Guilt and Grace

Do not remember the former things,

or consider the things of old[…]

-Isaiah 43:18


The greatest blessing in disguise when it comes to mental health recovery is the self-awareness that you suddenly receive. On one hand, it’s great: you can start to understand where behaviours come from and how you can learn to live with your condition. But it also brings with it a keen sting of embarrassment, as you distance yourself from events and realise just how ill you’ve been and how much it’s impacted on your behaviour. Repentance asks you to both relive things you’d rather forget and take ownership of actions you’d rather relinquish. In order to make any headway, you have to work through that process and so much more besides, until you arrive at the point when you can say ‘I did these things, I am sorry for these things, I am ready to change myself so I never do these things again’. This is no easy feat.

The natural desire to dwell on and overanalyse past words and deeds ensures that we feel an inescapable guilt. Instinct makes us want to atone for the past, as if we can somehow undo what has been done.  Having to do this for actions which are, I believe, largely due to my mental health feels like constantly having to apologise for an embarrassing acquaintance that you wish would go away. I assume that people constantly judge me on my past conduct, that nothing I do now can ‘fix’ the broken image people have of me. This makes ownership of the events even harder, and is probably why it’s taken me so long to come to terms with them. The guilt that comes with this is horribly toxic, and ignores the fact that the commandment to love our neighbour as we love ourselves works both ways: we also need to love and be kind to ourselves just as much as we are to others.

It’s easy to frame repentance as simply remorse and apology, but it’s so much more. It’s about changing past behaviours, and this can’t be done without a good deal of moving forward and moving on. Dwelling on the past, focused on feelings of embarrassement and shame, won’t change anything: it cannot reshape the present. Learning about yourself, about why you’ve done certain things, and what you can do to stop them happening again, is the change that matters. The act of confession in the Anglican Church says nothing about God helping us to make up for past transgressions. Instead, it calls us to ‘serve [God] in  newness of life’. The focus is on leading a new way, asking God to ‘lead us out from darkness / to walk as children of light’. At no point do we ask God to fix the past: only to help us leave it behind.

So, then we get to the difficult task of moving on. How can we make headway after having done terrible things?  Put simply: grace. Grace is the undeserved gift which forgives us, inviting, even insisting, that we leave the past and look to the future. Grace gives us leave to put guilt and shame aside, to realise that we cannot change the past and that it no longer has any hold over us. Grace gives us the freedom to change. God’s saving gift of grace to us through Jesus is greater than any transgression we could ever commit. Human instinct demands justice for actions, and the cost of grace is turning aside from the human way of doing things. Justice is God’s alone,  but instead of justice, God has chosen grace. We must choose it too.