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Asking the Clergy: What if religious teachings lead to feelings of guilt?

The Very Rev. Christopher D. Hofer, Rector, The

The Very Rev. Christopher D. Hofer, Rector, The Church of St. Jude (Episcopal) in Wantagh. Credit: The Church of St. Jude (Episcopa

‘A clear conscience is usually the sign of a bad memory,” according to an old proverb. But jokes aside (and there are plenty of one-liners about guilt), guilty feelings can help us learn right from wrong, and they can be tools of persecution. This week’s clergy discuss how a guilty party can move beyond the troubling emotion to make spiritual progress.

The Very Rev. Christopher D. Hofer

Rector, The Church of St. Jude (Episcopal), Wantagh

It’s been said, “A little guilt goes a long way.” As part of child development, children quickly discover what is right and what is wrong by pushing boundaries, such as taking the extra cookie when mom said no, blaming a sibling for something they did, or sneaking out past curfew. Learning a healthy sense of morality — what is right and what is wrong — and feeling sorry for committing wrongdoings helps children grow into upstanding adults. Much of what we know about right and wrong comes from religion. Many mores are held in common: not stealing, not cheating and not killing are just a few. Unfortunately, throughout history, religions have used teachings to instill guilt within followers in order for them to toe the line and prevent upsetting the status quo. Sadly, when abused, the same values the religions espouse as uplifting leave many overwhelmingly burdened and unnecessarily scarred for life. Think of the woman who believes she is not healed because she lacks sufficient faith, or the divorcee who is shunned from a faith community, or the gay teenager who kills himself because he has been told he is an abomination to God. Thankfully, for Christians, even when we sin (separate ourselves from God, others or creation), we are assured of forgiveness. Because of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, we simply need to repent and return to the Lord. In the blink of an eye, we are forgiven, healed and renewed. Goodbye, guilt, and, hello, love.

Mahmood Kauser

Regional imam, Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, with mosques in Amityville, Queens and Brooklyn

Jiminy Cricket was a childhood hero. He helped Pinocchio along his path toward being a real boy. The truth is, everyone has their very own Jiminy Cricket. Just as Pinocchio dove deep into his conscious and felt a true essence of guilt, similarly everyone experiences guilt whether they are religious or not. That is precisely why Islam teaches to channel that divine gift of guilt to inspire a positive change in oneself. For those unaware, the Holy Prophet Muhammad explained that the greatest struggle for every person is against a person’s own evil inclinations. Every day, we fight with ourselves to do the right thing. Some days we win, other days we lose. The result of that loss is guilt. If someone assumes guilt is a bad thing, they have clearly misunderstood how to harness the power that results from feeling guilt. In the Holy Quran, God Almighty defines three different stages of the soul. The first stage is such a low level that it is difficult for one to distinguish whether such a person is a human or an animal. The next stage is where majority of us lie; it is known as “the self-accusing soul.” At this stage we are inclined toward good, but we stumble and fall, and after each encounter of evil we feel a sense of guilt. The final stage is when our soul is at peace. This means that we must harness our feelings of guilt, as it is an exclusively human trait to feel guilty. Guilt, remorse and regret are all God-given mechanisms to help a person advance morally. This very advancement is what distinguishes man from animal.

Rabbi Mendel Teldon

Chabad of Mid-Suffolk, Commack

Contrary to popular Jewish opinion, the feeling of guilt is never appropriate. We are here with a higher purpose, to bring goodness and Godliness into the world. Anything that prevents us from doing that is coming from an unhealthy place. The cyclical nature of guilt prevents us from putting our best foot forward and doing the next right thing. If I did something wrong, instead of wallowing in negativity, I should genuinely apologize to the person I wronged and then try to fix whatever bad result I had caused. Then, move on! If we still rehash the past, we are distracting ourselves from the mission that God gave us to do at this moment. As Adam and Eve learned, it’s not just the sin that gets us in trouble but the hiding, and the feeling of nakedness, which exacerbate the problem. There are occasional moments when we should set aside time to be self-introspective and work on our moral character, but not to revisit our mistakes from the past.

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