Monthly Archives: July 2013

The Uselessness of Guilt

 The Uselessness of Guilt – Jacob’s story


Jacob’s guilt offering.

Jesus talks about the difference between things which are outside of us, and things which are inside.  And it is from inside that true evil comes, not outside.  I think that this is about motivation, the reason why we do things rather than what we actually do.  I would also say that the truly good things come from inside.

Jesus was talking about the issue of washing one’s hands before eating – something we all do, and teach our children to do but we do it because not to do so has health risks, rather than to honour God.  We may also honour God with some kind of ‘Grace’ or prayer of thanks for our food – but we’ve separated that from the physical act of washing.  Would that prayer of thanks for food have value if it were just ‘from the outside’ – a mere form of words?  I think not; the prayer, indeed all prayers, need to come from inside – from our motivation to thank God, honour God, or to seek his help.

The first part of Jacob’s story here has always left a ‘sour taste’ in my mouth. When I really thought about that I realised that it feels as if he’s bribing Esau.  What he stole from him was part of his very sense of identity, his position as the elder son.  He has taken something from inside and offers stuff from outside in its place – livestock.  The father’s blessing that Esau lost by Jacob’s deception can’t be replaced by a few sheep and cattle.

Jacob could be making a ‘peace offering’ – a gesture – ‘I can’t put it right but I’m truly sorry’, or he could be offering a bribe.  What is inside – his motivation is unclear?  Is it true repentance, or is it cowardice?  Presumably by the time he’d wrestled with God all night his ‘inside’ had been put to rights, whatever his motivation might have been to start with.

Of course, Jacob could have been feeling guilty.  When I was quite young I decided to abandon the whole concept of ‘guilt’.  I decided instead to accept responsibility for the outcomes of my actions, and if bad, I must take any opportunity to put things right.  If no such opportunity occurs I can pray for them to do so.  If it’s simply beyond me – then all I can do is to place the problem in God’s hands.  He has shown me many times his astonishing ability to bring good out of evil.  I’ve seen it in my own life many times but any time I doubt it I need only look at Jesus, dying on the cross.  The greatest possible good from the greatest possible evil.

So why did I decide to abandon the whole idea of guilt?  I suspect the word relates to ‘gold’.  The ancient laws in the Celtic world defined a value for every life.  If you killed someone, you had to pay that value to their family.  But if someone close to you had been killed – how could money possibly replace them?  Money is of the outside, both the motivation of the killer and your hurt are of the inside.  Part of who you are, part of what they are.  True repentance, true redress has to come from the inside.

Many years ago, I had a boyfriend.   If he did, or said, something that hurt me, my instinct was to turn to him for comfort.  But he couldn’t comfort me.  He felt guilty about having hurt me and became cold and distant.  To acknowledge my hurt meant dealing with the fact that he had caused it, however unintentionally.  Guilt was the very thing that stopped him putting it right!

How often does it happen that when we hurt someone, it is because we feel guilty? How often do people hurt us because they feel guilty?

To me, it seems that guilt is what happens when we don’t want to acknowledge to ourselves the wrong we’ve done, or, even if our actions weren’t actually wrong, the hurt we’ve caused.  And because we don’t acknowledge it, we aren’t able to do anything to put it right.

If I were to hurt someone as I stood here preaching, I would be responsible. Of course, I would never direct a sermon at some particular person.  I’ve heard of those that do and would call it shameful.  But it would be possible to say something that makes a connection for someone, triggers off some hurt they’re already carrying.  Although, in that case, I didn’t cause the hurt in the first place, but if I triggered it off, then I would be responsible for the fact that they’re hurting today.   If I then go into feeling guilty then next time I see that person, maybe I won’t feel able to meet their eyes – making them feel worse.  Or maybe they want to talk to me about what I’ve said – and I avoid them.  That is how guilt works, it is the exact opposite to ‘taking responsibility’ and it damages relationships.  Jesus told us to ‘love one another’ – that doesn’t leave room for guilt.

So if Jacob felt guilty at having stolen Esau’s heritage, his identity as the older brother, he may have had no idea how to repair the damage to the relationship.  Only by acknowledging to himself the hurt he had done to Esau could he really try to put it right.  Only then, could he truly say ‘I’m sorry’.  Only then could he really offer the fault to God, asking him to create goodness for Esau out of his error, since it was no longer possible to put it right.  Only then, could he truly give repentance from the inside.

Unable to respond with true repentance, Jacob gives from his outside stuff – his wealth.  And God sees that, and tackles him.

End result?  Esau receives his gifts with love.  God has turned what looks like a bribe into a genuine gift of reconciliation.  And brotherhood is healed.

