Guilt and Human Psychology
How, then, do we properly understand and deal with guilt? The first step is to frame any experience of guilt in the broader context that the penitent was created good, and his essential goodness rests in the capacity to experience the life of God.
One of the major components of guilt is the cognitive construct of "badness" (Burns, 1980, Ellis, 1962). The first cognitive distortion (Morelli, 2004) that leads to guilt is to perceive the "self" as bad instead of the "thought, feeling or action" as bad. In psychological terms this is a fundamental breakdown in reality testing. In spiritual terms, this demonstrates a lack of knowledge about our divine value and potential at best; at worst it broadcasts hopelessness and despair.
Psychologically speaking, a person is still a human despite bad things they have done. This is true no matter what the horror of actions committed from a societal viewpoint.
Spiritually speaking, no matter how darkened the mind or evil an act, cleansing is still possible. The strongest example in scripture is King David who had an affair with a colleague's wife and then had the colleague killed but still obtained forgiveness (2 Samuel 11). The affair and murder did not consign King David to a state of unredeemable darkness (a perpetual state of "badness" to use the psychological terminology). The Psalmist in reference to David's sin wrote:
Have mercy on me O God, according to thy steadfast love: according to thy abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me for from my sin (Psalm 50: 1,2).
From a cognitive-psychological viewpoint the next step is to evaluate the "badness" of the thoughts, emotions and behaviors. There are basically two options. The first is to assess if the thought or action is objectively bad, immoral and/or unethical. The second option is to assess if the thought or action is cognitively distorted, that is, not bad at all or not as bad to the degree that it is being perceived. The psychologically healthy response is to assume responsibility for the thought or action commensurate with an objective assessment of the transgression.
Once again this was beautifully expressed by the Psalmist, "For I know my transgression and my sin is ever before me" (Psalm 50:3). A transgression should not be denied, but acknowledged.
A common theme in distorted evaluations is that they have a "demand" and "over-evaluation" factors. Feelings of guilt are often accompanied by "should statements" such as "I should not have done this bad thing," "I am worthless, others will look down on me," and "I thought I could never do such a thing." Individuals see themselves as above being able to do or say bad things.
One of the prayers in the Eastern Church funeral service gets it right, "...there is no man who is alive and does not sin." The denial of the capability to fall short and do bad things is actually a subtle form of pride, and pride is sin.
Even the greatest of saints had a sense of falling short and would turn around through the gift of tears (Staniloae, 2003). Peter, for example, wept after denying Our Lord three times (Matthew 26:75). Should these tears be understood at as psychological self-deprecation? No! The "gift of tears" is really penthos - the "mourning for the loss of God's presence" (Chryssavgis, 1990). They constitute a "joyful sorrow" through which a person is transformed by the grace of God.
Dealing With Guilt
Burns, (1981) describes the "guilt cycle" that often follows a transgression. A person's cognitive processes are trapped in an endless loop: "I am bad, I am worthy of condemnation, I am guilty thus I deserve to suffer." Emotional reasoning is the fuel that feeds this loop: "Because I feel guilty I am guilty; I am inherently bad, I deserve punishment."
Challenging and restructuring this error in thinking is critical at this stage. Ask the person if feelings are fact. Use this example: People once strongly felt that the world was flat. Today we know today the world is round and revolves around the sun. No matter how strongly we might feel about something, feelings are not facts!
The key to dealing with 'guilt' from this point on is again found in the words of the Psalmist: "thou desires truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart....Then I will teach transgressors thy ways and sinners will return to thee" (Psalm 50: 6,13). Clinically and pastorally I use the term "debriefing" to describe this process of dealing with guilt.
Debriefing is a neutral term that is action oriented. It has no surplus meanings that might evoke irrational interpretations and strong emotions. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) debrief astronauts after a space flight. The military debrief units after operations. Police and fire units debrief their personnel after incidents. The focus on debriefing is to understand the causes of events, the effectiveness of interventions, the consequences, suggestions, and plans for improvement.
