Good guilt is a funny thing. Like humor, it depends upon ambiguity. We all misbehave. We all hurt others and fail to live compassionately. But, we only hear the bad news that we have sinned, when our actions look differently from different viewpoints. Remember the story that Jesus tells about the rich man and Lazarus; the dude with a Rolex on his wrist and a Porsche in the drive, walks by the beggar at his door and never feels guilty. The rich never see the ambiguity of their situation. They hold in their minds the absurd belief that they have made their wealth by their hard earned sweat and mental acuity, while at the same time singing Amazing Grace, as if their position is a matter of God’s grace. They never see the knowing smile that Mother Teresa had when she said, “I know God will not give me anything I can't handle, I just wish that he didn't trust me so much.” She knew that God only gives wealth to those he cannot trust.
The middle class aren’t much better. We sing “Amazing Grace” but rarely consider the way God trusts us with the ambiguous moral decisions of our daily lives. We have been entrusted with a planet in existential crisis because of humanity’s poor ecological choices. God created it good. Now he trusts us. I wish he wouldn’t trust us so much.
Further loss of ambiguity creeps into our mental state when we consider great sinners, like Jeffrey Epstein or King David of old. We cannot imagine ourselves having committed, without being aware of it, similar misdeeds. I don’t know about Epstein, but David was able to hear Nathan’s story and repent, only because he had good guilt. The kind that arises from a heart willing to hold two thoughts, God’s infinite grace and our own responsibility to live as compassionately and with as much integrity as possible. David did not think that God’s grace let him off the hook. He also had enough sensitivity to his own imperfections to listen when he was being rebuked by the prophet.
“Thou art the man.”
David hears and gets it.
Where we see good guilt in the Bible, it is always in characters who expect ambiguity. Who recognize the capacity we all have for self-deception. This is the primary purpose of preaching. To insert ambiguity into people’s lives. This is the desired outcome of worship, to leave people feeling insecure about their prejudices and assumptions.