We ‘defile’ our hands when we get them dirty – that’s not a problem with God and for ourselves – well, we can wash them.  We defile our souls when we refuse to acknowledge the hurt we have done to others.  So what if it ‘wasn’t our fault’, or ‘it was an accident’ or ‘I didn’t have any choice’ – even worse when it was our genuine intention though, even then, we may not have realised the hurt that would be caused to another person by something we actively chose to do.

When the end result is that someone has got hurt and we have to accept responsibility for that, not tie ourselves in knots with guilt, freezing our capacity for an appropriate response to the hurt we have caused, but to accept responsibility, be prepared to accept opportunities to put right the hurt caused, and where it simply isn’t possible – well, all we can do is to acknowledge our fault to thee other person and offer the whole mess up to God.  For we can trust that he will heal – heal us, heal the other person, heal the relationship, but that acknowledgement of the part we have played in damaging the relationship has to come first.


Genesis 32. 9-30:

Mark 7. 1-23:


Let us pray:

C: Where there is hurt                     R: We place it in God’s hands

We pray for relationships:

We pray for relationships between faiths, between Christian denominations and within Christian communities.  Especially we pray for our relationships within this parish – between our various churches, and between each other.  Lord, give to all who need it the opportunity to put right any hurts and heal damaged relationships.  And when it is beyond our capacity *


We pray for the nations of the world.  Sometimes the situations of conflict are of complex we can’t see where they started.  To resolve the world’s conflicts is not within our power, Lord but *


We pray for those whom we have however inadvertently, hurt.  Give us, Lord the opportunities to put right those hurts. *


Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,

Where there is hatred, let me sow love;

Where there is injury, pardon;

Where there is doubt, faith;

Where there is despair, hope;

Where there is darkness, light;

Where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,

grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;

to be understood, as to understand;

to be loved, as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive.

It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,

and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.



Moral Dilemmas

Do we sometimes do things to please or that are required of us by others leaving us feeling ashamed of ourselves?  Or of course, not do things that we believe are right to avoid giving offence?

Herod and John: moral dilemma – unreasonable request from daughter.

Herod arrested John but wasn’t inclined towards killing him.  He liked listening to him.  That suggests that he was open to the possibility of redemption.  When he allowed his daughter’s outrageous demand, it is likely that he felt ashamed of himself.  That, to me, asks the question – ‘do I do that?’  ‘How do I react if I get put under pressure to do something I know is wrong?’  Do people find themselves in a position where it’s hard to avoid?

Employment for me – how would I have felt about moral dilemma?

What would I have done, I wonder, if my employer had asked me to do something I considered unethical?  I might risk my job if I refused.  I’ve always tended to avoid jobs what that sort of issue might come up.  Working in finance, I always preferred to work in the payment of bills rather than in collecting debts.  Working in social care I preferred the probation service to Social Services – in probation the client has already been to court, had the chance to defend themselves – in SS, it’s act first and let who may appeal against your actions.    Most social workers are very caring, but the processes they’re required to carry out may not always allow space for caring.  Not for me, I’m not tough enough.

Dilemmas of pressure in any role

In fact, in any role, paid or unpaid; in employment or in relationships, where we have authority or influence over others but are subject to authority or, perhaps we simply don’t want to ‘let people down’ or appear to ‘deny our love’ for them – we may find ourselves faced with moral dilemmas quite easily.

So what does the Bible say about it?  There’s a bit of a mixed message there, we’ll start with today’s OT:

Jacob and Laban-

  • Moral dilemma 1: Jacob’s not getting paid.  Laban has a moral dilemma.  His young relative has come to stay and has naturally fallen into the work of the household just as he did at home.  Laban could just take advantage of that position but he recognises that it’s wrong.  There doesn’t seem to be any pressure on him to do otherwise (other than a bit of embarrassment) and he offers Jacob wages.
  • Moral dilemma 2: Laban has agreed Jacob to marry Rachel, but it’s 7  years on and Leah is still unmarried.  Here we have a very different situation.  It does appear that when Jacob first meets Laban’s 2 daughters they are close to marriageable age – his description of them would not be appropriate to children – he’s talking of their attractiveness as a young man would who was, at least, interested.  So when Laban agreed to the deal that Jacob could marry Rachel he was probably assuming that by the end of the 7 years, the elder girl, Leah would have already got married.  Now, 7 years later he faces shame among his community.  He’s probably got a lot of pressure from his wife, and possibly even real distress from Leah at the idea that her younger sister is going to be married leaving her on the shelf.  Laban can’t find the right of it, he can cheat Jacob or he can disappoint his wife, shame himself before his neighbours and leave his elder daughter completely unmarriageable.  People might well have assumed that there’s something wrong with her that she’s not married at her age and then her younger sister gets married first.  Of course there was a way out – he could have discussed the problem with Jacob and since polygamy seems to have been acceptable, both socially and in terms of the people’s relationship with God – he could have offered him both girls or none.  Instead he got another 7 years free labour out of Jacob while keeping him waiting for the girl he really loved. 

