Guilt can be a very good thing. Guilt can, because we feel awful, turn us to seeking relief and taking responsibility for our actions (or inactions). Good guilt happens when we have violated our moral integrity. Guilt is part of our whole moral ordering systems, a directional sign, just like anger, fear, joy, love, shame, hope, and mercy.
Just as with our other emotions, guilt can be misused, manipulated, and misdirected. But when we have good cause to feel guilty, guilt directs us back in responsibility to seeking repair, mercy, and reconciliation, and helps us learn to live lives of greater moral integrity.
Now the Psalms are not known for their authors’ expression of guilt; confessions are uncommon in these prayers. I suspect the number of Psalms expressing guilt being much smaller than the number of Psalms asking for deliverance from enemies is not because the ancients had any fewer moral violations than we do now. Rather, in humility, what can one really say? Guilt reduces us to few words, for all we can do is acknowledge our wrongdoing and beg pardon.
We don’t need to be King David, taking up with Bathsheba against her will, killing her husband, and seizing his property, to have violated our moral code, though if we have violated commandments six through ten, then we have a pretty good example before us. There will be plenty of other opportunities for many of us to be humbled and repentant and seek to rededicate ourselves to living lives of moral integrity. Sins of all sizes can be cause for guilt and for the prayer than is Psalm 51.
The key elements of the prayer that begins in guilt, as demonstrated by the psalm are:
1. Acknowledgement that I have done wrong.
2. Asking for mercy
3. Seeking reassurance in the Holy’s steadfast love
4. Asking to be purified or restored
5. Recommitting ourselves to the way of steadfast love
If you’re experiencing guilt, what are you guilty about? Where have you violated your moral integrity? Your sacred promises? We can be guilty about so many things, about what we have not done that was needed and about what we have done that was wrong.
Once you know what you’ve done and asked for mercy and restoration, the way of taking back up responsibility opens. What amends might be made? How shall you stay steadfast when facing temptation again?
Guilt comes out of brokenness – the breaking of our moral integrity, our holy promises, and our sacred aspirations. It can be a way of humble learning, if we take responsible action. It can also be a way of astounding grace, experiencing mercy, forgiveness, and restoration.