Failure and Guilt
Peter remembered the saying of the Lord, how he had said to him, “Before the rooster crows today, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly. Luke 22:61-62
As I was speaking last night at a recovery function, I recounted my last relapse and subsequent disaster. One of the most painful memories is of telling my kids why I was going away to treatment. My failures brought them significant distress which caused me significant distress. I hated what I’d done to my family and I hated myself for doing it.
I’d been told previously by a well-meaning counselor that my destructive behavior wasn’t my fault. I was told I had a disease and that I shouldn’t feel ashamed for having a disease. In treatment this time, I was told I just needed to forgive myself and move on. I couldn’t get my mind to the point of simply dismissing my destructive behavior though. I’d hurt my loved ones and simply abandoning responsibility felt profoundly dishonest.
Today’s passage describes the guilt of Peter. In the story, Jesus was arrested, while Peter followed at a distance. Three separate people in the crowd recognized Peter as a follower of Christ. Three times, he was accused and three times, Peter denied knowing Jesus. Jesus had predicted this and at the third denial, the two made eye contact. This was too much for Peter, who fled, weeping. He’d behaved in a way that completely contradicted his beliefs which caused him tremendous guilt.
Was it inappropriate for Peter to feel guilty? Did he just need to get over it and forgive himself? Or, did he feel guilty for a reason. Was there purpose to his discomfort?
For me, I could have gone two directions. I could have wallowed in toxic shame that pushed me further down a road of self-destruction, or I could have done what I did – use the guilt to precipitate change. Had I just dismissed the discomfort, I would not have felt the need for transformation. I needed my misery to motivate me to commit to a radically different life.
When I fail and hurt others, I should feel horrible. I may not be responsible for the disease of my addiction, but I alone am responsible for seeking the treatment for my disease. Guilt is my mind telling me that my behavior is inconsistent with my beliefs. When I feel it, I must change the behavior that caused it.