ER: Is it easier to feel guilt than forgiveness?

Someone sent me a link to a recent ER show where a dying man is talking to a chaplain about his guilt and whether or not he can be forgiven for his taking innocent life. While some of the chaplain’s comments are relativistic mumbo-jumbo, she has one very insightful comment.  The dying man says something to suggest he can’t make up for his sins. The chaplain says,

“[Sometimes I think] it’s easier to feel guilt than forgiven….that your guilt is your reason for living…but maybe you need something else to live for.”

I may not have gotten that quote just right at the end as I was scribbling it down. But, this line is very powerful. In fact, some make a living out of guilt, depression, hopelessness, etc. They can’t imagine life any different. Pride makes it hard to give up what feels to have become a central feature to their identity. While her counsel was terrible, she was right on the money about the nature of guilt and the difficulty in giving it up. He would have to accept that he received something he did not deserve and could never pay back.  


Filed under counseling, cultural apologetics, Forgiveness

4 responses to “ER: Is it easier to feel guilt than forgiveness?

  1. Scott Knapp, MS

    In my conceptualization of pathology, I always look back to the Garden of Eden. We’re made with dignity, but marred with depravity…we’re “glorious ruins” as Larry Crabb would say. If non-biological pathology arises from my deep-rooted commitment to establish myself as an independent god, apart from God, it would be more germane to live with the feelings of guilt until I discovered some means of my own procurement by which to erase or rectify it…to accept forgiveness is tantamount to acknowledging that my powerlessness to establish and maintain my own diety and independence. Living with guilt, in light of the Gospel, is chosen stubbornness. The notion of having to “forgive myself” of anything is simply another devious strategy to protect my deeper, more insidious agenda. Accepting forgiveness requires that I acknowledge that I’m measured against a standard I cannot meet, and am wholly powerless to absolve or excuse myself…I am not a god! Everything around me in my everyday living reminds me of that fact…every little irritation that proves to me that I’m ultimately powerless to order my world to support my delusion and satisfy my deepest longings. Forgiveness cannot be embraced without a radical shift in worship direction taking place at the deepest level of the soul…to embrace forgiveness from God is truly one of the first acts of worship we can engage in.

  2. Insightful discussion. Many religious people fail to realize this, and some even confess Christ verbally. One significant point that I will add to the discussion is that if one cannot accept forgiveness for themselves, how will they be able to forgive anyone else? It seems that people who hard on others are either merciless to themselves or severely deluded about their own goodness and worth.

  3. Kirk,

    Welcome. Nice to “see” you. Good point as well.

    Scott, I really like your last sentence…to embrace forgiveness is our first act of worship.

  4. Scott Knapp, MS

    Dr. Phil, thanks so much for the kind word. Re-reading your post reminded me of something. I took my Cognitive Therapy training from the eminent Aaron T. Beck, MD there in Philly, and had the privilege of seeing the master in live action therapy with a woman diagnosed with, among other things, Narcissistic Personality on Axis II. Beck focused on doing his CT “dog and pony show,” to demonstrate his Beck-ian technique, and proceeded to try to fix the lady’s presenting discontentment by zeroing in on her automatic thoughts. While doing this, however, her narcissism was leaking out all over the floor while Beck was busy dusting the cobwebs in the ceiling corners! It was obvious to many of us that her thinking was badly distorted by her narcissistic “lens”, and at the end of the session, although she was effusing to Dr. Beck about what a privilege it was to be seen by him, she walked out of the office just as committed to approaching her world as a narcissist as when she came in. Later in group processing, I gently challenged Dr. Beck about some of my observations (respectfully, though…the man is practically an institution!), and suggested that the secondary gain of her narcissistic perspective had short-circuited her willingness to sincerely examine her automatic thoughts. Beck looked at me with that same look waiters in foreign countries give Americans when they try to order food in a language they haven’t quite mastered…and more or less dismissed my assertion that his valiant efforts to treat this woman’s problems were misguided because he hadn’t given sufficient attention to such a petty matter as “secondary gain”! At that moment, I had an epiphany…”secondary gain” isn’t secondary…the things that perpetuate pathology are really “primary” and they really are matters of “worship”! I’ve sat with some of my counselees, examined with them and helped them dismantle the distortions of their thinking and watched them defy air-tight reasoning and even their own rational conclusions about the rediculousness of some of their thinking, in order to hold tight to their pathology. The only way one can do something like that is when it’s an act of worship, and that kind of worship is pure idolatry! And this is precisely why I’m convinced that the movement of the Holy Spirit is absolutely indispensable in the counseling process, since only the Holy Spirit can bring truly meaningful conviction of sin and idolatry in the heart. How else would a committed idolater get past the delusions of “having to forgive myself” and clutching desperately at guilt, in order to stand naked and exposed before the all-seeing eyes of God? If I had never been in that same situation, facing my own desperate, idolatrous heart, I’d never have the courage to ask someone else to go there, either…and as a therapist I’d be stuck doing technique-y “dog and pony shows” with my clients.

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