Is it possible to rid myself of a childhood steeped in Catholic guilt? Is guilt a healthy emotion? Does God want me to feel guilty for “sins of omission”, things I didn’t do which the Baha’i Writings suggest I do, and I want to do?
If I pray each day for God to guide my movement and my stillness, and don’t do any direct teaching that day, will He cut off all the bounties He’s promised for those who do? These are some of the questions that plague me from time to time.
Shoghi Effendi suggests that we can feel guilty for the things we’ve done (including misdeeds) as well as the things we’ve left undone (including failure to accomplish our duty towards God):
It is because of this dual guilt, the things it has done and the things it has left undone, its misdeeds as well as its dismal and signal failure to accomplish its clear and unmistakable duty towards God, His Messenger, and His Faith, that this grievous ordeal, whatever its immediate political and economic causes, has laid its adamantine grip upon it. (Shoghi Effendi, The Promised Day is Come, p. 115)
He seems to be suggesting in this quote, that not only have these things damaged our own souls but have also contributed to the political and economic ordeal the world is going through.
So if I feel guilty then, is it because my soul is acutely aware of the part I’ve played or is it my ego taking responsibility for things that are beyond my control?
Going back to the quote, when Shoghi Effendi says “whatever its immediate political and economic causes”, suggests to me that while the immediate causes and subsequent ordeals we’re going through are beyond me, I do have a part to play.
This makes sense when I think about the global economic crisis, where governments are so far in debt they’ll never be able to pay it back. This is a reflection of society in general. We’ve never seen a time when so many people are going bankrupt at a personal level. As individuals we don’t know how to handle debt so at a societal level, what would make our government officials and their decisions any different?
Perhaps it all goes back to truthfulness as the foundation. If I buy something I can’t afford and put it on credit, I’m not being truthful about living within my means. I’m lying to myself about what I can afford and what I can’t. At that level, I can see how I as an individual can and should feel guilty for my part in contributing to the current economic problems. If my guilt causes me to understand this, and change my behavior, so I become debt free, not only will I get clear with God, but will be contributing to the betterment of the world as well. So this would be an example of healthy guilt.
What causes guilt?
Shoghi Effendi suggests we will be held accountable before God for committing evils and vices which are the direct consequence of the weakening of religion.
Not only must irreligion and its monstrous offspring, the triple curse that oppresses the soul of mankind in this day, be held responsible for the ills which are so tragically besetting it, but other evils and vices, which are, for the most part, the direct consequences of the “weakening of the pillars of religion,” must also be regarded as contributory factors to the manifold guilt of which individuals and nations stand convicted. (Shoghi Effendi, The Compilation of Compilations vol. I, p. 237)
The corollary of this, then, seems to be that by strengthening our religion, we will be protected from committing evils and vices.
Here’s a quote that puzzles me:
Eschew all manner of wickedness, for such things are forbidden unto you in the Book which none touch except such as God hath cleansed from every taint of guilt, and numbered among the purified. (Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 277-278)
I understand the first part of the sentence, which says I need to avoid all the things that are forbidden in God’s book of laws. That makes sense! What I don’t understand is the second part: “which none touch except such as God hath cleansed from every taint of guilt and numbered with the purified”.
Does this mean that those who read and understand His Book of laws have been cleansed from every taint of guilt and numbered with the purified? Is this suggesting that any guilt I feel from this point on is unhealthy guilt? What do you think?
How many times have we all said this prayer?
O God, guide me, protect me . . . (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Baha’i Prayers, p. 36)
It occurred to me in this morning’s meditation, that if I pray for God to guide me, and then feel guilty for not doing something other than I did, it’s because I don’t trust God.
Why would I ask him to guide me and protect me, and then not trust Him when He does?
So perhaps guilt in that sense is not about failing to do something I thought I “should” do, but for not trusting God. He won’t hold me accountable for failing to do something when He’s protected me from it; but He will hold me accountable for not trusting Him.
