Guilt can be warning or burden

“I never go to church because they just try to put me on a guilt trip.”

Ever hear someone say that?

No doubt, it’s true for some people.

Just walking through the door of a church makes them feel guilty, even before a word is spoken.

That could come from bad church experiences or because they are carrying around a lot of guilt that has absolutely nothing to do with church.

At some point, most of us feel guilty about something. That’s because all of us have messed up in some area of our lives.

Dodging guilt doesn’t take it away — just as ignoring a tumor doesn’t stop the cancer from growing.

The tumor may have been caused by smoking or other lousy lifestyle choices. Maybe heredity was the cause. Or maybe it just showed up.

No matter, it’s still a tumor. Ignoring it doesn’t make it go away.

The same is true with guilt.

“My goal is not to make people feel guilty,” said the Rev. Joseph Kraker of St. Vincent Catholic Church. “I know in the past, some churches could do a pretty good job of that. Some preachers on TV do it. But what the church should do is help us deal with guilt.”

He explained that there’s good guilt and bad guilt.

Bad guilt is just beating up ourselves for something for which we have no responsibility. Many of us know someone who was sexually abused and feels some guilt about it — as if he or she asked for it. Or we know someone who has an abusive spouse but thinks: “If I were a better partner, well, then this wouldn’t be happening to me.”

Some people carry around guilt from something done by another member of their family: He’s in jail, so I must have failed. If a child doesn’t quite turn out as we dreamed, we blame ourselves.

The reality is, it’s hard enough to make the right decisions for our own life, much less thinking we can do it for someone else.

I’ve been to church services where the pastor in his sermon complained about all the empty pews. Why make the people who are in church feel guilty because others are not there?

Pastor Joe Coffey of Hudson Community Church said that while in college, he attended a church where women were made to feel guilty if they wore any makeup or dressed nicely. Some churches, he said, may try to increase donations by making people feel guilty for not giving more.

“It’s wrong to use guilt to control people,” Coffey said. “Especially to try and make them do things that are your own agenda, not from the Bible.”

There is another type of guilt.

“Guilt and shame can be the immune system of the soul,” Coffey said. “It’s like getting an infection in your finger. It means something is wrong, and you better look a little deeper.”

Don’t just put a bandage on it; you need a doctor.

“Most of us have some demons to conquer,” Kraker said. “The church can help us admit we have a problem. Sometimes, the good news of the Gospel can cause guilt, because hearing it, we realize that we need to change something. Guilt can be healthy.”

A good church is one that first allows us to feel the guilt and then to experience forgiveness. Not every church does that, just as not every restaurant serves good food. That doesn’t stop most of us from eating out — we just find somewhere else to eat.

“If you start to feel guilty in our church, stay around for a while, and we’ll tell you about forgiveness,” Coffey said. “We’ll help you deal with the guilt and give you a fresh start.”

Kraker said confession serves that purpose in the Catholic church. It allows people to be honest to God, honest with themselves. “God will heal.”

Sometimes, guilt means we need to apologize to someone. Sometimes, guilt means we need to just believe that God has forgiven us and quit confessing the same old failures over and over.

“There’s nothing quite as good as realizing we are forgiven, that we don’t have to feel guilty anymore,” Coffey said. “That’s a big part of what church should be about.”

Terry Pluto can be reached at Sign up for Terry’s free, weekly e-mail newsletter “Direct from Pluto” at


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