Religious guilt: How can we cope when we fail God? - opinion

Accumulated religious guilt can become so overbearing that the only escape seems to be the abandonment of religion.

 Moving on from guilt is vital for inner emotional equilibrium (Illustrative). (photo credit: K. Mitch Hodge/Unsplash)
Moving on from guilt is vital for inner emotional equilibrium (Illustrative).
(photo credit: K. Mitch Hodge/Unsplash)

Failure is inherent to human behavior and deeply woven into religious experience. Despite our best efforts to rise above our weaknesses, we all inevitably fail. 

King Solomon spoke of a righteous person falling and recovering seven times. In general, he was correct, but he grossly understated the number of times we actually fall. We all wish it were only seven.

In the aftermath of a religious breakdown, we experience the heavy but absolutely vital emotion of guilt. God watches our behavior and when we fail, we let Him and ourselves down. A healthy degree of guilt is crucial for religious growth and for moral conduct. Guilt is the quiet whisper of our conscience prodding us to accept responsibility and improve ourselves. Without this whisper, we risk religious free-fall. Guilt is a tender and authentic moment of religious integrity, gifted to us from God Himself. 

But God also expects us to move on from failure, bear our guilt, and find closure. Moving on from guilt is vital for inner emotional equilibrium and is also essential if we are to forgive others and accept their imperfections. If we can’t forgive ourselves, it is almost impossible to accept the imperfections and frailties of others. Under the suffocating weight of guilt, we have little generosity of spirit to spare. The people in our lives need us to feel less guilty and more charitable. 

Managing guilt is easier said than done, and there are many unhealthy byproducts of imbalanced religious guilt. 

 OUR GENERATION has seen a retreat from studying the ‘why’ of Judaism. (credit: PIXABAY) OUR GENERATION has seen a retreat from studying the ‘why’ of Judaism. (credit: PIXABAY)

Depression from guilt 

Too much guilt can thrust us into dark spaces of depression and despair. Reuben, the first-born son of Jacob, is a tragic figure in part because he could not manage his own guilt. Twice he intruded upon his father’s marital affairs: once intentionally and once unintentionally, by collecting flowers that would ultimately be bartered by his mother for his father’s marital attention.

Feeling guilty about these breaches, he cannot muster the inner strength and confidence to decisively rescue his brother Joseph from being sold into slavery. Low in self-esteem, Reuben isn’t bold enough to rescue his brother, despite his well-intended intervention. Divested of his courage and suffering diminished self-esteem, he cannot act daringly to defy his murderous brothers.  

The Torah legislates a chatat sacrifice (sin-offering) to help us better recover from sin and better manage our guilt. Notably, the sacrifice is called a sin-offering and not a sacrifice of a sinner. To move on from guilt, we must separate between the deed and the doer. We may have committed a crime, but that doesn’t make us criminals. Sin and guilt mustn’t define us, even as we face the full brunt of our actions and accept the consequences of failure. Committing a sin doesn’t make us sinful people. 

Accumulated religious guilt can become so overbearing that the only escape seems to be the abandonment of religion. It is unpleasant to wake up every morning and feel burdened with guilt, and many walk out of religion to liberate themselves from this weight. The albatross of guilt is too intimidating, forcing many to just check out of religion entirely. 

Religion doesn’t mean getting it all right all the time. It does mean accepting God’s will and trying to get it all right. Everyone fails, but religious people wake up the day after failure, wipe off the dust and get back into the ring. Guilt is healthy, but feeling perennially guilty is not.

Compulsive religion 

Even when religious guilt doesn’t spill over into depression, it can wreak havoc with emotional well-being. Religious people feel duty-bound to adhere to religious expectations and to avoid sin. Steadfast dedication to duty and the accompanying dread of failure can lead to neurosis. 

Obsession with “getting it right” and the panic of possible religious failure can drive us into compulsive religious behavior. We force ourselves into repetitive behaviors or repetitive mental acts to calm our anxiety. 

Common examples of compulsive behavior include repeatedly washing hands or repeating prayers for fear of missing a few words. In our frantic attempt to avoid guilt, we desperately over-perform religious duties. Afraid of failure and guilt, we instead become addicted to uncontrollable and harmful behavior.

Even if guilt doesn’t cause compulsive behavior, it can still poison the overall taste of religious experience. Guilt-based religion feels heavy and suffocating rather than grand and beautiful. Religion starts to feel dark and menacing rather than radiant and redeeming. It becomes an obstacle course of potential hazards rather than a horizon of opportunity. 

Preoccupied with fear and dread, there is little room in our imagination for spirit and vision. Guilt is crucial for a healthy religious lifestyle, but it must be carefully managed and should not become overwhelming. 

Deflecting guilt 

While some indulge too deeply in guilt, others desperately attempt to flee from it. One of the easiest methods of avoiding guilt is to deflect it, blaming someone else or something else for our failures. By shifting blame, we transfer guilt from ourselves to other forces. 

Blaming is toxic to relationships and can even become abusive. “Gaslighting” is a modern term that describes people who engage in sustained hostile and manipulative behavior. One aggressive form of gaslighting is constantly shifting blame to someone else, making that person feel perpetually guilty, thereby reducing his or her self-esteem. 

Modern cultural influences have made blame-shifting easier. Over the past three centuries, we have discovered that we are merely small, powerless cogs in a bigger engine, at the mercy of forces larger than ourselves. Whether these forces are political, economic or psychological, we aren’t responsible for our own behavior. 

Marx asserted that human history was driven by class warfare over the distribution of wealth. Darwin traced human behavior to evolutionary survivalist instincts. Freud suggested that we are driven by dark psychological forces beyond our control, namely our hatred of our father and our desire for our mother. 

Taken together, Darwin, Marx and Freud re-landscaped a world of free choice into an ironclad deterministic world where humans cannot determine their fate or their decisions and are therefore not responsible for their choices or their failures. Someone else or something else is to blame for our shortcomings. Given our lack of control, guilt just gets in the way of happiness and should be banished. It makes us weak or neurotic, and usually both. 

Replacement guilt 

An additional modern strategy for avoiding genuine guilt is replacing it with substitute guilt. “White guilt” is the belief that privileged races should feel guilty for global inequalities predicated upon historical injustices. Often, this form of political guilt replaces actual moral guilt, thereby freeing people to behave without moral constraint or without personal introspection. After all, if I am consumed with guilt for the underprivileged, I must possess moral integrity. 

Adopting fake guilt for entire races of oppressed people is a manner of virtue-signaling by which people convince themselves that they are ethical people. Sadly, people become so absorbed with guilt over classes of people they haven’t met and don’t live alongside, that they don’t have time to feel guilty about actual moral and religious failures in their private lives and in their personal relationships. In an age of globalism, political morality sometimes replaces actual moral behavior. White guilt is just one example. 

Guilt is one of our most precious emotions and mustn’t be ignored or denied. Just the same, overindulgence in religious guilt can deflate our spirit and degrade the quality of our religious experience.  

The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has smicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University, as well as an MA in English literature from the City University of New York.