I think the most tragic line in the entire Bible is in Genesis 3: 8.
In the story of Adam and Eve, when they had both sinned, we’re told that God Himself, as He was wont to do, came into the beautiful garden later that same day. And what did Adam and Eve do? They hid from Him. In their guilt and their shame, they hid from the very One who was their Creator and their Life, their best friend, the One who loved them most of all. They hid from the only One who could heal the wound of their sin. And thus they compounded the damage of their sin by refusing to face up to it and find the sole remedy. They felt guilt and shame, but failed to respond in a positive manner. And so they lost paradise.
The story of Adam and Eve is of course an archetype: it symbolises something fundamental in human nature and in our relationship with God. That’s after all why it is in the Bible: to help us to understand one of the most abiding and profound issues in life.
We can understand sin as doing wrong things but also failing to do right things. When we are aware of our sin we should ordinarily feel shame and guilt. However that doesn’t always follow, as we can be very good at denial, at suppressing the consequences of our deeds. We can be very adept at rationalising and even justifying our conduct. I think it was Kierkegaard who said that people don’t do right or wrong so much as take up a position. And that position or attitude can then justify what we do. For example, we may justify killing a man because the one we killed was the enemy in a time of war. And the fanatic can so easily justify abhorrent deeds because of his or her extreme viewpoints. This justifying can be both on an individual and a collective level.
If however we presume for the purposes of this article that we are aware of our sin, it is healthy to feel guilt for sin, though even here our guilt should be proportionate: sometimes we can agonise over something quite trivial and yet ignore something far worse. Excess guilt can be crippling and is closely related to scrupulosity which is one of the most intractable psychological illnesses, especially when combined with religious faith.
So we may say that guilt is positive when it is proportionate to the wrong-doing (or the failure to do good), and when it leads us to feel an appropriate remorse. That remorse can then naturally move us towards seeking forgiveness, reconciliation and any acts of reparation. So finding the proper remedy for sin is not a straightforward matter and perhaps is one reason why so much suffering and evil persists in our world. In the Catholic tradition this is acknowledged and celebrated by a proper preparation for sacramental absolution and reconciliation, through a form of examination of conscience. We literally take the time to discern the true state of our heart. Or as the Greek philosophers would put it: know thyself.
This brings me back to the sad notion of ‘hiding from God’. In our sinfulness we can be like the alcoholic who, having drunk himself or herself into a dark place, then feels shame and self-loathing, and this compounds their guilt and can often lead… to another drink to suppress the emotional pain – and a vicious circle is enacted. The alcoholic desperately needs to hear and experience themselves as precious and lovable if they are to have any chance of breaking that cycle.
We all of us sin – period. What really matters is finding the remedy and a new beginning. Faith in a loving God is the true gateway to that wonderful liberation and salvation. Only when we bask in the unconditional love of God for us can we really open the eyes of our soul to the true darkness within, neither denying nor inflating nor minimising the severity of what we have done and failed to do. And with a true perspective we can find mercy and even show mercy.
God is always ‘coming into our garden’, always waiting for us to recognise His healing presence. Only when we refuse to run and hide but rather open up, warts and all, to the One who truly loves us and gives us infinite worth – only then can we find healing, peace and joy. No matter how bad you think your sin is – never hide from Him!
Peace and joy,