Shoghi Effendi tells us that nothing is as important as our trust in God:
No matter what happens, nothing is as important as our feeling of trust in God, our inner peacefulness and faith that all, in the end, in spite of the severity of the ordeals we may pass through will come out as Bahá’u’lláh has promised. (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 237)
Baha’u’llah assures us of God’s protection as something we can trust in:
He that placeth his complete trust in God, God shall, verily, protect him from whatsoever may harm him, and shield him from the wickedness of every evil plotter. (Baha’u’llah, The Proclamation of Baha’u’llah, p. 47)
‘Abdu’l-Bahá shows us what trusting God’s assistance can do in our lives:
Therefore, let us ever trust in God and seek confirmation and assistance from Him. Let us have perfect and absolute confidence in the bounty of the Kingdom. Review the events surrounding souls of bygone times in the beginning of their day; and again consider them when, through the aid and assistance of God, they proved to be the mighty ones of God. Remember that Peter was a fisherman, but through the bounty of the Kingdom he became the great apostle. Mary Magdalene was a villager of lowly type, yet that selfsame Mary was transformed and became the means through which the confirmation of God descended upon the disciples. Verily, she served the Kingdom of God with such efficiency that she became well-known and oft mentioned by the tongues of men. Even today she is shining from the horizon of eternal majesty. Consider how infinite is the bounty of God that a woman such as Mary Magdalene should be selected by God to become the channel of confirmation to the disciples and a light of nearness in His Kingdom. Consequently, trust ye in the bounty and grace of God, and rest assured in the bestowals of His eternal outpouring. I hope that each one of you may become a shining light even as these electric lights are now brilliant in their intensity. Nay, may each one of you be a luminary like unto a sparkling star in the heaven of the divine Will. This is my supplication at the throne of God. This is my hope through the favors of Bahá’u’lláh. I offer this prayer in behalf of all of you and beg with a contrite heart that you may be assisted and glorified with an eternal bestowal. (Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 420)
In this quote He seems to promise that when we:
- trust God
- seek His confirmations and assistance
- have perfect and absolute confidence in His bounties
He comes to our aid and assistance so that we can become the mighty ones of God. Isn’t it wonderful to know that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá is praying that we may be assisted in this!
Again ‘Abdu’l-Bahá shows me that I need to let go of my shame and guilt for not living up to someone else’s expectations of me:
Trust in God and be unmoved by either the praise or the false accusations declared by people towards thee, depend entirely on God and exert thyself to serve His holy vineyard. All else save this is but imagination, though it be the praises of all people in thy behalf; because all else is of no result and bears no fruit. (Abdu’l-Bahá, Tablets of Abdu’l-Bahá v1, p. 158)
Are there other examples of unhealthy guilt in the Writings?
The House of Justice suggests that being exposed to horrific consequences of racism can cause us to feel a profound sense of shame at the depths of evil that humanity is capable of:
Even before hostilities had ended, public audiences throughout the world were stunned by film coverage of the liberation of Nazi death camps, which exposed for all to see the horrific consequences of racism. What can adequately be described only as a profound sense of shame at the depths of evil that humanity had shown itself capable of committing shook the conscience of humankind. (Universal House of Justice, Century of Light, p. 72)
Mankind also suffers from a legacy of victimization and guilt around race unity issues:
Owing to the legacy of victimization and also the sense of guilt which many feel in relation to this issue, the race-unity work can often arouse strong emotions. Thus, it is inevitable that there will be exaggerated expressions on the subject from time to time. (The Universal House of Justice, 1998 Mar 24, Most Challenging Issue)
And that trauma also leaves us with a legacy of feeling guilty for things that weren’t our fault:
The confused feelings on your part are understandable, considering the extreme trauma you have experienced, and it is not unusual for those who are victimized to feel guilty for situations that occurred through no fault of their own. (Universal House of Justice, to an individual, 12 January 2010)
So what can we do when we feel guilty for things that aren’t our fault or are beyond our control?
Detachment seems to be the key; so then we can take responsibility for our part in transforming society around us:
The personal transformation required for true equality will undoubtedly be difficult for men and women alike. Both must relinquish all attachment to guilt and blame and courageously assume responsibility for their own part in transforming the societies in which they live. (Baha’i International Community, 1995 Sept 13, Role of Religion in Promoting Advancement of Women)
Are there things we should feel shame about? If so, what are they? Baha’u’llah tells us we should feel shame if we do anything to bring shame to ourselves; or dishonor the Cause in the eyes of men:
Commit not, O people, that which will bring shame upon you or dishonor the Cause of God in the eyes of men, and be not of the mischief-makers. (Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 277-278)
And for anything our minds condemn:
Approach not the things which your minds condemn. (Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 277-278)
And from doing anything that’s forbidden in God’s laws:
Eschew all manner of wickedness, for such things are forbidden unto you in the Book . . . (Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 277-278)
And for being veiled from God:
Thy servant’s shame is to be shut out as by a veil from Thee. (Baha’u’llah, Prayers and Meditations by Baha’u’llah, p. 208)
And for perpetrating violence against women:
Women will not be safe until a new social conscience takes hold, one which will make the mere expression of condescending attitudes towards women, let alone any form of physical violence, a cause for deep shame. (Baha’i International Community, 1995 Oct, Turning Point For All Nations)
Shame seems to be normal, in that even Baha’u’llah suffered from it:
Thou beholdest, O my God, the tears that my shame hath caused to flow, and the sighs which my heedlessness hath led me to utter. (Baha’u’llah, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 5)
Our faculty of shame deters and guards us against doing things that are unworthy or unseemly:
Indeed, there existeth in man a faculty which deterreth him from, and guardeth him against, whatever is unworthy and unseemly, and which is known as his sense of shame. (Baha’u’llah, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 27)
And we should be grateful if we have it, because not everyone does!
