Biblical Mental and Emotional Health
Lesson 5 a
In his book How to Stop Feeling Guilty, Dr. Vernon Coleman tells the story of a young man who spent the evening partying at a pub and drank more than he should have. When he drove his car home that night, he wasn’t very alert. As he turned a corner, he felt that he had hit something. But he ignored whatever it was, drove on home, and went to bed.
The next day, when his mind was clearer, he remembered the thud he’d felt the night before. He looked at the front of his car and saw that it was dented, and then he calculated where on his route home it was likely that he had the collision. Later that day, he read in the newspaper that on the previous night, in the place where he surmised he’d felt the bump, a vehicle had struck an old woman, killing her, and then had left the scene of the accident. The young man concluded that he had killed the woman, but, fearing the consequences, he chose to remain silent.
From that time on, guilt plagued the man. He rehearsed the scene many a time and felt miserable about it – eventually, even having auditory hallucinations. He often considered making a confession, but he never did. Some twenty years after the event, he decided that he couldn’t stand the guilt he felt any longer and committed suicide. He left a note, in which he explained that he was the irresponsible driver who had killed the woman found that night twenty years earlier.
The police investigating the case consulted the newspaper story of the woman’s death. They found that the reporter who wrote the newspaper story had made a mistake. The old lady had been killed at the same place where the man had felt the bump, but she had died on the night before he had his accident – so obviously, somebody else had hit her!
Guilt is the remorseful awareness of having done something morally wrong. Feeling guilty is one of the most uncomfortable experiences people endure. In addition to being highly unpleasant and at time incapacitating, it may cause shame, sorry, anger, anxiety, distress, and even organic illness. There are several levels of guilt, from guilt based on a true violation of a universal principle to the neurotic guilt that, though totally unfounded, dominates someone’s mind and makes life miserable with no redeeming purpose.
Transgression of the moral law brings a sense of guilt. This is a good thing. It is the mechanism God put into place to make His creatures aware that sin always bring pain to oneself and to others. This is the guilt that a father may experience after losing his temper and verbally abusing his wife and children. Moments later, he may feel awful, with no appetite, be unable to sleep, and have muscular pains and self-hatred. Although some people resist this emotion until they become used to it, other feel compelled to repent, ask the wronged persons and God for forgiveness, and do what they can to diminish the chances of it happening again. This is real redemptive guilt, and it often brings good results. We’ll look at several Bible stories in which guilt was the main motive behind people’s behavior.
The Ultimatum Game
Even a little bit of guilt may prove useful, as shown in a study conducted by Timothy Ketelaar from the University of California, Los Angeles and Wing Tun Au from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. They selected seventy-two undergraduate students, grouped them in pairs and asked them to play the ultimatum gave. The researchers told each pair they could share nineteen dollars. Partner one was to make an offer on how to share the money – a single offer in a sealed envelope. Partner two couldn’t alter the offer or pose a counteroffer; he or she had to simply accept it or reject it. If partner two accepted the offer, the money was divided between the two of them. If not, the researchers kept the money.
Characteristically, partner twos tended to reject very low offers. In other words, rather than accept an offer that would bring them a little money – and the partner ones considerably more – they preferred to reject the money altogether to punish the greedy partner who wanted the lion’s share of the money.
Sometimes when a partner two accepted a low offer, the partner one experienced guilt. Ketelaar and Au found this when they administered a guilt scale to the thirty-six partner ones in their study. The researchers repeated the game one week later, and they found that those who felt guilty in the first game raised their offer considerably in the second game even though their partners were likely to accept their low offers. Their guilt moved them toward fairness.
When we feel guilty about inconsequential or nonexistent matters, guilt can be a nuisance or even a psychological burden. The people who are overly sensitive to guilt are those who experience it for irrelevant things. Those people score high on a personality trait call guilt-proneness. In these cases, guilt becomes a barrier rather than a means of improvement. One example would be a woman who is bothered by guilt for several hours because she ate a cookie when she hadn’t intended to eat any. Or a man who feels guilty because, due to the pressure of time, he passed one of his neighbors without stopping and chatting for a few minutes. Guilt-prone individuals can be manipulated easily. Children know this well; they soon discover which parent will yield to a request when it is accompanied with a pout.
There are still more pathological forms of guilt in which the mechanism malfunctions and makes people feel guilty about something for which they aren’t responsible. This is called neurotic guilt. It doesn’t necessarily go away with time but often needs the intervention of a mental health professional. Examples of this kind of guilt include survivors of a calamity who feel guilty because their friends or family lost their lives, and nothing happened to them. The family of someone who committed suicide may feel responsible for the loss. Children whose parents divorce may experience guilty feelings because they think they cause the split. These experiences of guilt cause much psychological pain and emotional turmoil with no apparent purpose.
Let’s examine four Biblical accounts in which people experienced guilt – the stories of Adam and Eve, Joseph’s brothers, David, and Peter. A look at their lives can teach us how to make good use of the emotions.