An End to Guilt

One of the most damaging aspects of most religions is that the members of those religions heap upon themselves unnecessary burdens of guilt. In this article, I'll explain why, specifically from a Mormon perspective, this is most unfortunate.
Mormons, let me ask you a few questions: (1) When is the last time that you said your personal prayers? (2) When is the last time that you sat down with your family to have scripture study? (3) How many weeks has it been since you have held Family Home Evening? (4) Did you do your home or visiting teaching last month?

And now a final question: how many pangs of guilt did you feel when you read those four questions? If you're like most Mormons, the answer is probably 4. ;-)

The reason that I asked those questions was actually not to make you feel guilty. Rather, it was to lay the groundwork for pointing out that we do not need to feel guilty for failure to do these things. A much better attitude is to feel the catharsis of knowing that we have some things that we can improve on.

One of my favorite Hugh Nibley quotes is this: "Righteousness is a matter of direction."  Now, look at the four questions above one more time. How might you have better responded to them? I suggest something like this: there is no better time than now to repent. It's that simple. No more of this feeling less than the dust of the earth because we're not perfect. We should rather, chuckle at the fact that we're not perfect--for two reasons: (1) because there's only one person who has ever been perfect on the earth--Jesus Christ, and (2) because item number 1 should bring many Mormons an immense sense of relief.

In the temple we learn that as we make covenants we will hopefully one day be able to stand before our God having been completely faithful to those covenants. It took me until just about a month ago, however, to figure out that we  would not possibly ever  be able to say that we had been completely faithful, had it not been for the Atonement of Jesus Christ, which thankfully allows us a plethora of do-overs.

The Atonement is everywhere in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Atonement is everywhere in the ordinances of the temple as well. But we have a hard time seeing that because we are so busy thinking what great failures we are for not having yet reached perfection all by ourselves. Happily, it was actually never intended to be that way. Our Heavenly Parents want us to, at some future point in eternity, have and enjoy everything that they enjoy. The only catch is that we have to let them help us do this, through the sacrifice of their Son--our Elder Brother--Jesus Christ. The only thing we can offer is to want that help. Sure, there are sins we commit for which we must feel guilt and remorse, but in most cases, guilt for weaknesses only gets in the way and causes us to stop wanting the help that is the only way we can make it back to Them.

So the next time you realize that you haven't served in the temple for a while...don't feel stupid about it; rather, make a plan to go to the temple.

When you notice that you've been so pre-occupied that you haven't read your scriptures for a while...don't feel guilty; just pick up your scriptures and read them the next chance you get.

If it's been several weeks since your family has had Family Home Evening, that's okay. Just try to see if you can gradually get back in the habit of having Family Home Evening.

If it suddenly dawns on you that you haven't said your personal prayers for a just might be in a place where you can mentally do a quick check-in with your Heavenly Father right now.

That's all it takes.  Our Heavenly Father doesn't want us to look downward in faux guilt.  He wants us to look upward in authentic optimism. Enough with all the unnecessary guilt already!



  2. Great post. The confusion between morality and moralism is a cause of tremendous guilt in many people of many religions. Unfortunately, this is a natural result of any moral system that contains absolutes of right and wrong, and consequences for those actions. Freud has added to the confusion by equating all moral guilt to neurotic guilt and a culture of therapism that seeks to promote moral relativism a cure. There are too few people aware that moralism, with its attendant guilt, and relativism, with its attendant lack of character, are not the only options for leading a moral life. Thanks for spreading the good word.

  3. There are two uses for the word guilt. One being that the person has actually done something wrong and refers to a lack of innocence. The other being the feeling of guilt after having done something wrong. ex: many people are “guilty” but feel no “guilt”.

