Grace and Forgiveness--the Pastoral Approach to
by the Rev. Frank Schaefer
Sin and guilt, confession
and pardon are not exactly part of the hip vocabulary of society. In fact, the word
sin can be perceived as rather intimidating, even oppressive by our contemporaries. If
people only knew that the biblical understanding of the human condition can be so
liberating--indeed, it can help us come to terms with guilt much more effectively
than the fixes society offers.
In popular culture, guilt is typically treated from two different angles,
the justice perspective and the medical perspective. All of us live in the tension
of these very different perspectives.
Alcoholism is an oft-quoted illustration in this debate: To some
degree we are inclined to deal with a person's drinking habit from the medical
perspective. We grant that alcoholism may be--at least to a degree--a genetic bias
and should therefore be treated as a disease. However, we also realize--
genetic bias or not--that the alcoholic is accountable before the law as
alcoholism constitutes a case of substance abuse.
When it comes to dealing with guilt, the justice perspective stresses
human responsibility. Here guilt can become a habit pattern since it begins early in human
existence. Guilt is normally used by parents and authorities as a way of punishing
and controlling. The Justice model promotes and perpetuates
self-punishment. Self-punishment is a natural response to the fear of
greater punishment--if I punish myself, perhaps the authorities will forgo
punishment. It is a well known fact that punishment of self is self-destructive.
The medical perspective, on the other hand, encourages a flat-out
denial. A person may say: "I am not to blame. It's genetic, or it's a
social systems issue." The phrase "I'm ok-you're OK" ( transactional
analysis approach) expresses this position well. However, suppressed feelings of
guilt will likely find other avenues of expression, via anger and depression for instance.
In both the medical and justice perspectives feelings of guilt (or denial
thereof) are self-perpetuated. These patterns of self-perpetuation become a substitute for
true change and personal spiritual growth.
The Christian, or Pastoral Care approach shows us a qualitatively more efficient way to
deal with guilt. Firstly, Christians acknowledge the reality of sin and guilt.
The Christian message is clear: Sin is a human condition and guilt
has a transcendent dimension--it is guilt before God! And only God can break the bondage
But the message doesn't stop there. The good news is that Gods love is
unconditional and God is working in and through Christ to break that bondage and restore
Forgiveness is just as real as is sin and guilt. Forgiveness is received through metanoia
(the NT Greek word for "repentance") which is literally translated "change
of mind." A change of mind is the initial step in the change of direction.
The following graph and explanatory notes explain the Pastoral Care Model in some more
The Medical Model:
Looks for causes of human
misconduct or unethical behavior in models of pathology.
medical/psychiatric (sedative, tranquilizer, abuse: drugs, alcohol)
Rehabilitation following med
adjustment and management/therapy
The resistance to guilt can
move one to deny it when it is indeed real guilt.
Guilt does not disappear in
this model; it is rather denied or transferred.
The guilt, then, becomes
manifest in other tensions which, though distressing, are less threatening than dealing
with guilt punitively.
The Justice Model:
"I am guilty and I have to
live with the consequences"
Human responsibility is
Justice has to be restored in
terms of judgment
Punishment is the way to
satisfaction of law (with occasional show of mercyparole)
The Justice model promotes and
Guilt can become a habit pattern (the source for much false
guilt) since it begins early in human existence.
Guilt is normally used by parents and authorities as a way of punishing and
which is self-destructive.
Guilt feelings may be a
substitute for real change.
The Pastoral Care Model:
pastoral approach to dealing with guilt seeks an experience of liberation from sin
The first acknowledgment is
that sin and guilt are real. Humanity is sinful and needs help from above ("total depravity").
The Good News:
Gods love is unconditional and God is working in and through Christ to break the
bondage and restore humanity.
Forgiveness is received through
metanoia (repentance) which is the Greek work for change of mind. A change of mind is the
initial step in the change of direction.
The experience of
forgiveness and self-forgiveness
can liberate from self-perpetuating guilt and brings true healing and restoration.
Forgiveness does not prevent
legal, medical consequences. It is an
internal reality, and can as such be experienced as unreal (If God forgave me, why
do I still have to be in prison?)
Inmates and inpatients in psych
wards alike often detect that religiosity improves their life and chances for parole,
early discharge, etc. The problem is that
religiosity is often as quickly abandoned as it was adopted following discharge or parole.
Tendency toward cheap
While full restoration is
possible, the faith community is not free from stigmatizing people.