This, however, is confined to but a few; all have not possessed, and do not possess, it. (Baha’u’llah, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 27)
Whether we have it or we don’t, we’re all still responsible for knowing what leads us to loftiness or abasement, shame or honor:
Man should know his own self, and understand those things which lead to loftiness or to abasement, to shame or to honor, to affluence or to poverty. (Bahá’u’lláh, Baha’i Scriptures, p. 145)
Our greatest shame is to worship things at the lowest levels of existence:
At the same time we see man worshipping a stone, a clod of earth, or a tree: how vile he is, in that his object of worship should be the lowest existence that is a stone, or clay, without spirit; a mountain, a forest, or a tree. What shame is greater for man than to worship the lowest existence? (Bahá’u’lláh, Baha’i World Faith, p. 332)
Baha’u’llah gives us a story to illustrate what this looks like:
Alas, most of the people are fast asleep. They are even as the man who, in his drunkenness, became attracted to a dog, took it in his embrace, and made it his plaything, and who, when the morn of discernment dawned and the light of the sun enveloped the horizon, realized that the object of his affection was but a dog. Then, filled with shame and remorse, he repaired to his abode. (Baha’u’llah, The Summons of the Lord of Hosts, p. 170)
Does shame serve a purpose?
‘Abdu’l-Bahá suggests that shame is a sign of progress, since it encourages us to do better:
To a woman who said she was unhappy with herself, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá responded: “This is a sign of progress. The person who is satisfied with himself is the manifestation of Satan and the one who is not satisfied is the manifestation of the Merciful One. An egotist does not progress but the one who thinks himself imperfect will seek perfection for himself and will progress . . . .the attainment of absolute perfection for a human being is impossible; thus, however much he may progress he is still imperfect and has above him a point higher than himself. (Mahmoud’s Diary, p. 216)
The Baha’i International Community, in “Who is Writing the Future”, suggests that out of our collective shame following World War 2, came a commitment that led to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights:
Exposure of the appalling suffering visited on the victims of human perversity during the course of the war produced a worldwide sense of shock – and what can only be termed deep feelings of shame. Out of this trauma emerged a new kind of moral commitment that was formally institutionalized in the work of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and its associated agencies. (Baha’i International Community, 1999 Feb, Who is Writing the Future)
What do we do to weaken our sense of shame?
We turn away from God’s love:
And whatsoever people turneth its heart away from this Divine Love — the revelation of the Merciful — shall err grievously, shall fall into despair, and be utterly destroyed. That people shall be denied all refuge, shall become even as the vilest creatures of the earth, victims of degradation and shame. (Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 27)
And when we do, it causes us to:
- err grievously
- fall into despair
- be utterly destroyed
- be denied all refuge
- become even as the vilest creatures of the earth
- become victims of degradation and shame.
No wonder the Writings are so full of quotes reminding us to “cling to the cord” of God’s love!
Cling thou to the hem of the Robe of God, and take thou firm hold on His Cord, a Cord which none can sever. (Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 307)
Especially when we feel the extent of our transgressions and evildoings:
Though my transgressions be manifold, and unnumbered my evildoings, yet do I cleave tenaciously to the cord of His bounty, and cling unto the hem of His generosity. (Baha’u’llah, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 110)
Here’s another example of how we lessen our sense of shame. We
- stray from God’s path
- turn away from God
- corrupt His principles
- center our attention on the wrong people
As they gradually strayed from the path of their Ideal Leader and Master, as they turned away from the Light of God and corrupted the principle of His Divine unity, and as they increasingly centered their attention upon them who were only the revealers of the potency of His Word, their power was turned into weakness, their glory into shame, their courage into fear. (Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 69)
When we do this:
- Our power turns to weakness
- Our glory turns into shame
- Our courage turns into fear
In the following quote, Baha’u’llah tells us what happens in the next world every time we:
- Breath a word counter to His wishes
- Inflict shame or humiliation on his neighbor
- Commit a transgression
. . . which we all do every single day, since we are all sinners!