The Church Fathers obviously used different terms. The term examination of conscience covers some of the meanings. The purpose of debriefing is to set the groundwork for a more successful operation in the future. Focusing on self-downing and punishment interferes with this process. The church calls for a metanoia which the Shepherd of Hermas defines as a call for great understanding and discernment (Chryssavgis 1990). Metanoia means a fundamental change of mind; a transformation of outlook.
Moreover, a change of mind indicates a change in emotion and a change in behavior which further indicates a plan of action to bring about this change. Here is where understanding and discernment can be married to behavioral plans. For example, it is folly for a person who has an alcohol problem to continue working as a bartender. A major change, a new plan is needed — a metanoia of mind, heart, feeling and action.
One issue that usually arises is how do I make up for my past badness, transgressions and sins? The answer is again found in the words of the Psalmist: "Then I will teach transgressors thy ways and sinners will return to thee." To make up for the past put all effort on the present and future. Teach transgressors — first ourselves and, in humility, others. The past cannot be changed; it can only serve as classroom to learn what to do in the present and future.
As our Lord taught us: While it is still time, fill our lamps with oil.
"And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast; and the door was shut. Afterward the other maidens came also, saying, 'Lord, lord, open to us.' But he replied, 'Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.' Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour" (Mat. 25: 1-13).
Behavioral psychology can be useful in planning. Instead of using vague abstract terms, like "I will try and do better," I recommend concrete, specific pinpointed tasks along the order of: I resolve to ____________ (with the concrete action written in). I give specific behavioral homework assignments and require the penitent or patient to report if and when they are completed. For example, an alcoholic may be assigned to list, call and make an appointment at treatment center by, say, noon the next day and report back to me with the exact list, people he spoke with, the time he called, and more. Obviously the homework assignments are targeted to the specific problems (or sins) the individual struggles with.
If repentance changed Peter who denied Christ into a leader of the apostles, the disciples who fled from the Cross into founders of the Church, or Saul the Pharisee who martyred Christians into Paul the great missionary, so too can we, despite our failures and sins, become zealous disciples of Christ for the rest of our lives. Jesus told us that he who has been forgiven much loves much (Luke 7:47). This is love in action, not self-flagellation, and can be the greatest and most joyful way to overcome sin. "O Happy Guilt" encompasses the true meaning of guilt that can be the source of our liberation, healing and deification.
Bandura, A. (1974). Behavior Theories and Models of Man. American Psychologist, 29, 859-869.
Burns, D. (1980). Feeling Good: The new mood therapy. New York: Avon
Catechism of the Catholic Church. (1996). Washington, DC: National Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Chryssavgis, J. (1990). Repentance and Confession. Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Press.
Ellis, A. (1962). Reason and emotion in psychotherapy. New York: Lyle Stuart.
Erickson, E. H. (1950). Childhood and Society. New York: Norton
Meyendorff, J. (1974). Byzantine Theology. New York: Fordham University.
Morelli, G. (2001). Response to Faros In J. Chirban (Ed), Sickness or Sin? Spiritual discernment and differential diagnosis. Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press.
Morelli, G. (2004). Christian Asceticism and Cognitive Behavioral Psychology. In S. Muse (Ed.), Raising Lazarus: Integrating Healing in Orthodox Christianity. Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press.
Staniloae, D. (2003). Orthodox Spirituality. South Canaan, PA: St. Tikhon's Seminary Press.
Stapakis, B.S. (2004). The Philokalia: Master reference guide. Minneapolis: Light & Life.
Stravinskas, P. M. J. (1991). The Catholic Encyclopedia. Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor
Vlachos, Bishop Hierotheos, (1994). Orthodox psychotherapy: The science of the fathers. Levadia, Greece: Birth of the Theotokos Monastery.
Ware, T. (1984). The Orthodox Church. London: Penguin.
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V. Rev. Fr. George Morelli Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and Marriage and Family Therapist.
He is the Coordinator of the Chaplaincy and Pastoral Counseling Ministry of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese and Religion Coordinator (and Antiochian Archdiocesan Liaison) of the Orthodox Christian Association of Medicine, Psychology and Religion.
Fr. Morelli is also Assistant Pastor of St. George's Antiochian Orthodox Church, San Diego, California.
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