The Weight of Past MistakesFr. Barnabas Powell
Edgar Allen Poe writes the psychologically terrifying “Tell Tale Heart” and we watch as the guilt from a murder drives the murderer crazy thinking he hears the heartbeat of his victim. This guilt is destructive to the man in the story and we can readily understand the horror of such a story because we. too, have felt the guilt of past wrongs.
In fact, there have been whole religious systems devised to warn us about the dangers of doing wrong by using guilt and shame to scare us away from bad choices. I get the motivations behind such religious warnings, but I can’t help but notice how weak these religious motivations using guilt and shame ultimately prove themselves to be. I mean, after all, if guilt and shame really worked to keep us free from bad choices why do we still make them?
I’ll tell you why. They don’t work once someone gets beyond about three years old! We get numb to guilt and shame after a while BUT we don’t get free from the caustic effects of guilt and shame. See the trap? We won’t stop making bad choices AND we keep piling on feelings of guilt and shame which, in turn, enslaves us to more bad choices! How do we get free from this dead-end living?
Look at our lesson today in Luke 9:7-11:
At that time, Herod the tetrarch heard of all that was done by Jesus, and he was perplexed, because it was said by some that John had been raised from the dead, by some that Elijah had appeared, and by others that one of the old prophets had risen. Herod said, “John I beheaded; but who is this about whom I hear such things?” And he sought to see him. On their return the apostles told him what they had done. And he took them and withdrew apart to a city called Bethsaida. When the crowds learned it, they followed him; and he welcomed them and spoke to them of the kingdom of God, and cured those who had need of healing.
The Lord’s ministry coming on the heels of St. John the Forerunner’s martyrdom at the hands of Herod Antipas, the king causes much distress to Herod over his guilt at having John beheaded. Herod’s life goes downhill from here and his nagging guilt torments him. Antipas would die in exile as the political winds shifted against him in Rome.
But isn’t that a fitting example of the power of guilt? Exile. Guilt causes us to constantly second-guess ourselves; and to question our choices. But it can also embolden our foolish pride and make us hide from our feelings of guilt and shame over past mistakes. Guilt usually serves to drive us into exile from our true selves and creates a constant, low-grade fever of shame that eventually infects all our relationships around us. Feelings of guilt and shame drive us away from God and others and even our own selves into the exile of the desert of loneliness.
No wonder such untreated guilt does such damage to us!
The Faith invites us to another path. This path has us confront our sins and bad choices head-on and immediately before such caustic soul sickness can grow within our lives. St. John Chrysostom says in his homily “On Repentance and Almsgiving”: “Do not be ashamed to enter again into the Church. Be ashamed when you sin. Do not be ashamed when you repent. Pay attention to what the devil did to you. These are two things: sin and repentance. Sin is a wound; repentance is a medicine. Just as there are for the body wounds and medicines, so for the soul are sins and repentance. However, sin has the shame and repentance possesses the courage.” The New Testament calls this “godly sorrow.” Here’s what St. Paul tells the Corinthians: “For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death.”
Guilt is nothing more than the worldly sorrow that produces death in our lives. Godly sorrow is that twinge you sense in your heart after having gone down the wrong path. The danger is to become so desensitized by ignoring that first warning in your conscience that you don’t take the opportunity to repent soon enough! But it doesn’t have to be with way in your life! You can abandon the guilt and run to the God Who loves you in repentance and He WILL forgive you!
Another way to think about this freedom in Christ is at the heart of WHY the Church has only called a few saints “Theologians.” To be sure, we moderns are quick to name people “theologians” if they’ve received a degree in theology. But this is not the way of the Faith. It’s because “theology” literally means the knowing of God, not just knowing about God, but actually being in relationship with God and living a life that demonstrates how that love has transformed the person’s life. One such “Theologian” is St. Symeon, the New Theologian. Only two other saints have been named by the Church “Theologian:” St. John the Beloved Disciple and St. Gregory, the patriarch of Constantinople. What marked St. Symeon as a fellow Theologian was his deep devotion to Christ and his serious life of prayer. His intimacy with God was achieved because he refused to allow any hindrance or wall to stand between him and Jesus Christ. He was quick to confess, quick to repent, quick to pray, and quick to have his mind focused on Christ as the very first thought in his head and the last Name on his lips before sleep. This purposeful intimacy flowed from St. Symeon’s conviction that it was knowing God first and foremost that was the key to knowing himself and understanding the world he lived in. Outside of that focused living, there was only despair, guilt, and shame. And that wasn’t how we were created to live by the God Who loves us more than we ourselves know how to love. St. Symeon died in 1022 AD after a life of example and piety. His writings and insights are still read and studied today because he didn’t just know “about” God; he took the time to actually “KNOW” God.
Today, are you living under the weight of past mistakes? Is guilt exiling you away from God and others? Drop that heavy load at the feet of Jesus and let Him heal your wounded soul with His loving forgiveness today. Get to confession and live Orthodox on Purpose!
P.S. Since you had received within your pure soul God’s enlightenment, O righteous Father, you were shown to the world as a blazing light which drove away its thick darkness and moved all men to seek the grace of the Spirit which they had lost. O all-holy Father Symeon, intercede with Him to grant great mercy unto us who honor you.