    So what is the point of repentance? Is it to remove guilt, thus rendering us innocent? or to remove the feelings of guilt, thus rendering us peaceful? If it fulfills the first function then does it become “as if” we never actually sinned? Or does it remove the sin from all existence? If it only fulfills the second function then I think that would make the whole concept of repentance pointless.
    If repentance through the Atonement is sought after to remove the feelings of guilt after a sin, but the sin remains as real as ever, albeit in the past, then that would mean that repentance is merely a nifty little way to escape pain. That’s fine if life is meant to be spent bouncing between pain and zero, but not if life is to excel into the positives of joy and peace.
    So the question becomes: Is guilt a necessary part of repentance? The quick answer seems to be “yes” seeing as how we generally will do something wrong, feel guilty, and the guilt drives us to repentance. But is that the ultimate function of repentance? As an escape from that nasty little conscience of ours? If so I would just as soon smother my conscience and do as I please.
    If, however, repentance through the Atonement actually removes the sin from existence then not only would pure innocence be returned, but the feelings of guilt would be homeless and naturally dissolve. Not to mention that with repentance of this nature, all consequences of sin would also be removed, having no foundational event on which to rest. But again we find ourselves only at zero. So how does repentance lead to positive progress?
    Perhaps all of the above thoughtions are altogether too focused on sin. But we are talking about repentance after all aren’t we? Yes, but I wonder if repentance must be so tightly bound to sin at all. Especially when considering the definition of repentance as “turning your heart to God.” Does your heart have to be turned away in order to turn it to Him? I suppose so, but in a sense, our hearts are gravitated away from God while in this fallen state. I need to turn my heart toward God each morning, but that does not mean that sleeping is a sin. So perhaps true repentance is not tied to any one sin or set of sins at all. If this were the case then any single instant of truly turning your heart toward God would entail complete forgiveness of all sin.
    “Surely it can’t be that simple, recompense must be made.” you may say. And I agree completely, but not by us. What would be the point of Christ’s suffering if I must still feel the guilt of sin for any amount of time? If so, what amount of time is appropriate? I think that if guilt is in any way necessary in repentance then it is by our own choice to make it so and implies a limited understanding of the unlimited Atonement. What if we could live in perfect innocence continually? What if sin did not have to lead to guilt? Then it would shift our motivation to repent from a way to escape guilt, to a peaceful acknowledgement of Christ’s perfect ability to offset justice. Now repentance is not a painful and arduous process, but a gentle acceptance of reality, for Jesus has offset justice.

  4. According to Joseph Smith, “God does not see us as being in time, but in eternity.” Now there is not past me, present me, and future me. Now it’s not, “past me sinned, present me is repenting, and future me will deal with the consequences of sin.” If I am in eternity, which I must be if God views me that way, then I am either wholly guilty and deserve death, or wholly innocent and deserve exaltation. Without Christ’s sacrifice I would be the former. But Christ did perform the Atonement and He did succeed, therefore, I am the latter - wholly innocent and deserve exaltation.
    What does a perfectly innocent life look like? Jesus showed us just that. We are “trying to be like Jesus” but we don’t believe it’s possible, after all, he was perfect. Surely we can’t heal the blind, cleanse the leper, and offer salvation. Then which Jesus are we trying to be like? The one that was just a really good guy? The one that didn’t have time to perform miracles because he had to keep his full time job as a mechanic, but really magnified his calling? The one that was a good teacher and had nice thoughts? Or the Jesus from the bible that depended on God for every need and yielded His body to the Father’s will? Where does Zion start? As an announcement over the pulpit at general conference? Or from those truly trying to be like Jesus giving everything they have to further the work of the Lord because they have surrendered their will to His?
    We put so many limits on ourselves and say “that’s just life.” What if life weren’t so much about natural “ups and downs,” but about us choosing to block God or not? Does our loving Father in Heaven ever withhold anything from His creations? Or is it us that have our hands too full? Are our hands filled with the traditions of our fathers, social programs, entertainment, food, employment, fear, and guilt? Where could God bestow His abundance but on one reborn in Christ, clear of all the past, all the fear, and all the guilt this world has offered us and we have accepted as fact? We are told to live in the world, but not of the world and to be a peculiar people. What does this mean? Don’t drink coffee? Or does it mean to stand as a witness of Christ at all times, in all things, and in all places, backed by the hosts of heaven, speaking with power and authority, calling all to true repentance and establishing Zion for Christ’s return? Who will do this if not you? When will this happen if not now? Will we robotically perform daily tasks finding some meaning here and some inspiration there? Or will we dedicate every day to God’s work, every conversation to His children’s salvation, and every thought to eternity? We don’t need a call to reform, but a wake-up call to reality. We are here for a purpose and that purpose was not established by us, nor can our choice to procrastinate alter it in any way. Either there is no God and no meaning to the universe, or God is God, everything is meaningful, and every creation has a purpose predetermined by the Creator. Can you act outside that purpose? Of course, but those actions will have no meaning and no purpose and will pass away with the body. In the presence of God would you fiddle with crayons when He would have you build worlds? Why do that now? Would you selfishly cling to guilt and self-pity when Christ has overcome all pain and death and calls you to share salvation with the world?


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