Feelings of guilt, according to the prevailing psychiatric understanding, stem from the parental and cultural conditioning of the child. They emerge below the conscious level but color all relations with other people and inhibit creativity in learning and work. The anxiety that is a part of the guilt problem drives the person to certain patterns of unconsciously motivated behavior in his desire to reduce or remove his dis-ease. The theological and biblical approach sees guilt as arising from man’s alienation from and rebellion against God. This basic alienation leads also to alienation between people.

The minister may want to bring psychological and biblical insights into a practical synthesis as he counsels the guilt-ridden. He operates from the assumption that feelings of guilt always involve more than anxiety over one’s inability to meet the demands of parents or society; they are related also to the fundamental need to be reconciled to God as the ground of a satisfactory relation to others.

“Sin” is now an unfamiliar word in the experience of most people. The value confusion introduced by the moral experimentation of the situational ethicists has, nevertheless, heightened the real guilt and anxiety problems in our society. Every university campus counselor knows about the increasing incidence of student suicides. The goal of the minister is not merely to eliminate the disabling symptoms of guilt but also to lead the person to find wholeness as a forgiven and cleansed person.

Consider the case of a church deacon of impeccable standing who, in a state of great agitation, rushed into the pastor’s office wringing his hands and saying repeatedly, “Why did I do it? I don’t know what made me do it.” During an argument at breakfast he had compulsively struck his wife, knocking her to the floor. Although there had been no serious tension during their eighteen years of marriage, he had suddenly committed this violent act. The distraught man, overwhelmed by guilt, had immediately sought the help of his minister. Only great emotional pressure could have led him to break through the structured role of a “good deacon” and admit what he had done.

In counseling a guilt-ridden person, the minister must be aware of his own emotional responses and needs. He must have a capacity to accept a distraught person without being either judgmental or sentimental. He must be able to compare the person’s negative feelings about himself with what he knows of the person’s life. In this particular situation, he needed to estimate how much value the man had placed upon his role as person, husband, deacon, church member, and respected citizen in the community. The sudden destruction of those expectations resulted in the acute experience of guilt. The man felt himself a failure in the roles for which he was valued most.

When confronted with the guilt-ridden, the minister has an obligation to be as serious as a medical doctor in his diagnostic duties. Long-range measures may be needed. The hostile act in this case took only a moment, but the feelings that triggered it may have been accumulating over a long period of time. No amount of pastoral compassion or abundance of theological or psychological observation can substitute for a responsible diagnosis and plan of recovery. The guilt-ridden person can feel such an overwhelming sense of self-rejection that he is a suicide risk.

The minister is God’s man. In this situation he must be very aware of the resources of the Holy Spirit, the Word of God, and prayer. The parishioner has a natural desire for wholeness, a desire that is a gift of God. His feelings of guilt have brought him to the minister. Now the minister must identify with the sinner as Christ identified with all of us in his cross. He must recognize that guilt is an inescapable part of all human existence and that it is an intensely personal feeling of estrangement. As he listens to a torrent of confession, he must remember that, in the midst of a culture loaded with behavioristic and Freudian ideas that foster a sense of exemption from personal responsibility, here is a person accepting the obligation to reduce the discrepancy between what he is and what he ought to be. Only in the honest admission of guilt is there hope of salvation. This is the point of hope for the spiritual ministry in counseling.

Here are some practical steps:

1. Listen to the person’s whole story, trying to be sensitive to the levels of emotion he expresses and implies.

2. Be sure you understand the information he has given you about the onset of the problem.

3. Ask whether he has any history of emotional breakdown, whether he is undergoing any therapy, and whether he is taking any drugs.

4. Ask permission to talk professionally with the family doctor, but do not make any psychiatric diagnosis. Be supportive.

5. Take seriously any hints that his self-rejection could lead to suicide.

6. Make use of the confessional psalms and the forgiveness passages in the Gospels and Epistles. But be sure you are not using the Scriptures and prayer either to protect your ministerial image or to coerce your parishioner. Remember that you stand under the same judgment and in the same grace of God.

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7. Notice the negative, positive, and ambivalent self-references in what the person says. “I’m a fool” is a negative reference. “I feel better about things today” is positive. As counseling progresses, the positive references should begin to dominate.

8. Terminate the interview without conveying a feeling of rejection. Arrange for another, if necessary.

The goal of the minister in counseling the guilt-ridden is to lead the person to where he can sing:

The bright glories of thy grace,

Beyond thine other wonders shine.

Who is a pardoning God like unto thee,

Who hath grace so rich and free?

—DR. JAMES FORRESTER, vice-president for university relations, Inter-American University of Puerto Rico.

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