Abraham and Isaac:

This is the moral dilemma story that always appals me.  Abraham thinks God is telling him to sacrifice his son.  The story is usually told as a wonderful example of Abraham’s willingness to obey God.  To me it’s a story that tells of human capacity to misunderstand the intentions of a truly loving God in terms of the social context of the  time.  In Abraham’s time and the cultures around him, animal sacrifices were normal, human sacrifices less common but presumably were known.   I’d have been a lot more impressed if Abraham had said ‘No, Lord, surely I’ve misunderstood you – you can’t really mean me to kill my son’. But he didn’t – and thankfully he got the message in time to see the lamb standing there to take Isaac’s place.

It’s the same sort of misunderstanding you see today in some churches that teach hatred and cruelty towards segments of the community that they somehow assume don’t deserve God’s love: Gay people, Muslims, women who decide after long and painful deliberation to have an abortion.  It’s not an issue of whether people’s behaviour is right or wrong – on that, Jesus has made it clear, it’s not for us to judge – no, it’s simply a matter of God’s expressed love for all his people.  We are all of us capable of misunderstanding what God is telling us to do, but if it’s in contradiction of God’s love then we should be suspicious.

Peter and the unclean food:

Peter had a moral dilemma when God sent him a dream about the unclean food that he was to eat.  He stood up to it, he was suspicious,  ‘no Lord’ he said, ‘I have never eaten unclean food’.  But he managed to sort it out when God sent him into a situation where the instruction made sense.  God’s love over-ruled Peter’s social context – the unclean food was merely a symbol of the acceptance into his love of people Peter wouldn’t have considered to be potential followers of Jesus – gentiles.  Us, that is.  God’s love is the greater law.

Jobcentre staff

I have a lot of sympathy with people who work in the Jobcentres these days.  They’re under a lot of pressure to stop people’s benefits, apply ‘sanctions’ that will mean that people go without any money for weeks, or months or even years.  And the media is putting pressure on us all to believe that those people deserve it.  But the people who work for the DWP know full well that they’re being pressured to create situations that will make as many people as possible subject to these ‘sanctions’.  Many of them must be going home at the end of the day feeling sick with horror at what they’re doing to people.  And yet, to refuse to do it would risk their own jobs, their own livelihood,  their own families.  That’s a terrifying moral dilemma.  I don’t know how I’d cope with it, probably I’d become ill under the pressure and lose the job through ill-health.  Both they, and the poor claimants who are left with nowhere to turn but the foodbank, are greatly in need of our prayers.

Genesis 29. 1-20

Mark 6. 7-29


The Prayers


* Call:                      For all in trouble            Response:           Let God’s Love Rule


We pray for all who are stuck with moral dilemmas.

We pray for all who exercise authority over others, especially where conflicting interests make it hard to know what is right, and what is wrong.  May God’s love shine clarity into their situations and guide them to decisions which will bring us all closer to ‘heaven on earth’.*

We pray for churches and all people of every faith.  All faiths give moral guidance but it is human intelligence which interprets and understands it, threading a way through the dilemmas that all are faced with day by day.  May that intelligence be inspired by God’s spirit with love for all humanity so that, through people of faith all can come to know and experience God’s love.*

We pray for families juggling the dilemmas presented by their children’s need for freedom to develop and safety to develop within.  We pray for families which struggle with conflict and who try to see how they can best move on, what direction will give the best outcome for the children?  May God’s love resolve their conflicts.*

We pray for those employees required to act in a way which they feel is wrong, and who have to choose between right action and the threat of losing their job.  We pray for those who are bullied at work by managers or as a result of policies over which they have no control. May they know the safety and comfort of God’s love within which to resolve their difficulty.*

We pray for benefit claimants, suffering under a lot of different changes to the system so that for some people there are a number of different cuts to their income all occurring at the same time – causing dilemmas as to which bill to pay, whether to buy food or pay bills. May God’s love give them courage and strength.*

We pray for ourselves.  For whatever moral dilemmas we may have to face.  For our parish, our homes and our loved ones.  May God love be with us and inspire us to right decisions that will lead us further and deeper into his love.*