This is what happens:
- The “All-Merciful” repairs, grief-stricken and disconsolate to its abode;
- The “Concealer” turns back chagrined and sorrowful to its retreats of glory, where He weeps and mourns with a sore lamentation.
- The “Ever-Forgiving” cries out in great distress, and, overcome with anguish, falls upon the dust, and has to be carried away by a company of the invisible angels to its habitation in the realms above.
Here’s the quote:
Every time My name “the All-Merciful” was told that one of My lovers had breathed a word that runneth counter to My wish, it repaired, grief-stricken and disconsolate to its abode; and whenever My name “the Concealer” discovered that one of My followers had inflicted any shame or humiliation on his neighbor, it, likewise, turned back chagrined and sorrowful to its retreats of glory, and there wept and mourned with a sore lamentation. And whenever My name “the Ever-Forgiving” perceived that any one of My friends had committed any transgression, it cried out in its great distress, and, overcome with anguish, fell upon the dust, and was borne away by a company of the invisible angels to its habitation in the realms above. (Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 308-309)
That’s enough to bring shame to my heart and make me want to do better, how about you?!
In case it didn’t, here’s another one:
The fire that hath inflamed the heart of Bahá is fiercer than the fire that gloweth in thine heart, and His lamentation louder than thy lamentation. Every time the sin committed by any one amongst them was breathed in the Court of His Presence, the Ancient Beauty would be so filled with shame as to wish He could hide the glory of His countenance from the eyes of all men, for He hath, at all times, fixed His gaze on their fidelity, and observed its essential requisites. (Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 309)
Here Baha’u’llah seems to be saying that whatever lamentation we might be feeling, He feels it more and that every single sin we commit causes Him to feel such shame that He wants to hide his glory from the eyes of everyone.
It makes God sad to know that He created us for glory and we’ve chosen shame:
Imperishable glory I have chosen for thee, yet boundless shame thou hast chosen for thyself. (Baha’u’llah, The Persian Hidden Words 21)
He doesn’t want us to choose shame, and conceals it every time we give our hearts to anyone or anything but Him:
All that is in heaven and earth I have ordained for thee, except the human heart, which I have made the habitation of My beauty and glory; yet thou didst give My home and dwelling to another than Me; and whenever the manifestation of My holiness sought His own abode, a stranger found He there, and, homeless, hastened unto the sanctuary of the Beloved. Notwithstanding I have concealed thy secret and desired not thy shame. (Baha’u’llah, The Persian Hidden Words 27)
How do we overcome shame?
As usual Baha’u’llah gives clear guidance.
How well hath it been said: “Cling unto the robe of the Desire of thy heart, and put thou away all shame; bid the worldlywise be gone, however great their name.” (Baha’u’llah, The Kitab-i-Iqan, p. 69)
- Cling to God
- Stop doing things that bring shame upon us
- Turn away from the worldlywise
We’re also to seek glory for ourselves:
Love accepteth no existence and wisheth no life: He seeth life in death, and in shame seeketh glory. (Baha’u’llah, The Seven Valleys, p. 9)
And our glory lies in knowing God:
. . . and his glory is to know Thee. (Baha’u’llah, Prayers and Meditations by Baha’u’llah, p. 208)
And being obedient to His laws:
In all these journeys the traveler must stray not the breadth of a hair from the “Law,” for this is indeed the secret of the “Path” and the fruit of the Tree of “Truth”; and in all these stages he must cling to the robe of obedience to the commandments, and hold fast to the cord of shunning all forbidden things, that he may be nourished from the cup of the Law and informed of the mysteries of Truth. (Baha’u’llah, The Seven Valleys, p. 39-40)
It all goes back to our purpose in life, which is to know and worship God as we’re reminded when we recite the short obligatory prayer:
I bear witness, O my God, that Thou hast created me to know Thee and to worship Thee. I testify, at this moment, to my powerlessness and to Thy might, to my poverty and to Thy wealth. There is none other God but Thee, the Help in Peril, the Self-Subsisting. (Baha’u’llah, Baha’i Prayers, p. 3)
Did you ever wonder why God wants us to admit to our powerlessness and recognize our poverty every single day of our lives? Baha’u’llah explains:
Inspire them, O my Lord, with a sense of their own powerlessness before Him Who is the Manifestation of Thy Self, and teach them to recognize the poverty of their own nature in the face of the manifold tokens of Thy self-sufficiency and riches, that they may gather together round Thy Cause, and cling to the hem of Thy mercy, and cleave to the cord of the good-pleasure of Thy will. (Baha’u’llah, Prayers and Meditations by Baha’u’llah, p. 47)
It’s so that we may:
- gather together around His Cause
- cling to the hem of His mercy
- cleave to the cord of the good-pleasure of His will.
