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.
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.