Guilt is only useful insofar as it points to a change that you can make. Otherwise just let it go. – Beverly Wildung Harrison, (1932-2012) feminist Christian ethicist, professor, and scholar
Just how much do you let God be God? I admit that I’m not very good at doing the “let go and let God” thing. I was raised to be independent and self-reliant with several helpings of Texas stubborn swirled in to boot. But my heart stood still when Bev Harrison made the comment above in a summer class I took that she co-taught with her brilliant collaborator in life and academia, Carter Heyward.
My heart stopped because guilt can be such a debilitating and powerful force. I have watched so many congregants and friends lose their faith, and sometimes their minds, over feelings of guilt. And more often times than not, the guilt is the residual feeling of regret that something didn’t turn out well – no fault need be applied and no change is necessary. But the guilt persists and no amount of rational analysis of the incident or situation seems to help. It starts with, “if only I . . .” or “I can’t believe that I did (or did not) do . . . ” As if we can indict, convict, and pronounce ourselves guilty with superficial hindsight. We fail to let God be God and we judge ourselves harshly.
On the other hand, of course, guilt is very useful when it leads us to make a change that we can and must make. If my actions are hurtful, disrespectful, or harmful, I need to make amends. It is my responsibility to use those feelings of guilt to propel me to put things right again. So many, many, many longstanding feuds and fights could have been ended by a simple apology done with sincerity and as soon as possible after the harm. Wars have been started because leaders could not heed their guilty feelings generated by wrongdoing and make peace.
Unfortunately this self-awareness is in pretty short supply and we as a culture aren’t very good at helping each other learn to live in right relation. We judge each other constantly and we heap guilt on one another. In other instances, we fail to hold each other accountable assuming that our silence about poor behavior or perceived wrong will actually make positive change.
But for those of us who do manage to be somewhat self-aware, what do we do with all the residual guilt that lives in us for no discernible purpose? “Just let it go”, Harrison advises. Easier said than done because “letting go” means that we trust someone or something more than we trust ourselves. It means we have to trust God.
For those of you who have read more than one of these advent blog posts, you know what I will say next: practice, practice, practice! If we want to learn to let go with big things, we have to practice with small things. In my own relationships, I am working to be more laid-back and easy going. I try to say “yes” more than I say “no”. This is a practice in the art of letting go of control and it can be very daunting.
Because I’ve spent much of my life feeling somewhat powerless – especially during the dying years when I lost so many friends and colleagues to HIV/AIDS – being “in control” is comforting to me. I used to teach in my grief and spirituality classes the value of just “doing the dishes”. There were times that the act of consciously and slowly washing a sink full of dirty dishes was deeply satisfying. I couldn’t stop the dying, but I could do the dishes. It was a project that had a beginning, middle, and end and ALL of it was within my complete control. It really is a helpful spiritual discipline that has the added value that you have a clean kitchen all the time! This time of year, doing the dishes is also a great way to keep my hands warm . . .
Still, my great practice of highly-spiritualized dish washing has made me a bit of a control freak in the kitchen. I want things done “my way”, thank you very much. Not exactly useful in relationship or in community settings even though this personal practice has served me quite well for a long time. So noticing my tendencies towards being a control freak in the kitchen and learning to let go and let someone else do it their way is a great practice towards the larger goal of letting go of big things that haunt me. And I admit it does help if I trust and respect my kitchen mate too.
Our relationship with God needs the same attention. How are you going to let go and let God if you don’t trust and respect God? Hmmmm . . . how do we build that up? There are many folks who would label themselves “spiritual, but not religious” and I think: wow, how will you ever learn to trust God without any mentors and teachers and friends in faith?
Learning to trust God and have faith happens best, in my opinion, when we are in an intentional community. A community that worships, struggles, serves, and learns together. Bev Harrison died over the weekend and has left behind an unbelievable number of students, friends, and colleagues who were touched by her generous heart and brilliant mind. As a community going forward we will honor her well by helping each other discern whether our guilt is useful and by teaching one another to let go of the guilt that serves no purpose whatsoever.
It also helps to spend time in nature and remember like the psalmist, “who are we that you are mindful of us O God?” Oceans and mountains, night skies, and far horizons stretch us to think beyond ourselves and give us a sense of the majesty of a creator that can be trusted with our lives.