Shoghi Effendi tells us why it’s important to say these prayers every day:
As to the attitude of resentment which the young believers are inclined to assume regarding certain precepts of the Cause such as Obligatory prayers; there can and should be no compromise whatever in such matters that are specifically enjoined by Bahá’u’lláh. We should neither have any feeling of shame when observing such laws and precepts, nor should we over-estimate their value and significance. (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 639)
It looks to me that knowing and worshiping God is a good prescription for overcoming guilt and shame.
It’s quotes like this that can easily trigger profound shame for not doing enough:
Ours rather the duty, however confused the scene, however dismal the present outlook, however circumscribed the resources we dispose of, to labor serenely, confidently, and unremittingly to lend our share of assistance, in whichever way circumstances may enable us, to the operation of the forces which, as marshaled and directed by Bahá’u’lláh, are leading humanity out of the valley of misery and shame to the loftiest summits of power and glory. (Shoghi Effendi, The Promised Day is Come, p. 123)
When I look at the quote more carefully, though, it brings me back to praying for God to “guide and protect me” and to “let my movement and my stillness be wholly directed by Thee”, when it says “in whichever way circumstances may enable us”. So if circumstances don’t enable me to do the things I think I should do, I can trust that God has another plan for me.
The Báb reminds us:
Whatever God hath willed hath been, and that which He hath not willed shall not be. (The Báb, Baha’i Prayers, p. 131)
Everything that happens to us and how we react to it goes back to our thoughts. We can choose whether to stay in our lower nature (abasement), or go into our higher nature (loftiness), since all the negative emotions come from our lower nature:
All our sorrow, pain, shame and grief, are born in the world of matter; whereas the spiritual Kingdom never causes sadness. (Abdu’l-Bahá, Paris Talks, p. 110)
‘Abdu’l-Bahá shows us how our lower nature works, and tells us what our lives will look like when our thoughts turn to our higher nature:
For instance, a merchant may lose his trade and depression ensues. A workman is dismissed and starvation stares him in the face. A farmer has a bad harvest, anxiety fills his mind. A man builds a house which is burnt to the ground and he is straightway homeless, ruined, and in despair. All these examples are to show you that the trials which beset our every step, all our sorrow, pain, shame and grief, are born in the world of matter; whereas the spiritual Kingdom never causes sadness. A man living with his thoughts in this Kingdom knows perpetual joy. The ills all flesh is heir to do not pass him by, but they only touch the surface of his life, the depths are calm and serene. (Abdu’l-Bahá, Paris Talks, p. 109)
If we want our depths to remain calm and serene, free from depression, anxiety, despair, sorrow, pain, grief and shame, all we need to do is fix our thoughts on the spiritual Kingdom.
The bottom line is love. God loves us and forgives us everything if our guilt and shame show us what we need to change. Here’s a story of Juliet Thompson, and her experience of God’s love through ‘Abdu’l-Bahá:
Then He dismissed us, saying, “Go and rest.” . . . Alas for the sin of disobedience! He had said “Go and rest.” But we were so anxious to write down His words while they were fresh in our minds that we stayed in the dining room until late, and — shameful to confess after our day in Heaven! — began to argue about the New York Assembly: as to whether or not it was united! Mr Kinney declared that it was. I said it was not. I even went so far as to mention the breeder of the discord, to condemn her destructive work! But when X and I crept off to the room we were temporarily occupying — crept through the black, vaulted halls and rooms, over the old stone floors, to the rear wing of the house — a feeling of guilt such as I could hardly bear consumed me.
Next morning when I met our Lord outside the dining room door, in the sunny little court I so love because it is associated with His footsteps, with the benediction of His Presence, looking with eyes that … forgave? … no, that understood … deep, deep into my eyes, He put out His hand and took mine in a clasp of love. (The Diary of Juliet Thompson)
God sees our puny little efforts, all of them and He love us for them, and forgives us:
[Then ‘Abdul-Bahá said] “Do not think your services are unknown to Me. I have seen. I have been with you. I know them all. Do not think I have not known. I have known all. For these you are accepted in the Kingdom.”
My “services” — and He knew them all! He had “seen”: seen their pitiful smallness and the lack of real love with which I had tried to serve. I bowed my head with shame.
“Forgive my failures.”
“Be sure of this.” After a moment He said again, “Be sure of this.” Then He dismissed me. (Diary of Juliet Thompson)
How has this helped you to understand guilt and shame differently? Post your comments here: