Without the Guilt

There’s one advertising phrase that always stops me when I see it. Maybe it’s because it’s on a lot of products marketed to women, maybe it’s because of my line of work, but it just always strikes me right in the gut.

It’s “without the guilt.” As in, “Frozen ice cream – without the guilt!” “Chocolate – without the guilt!” “Being alive and taking up space in the world – without the guilt!” (I may or may not have made up that last one).

It’s always on low fat foods to imply that every time you consume the full-calorie version, you are filled with joy but also overwhelming guilt, that you’re doing something wrong by having it. Now that there’s a low fat version, you get all the flavor with the added deliciousness of moral purity.

As a motto for food, I both get it and think it’s a little icky – the motivation for health should be health, not more wrapping up of food with feelings of sadness and inadequacy. But as a motto for religion – that’s where I find it most interesting.

Particularly in the U.S., particularly with Christianity, people tend to associate faith with either the piling on of guilt, or its cheap expiation. You’ve got the self-righteous Christians who because they go to church get to never question themselves and just point out the guilt in everybody else, and you’ve got the guilt and shame-racked Christians who spend a lot of time trying to make up for who they are, unable to feel any joy in existing. In both cases, those advocating for joining the faith and those advocating for leaving get to advertise their visions as “Life – without the guilt!”

But the reality, and the ideal Kingdom church, are a lot grayer. The resurrection and redemption of Jesus Christ don’t mean wallowing in or avoiding guilt for the everyday hurts we inflict on one another. They mean the ability to face our regrets honestly, knowing that we are made good, we sometimes do and/or feel bad, and there is always hope for things to get better with listening, community, and God.

And, discipleship to Christ hopefully leads down a path towards no shame (remember that?! back in the Garden, before stupid clothes?), in who we are or what we feel. We’re creation, we’re God’s children, we’re full of great stuff. But many of us are carrying around suitcases of shame not for things we’ve done that we’d now do differently, but for just existing – having bodies, being different from others, or our assumption of judgment or dislike from everyone we meet.

To my mind this kind of bitter self-hatred isn’t guilt at all. I’ts not the pin-pricking of conscience in response to a sense that we have pushed ourselves away from God or our fellow man. It’s the internalizing of society’s sickness, in not being able to see the beauty of what God has made.

So no, in my faith I haven’t found a life without the guilt. But what I have found in my relationship with God, in the imperfect and vulnerable community of the church, in the example of Jesus’s teachings, is a place to bring the guilt, make my amends (however clumsily), and watch it grow into something fruitful and healthy. I’m not afraid to admit my failings, because I no longer believe that eliminating all my failings is what a good life looks like. I have found a place to bring the shame, and have it touched with the tender hand of God’s love.

For each of us, the journey to making friends with our guilt & shame will be different. But I hope we don’t turn to either papering over it, or being convinced it’s the only thing about us that matters. There’s a lot of room in between, and that room is where an accountable, truthful, generous life is to be found.

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