Too much sin and guilt, not enough forgiveness?

We human beings can feel guilty enough about ourselves and the things we have done without the need for the church to amplify the effect on our shame and guilt. I included the word ‘can’ because some people don’t feel guilty about things they have done that others might judge as wrong – sometimes very wrong. But let’s think about those who are members of the average Sunday morning congregation – I’m hoping that as Christians, they will have a reasonable awareness of right and wrong and a reasonably developed moral framework.

Sunday worship at churches I attend routinely incorporates a form of confession and absolution. They are an essential ingredient of the services included in Common Worship. I think the inclusion of confession and absolution is questionable and potentially damaging. As I said at the start, human beings feel guilty enough about themselves without the need for the church to emphasise our guilt.

Or am I wrong? Is it necessary to our psychodynamic processing of our guilty feelings that the guilt must be named and we must be reminded of the sin we carry before we can be forgiven and feel forgiven?

How do I feel forgiven is a question I’ve often pondered? I think feelings of guilt can be hauntingly present all the time and are not easily dismissed by the act of confession of sins and absolution in the context of Sunday worship, every Sunday. I feel shame and guilt easily, often about things that are not shameful or that I’m not guilty of – like enjoying sex. Feeling guilty comes easily. But the feelings related to the process of forgiveness can take a lifetime. It is a process, a gradual process, in which painful, emotionally charged memories of guilt and shame are dissolved, memories that lodge in our physical system like stab wounds in our hearts.

We may be aware of their presence without locating them as a presence in our bodies. Our minds may identify them and think about them but they are not head things – the location of guilt and shame is in our chest cavity, our heart and lungs and diaphragm – that where the haunting, stabbing pain of memory is located.

The church has a liturgically incorporated process to focus people on their sinfulness and a mechanism, forgiveness that aims to deal with sin and guilt. Some traditions personalise this, offering times when people can come and ‘make their confession, in private, one-to-one, with a priest. I tried this once, a long time ago. The process didn’t work for me.

What, then, might work? Where are the systems that can help people process their feelings of shame and guilt and relieve the pain they feel? Where is a system that can provide healing from the internalised shame and guilt often ingested in childhood? Where is the system that can free us from the church’s insidious attempts to maintain people’s feelings of guilt? I believe the church system contributes to the systemic abuse in the church revealed in the IICSA hearings, abuse, says Linda Woodhead, underpinned by bad theology.

Two practical answers to the question I’ve asked come to mind. One is the process of long term psychotherapy and psychoanalysis and the other is the charism of spiritual direction, also long term. Both need to be with people wise enough and secure enough to be free from those Christian teachings that inhibit and corrupt rather than expand a person’s innate spiritual wisdom and gift of love. The aim is to help a person flourish having overcome shame and guilt and found confidence in their inner goodness and beauty.

I have experience of both psychotherapy and spiritual direction and know that both can be effective and profoundly transformational. Are these two disciplines the answer to the question I raise about overcoming the effect of sin and guilt? Guilt arrives so easily and can linger for a lifetime. They are contributions to an answer. There may be other effective processes. One other process is necessary. The church needs to ensure that enough Christians in positions of influence, from archbishops to parish clergy and lay leaders, are aware of the damage caused by a persistent focus on guilt and sin and our ‘sinful bodies’. They all need to understand that helping people overcome sin and guilt by finding deep confidence in their inner goodness is far more important than regular reminders about their sinfulness.