Guilt can be a powerful emotion. It can drive us to ways of being and ways of thinking that are destructive. Guilt can make us strangers to ourselves. It can lead to depression and anxiety.
Avoiding guilt can also lead us down harmful paths. By not admitting our wrongs, we sometimes end up continuing in harmful habits that hurt others and distort our actions. Or, we begin to degrade psychologically and even physically.
The author of Psalm 79 is keenly aware of guilt. So keenly aware, that the psalmist considers every current trial an extension of punishment for the ways his ancestors rebelled against God. Generational guilt is not something we think of often. But it is not a foreign phenomenon for us either. In her book, The Mark of Cain, Katharina von Kellenbach explores how guilt and rehabilitation have affected the people of Germany after WWII and the holocaust. In the United States, I believe we are still dealing with the ramifications of slavery, racism, segregation and Jim Crow laws. Or rather, I should say, I am convinced that some of the ways in which we are not dealing with the ramifications of these actions have led to the racial tensions and misunderstandings that only perpetuate unjust systems in the present. In his book Race Talk, Derald Wing Sue discusses the ways in which we try to avoid talking about race, and the harmful effects that this avoidance engenders.
This notion that God’s wrath extends for generations based upon unfaithfulness is built into the very fabric of much of our Scripture. And more recently, this community-wide effect of guilt has sometimes been used to blame natural disasters and horrific events on people groups that particular Christian groups find distasteful. Specifically, some Christian groups have blamed members of the LGBTQ community. This is simply wrong. There are theological reasons that I think it is wrong to blame natural disasters on LGBTQ persons, about which I could write at length. I am more inclined, in fact, to blame natural disasters on our collective sin of consumption and our disregard for the earth and the resources that God has called to steward. But I want to focus instead on how I see this blaming as a misreading of how the psalms work and how the theological concept of guilt in the Bible works.
Guilt in the Bible
First, guilt should lead not to blaming others, but to introspection. Put Psalm 79 into conversation with Psalm 139. Both of them call for God to punish the wicked. But Psalm 139 noticeably ends with the psalmist calling upon God to examine the psalmist’s own life.
…see that the psalmist is most hurt because the psalmist presumes God’s love and abiding affection. The psalmist presumes the close relationship between God and God’s people.
Psalm 79 is also in conversation with the book of Jonah. In fact, we could almost read Psalm 79 in Jonah’s voice. Jonah deeply desires for God to bless his people and is dismayed when God sends him instead to his enemies, the people of Nineveh, the very oppressors that the author of Psalm 79 wishes to condemn. Jonah is sent with the message that God will destroy the Ninevites for their sins. But by the end of the book, it is revealed that Jonah not only did not want to go to the Ninevites because he hated them, but also because he knew that God really wanted to forgive the Ninevites. In fact, Jonah laments, “That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live” (Jonah 4:2). In Jonah, we have a vision of a God who does not desire to punish people, and does not desire for them to wallow in their guilt.
Jonah’s lament is based on Exodus 34. Many people do not realize that Moses had to go back to God for a second set of tablets with the Ten Commandments written on them. But he did. As Moses was bringing down the first set, the people were already disobeying many of the laws. God certainly did punish some of those people, but God’s full response, which we read in Exodus 34, is even more interesting. More important than God’s punishment, which is almost assumed for the author of Exodus, God does not give up on God’s people. Instead, God demonstrates God’s true identity and character. God tells Moses to tell the people that God is:
a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,
forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,
yet by no means clearing the guilty,
but visiting the iniquity of the parents
upon the children
and the children’s children,
to the third and the fourth generation. (Exodus 34:6-7)
There are a few phrases of note here. The first is the curious phrase “visiting the iniquity.” The word translated “visiting,” has a sense of “paying attention to,” or “overseeing.” That is, God is extremely mindful of the ways in which the consequences of past sins last for generations. God does not erase these consequences. God enables mistakes to shape people, to make them closer to the people God desires for them to be. But God also offers a term limit for these consequences. God only keeps them in mind to “the third and fourth generation.” This seems harsh, but this timeframe pales in comparison to God’s “abounding” steadfast love and faithfulness, which are kept for “the thousandth generation.” God commits to forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.
So we see that there is a conversation about guilt in our Scripture. The weight and emphasis end up being not on our guilt, or on God’s generational condemnation, but rather on God’s abundant forgiveness and desire to heal. I have even left out the way that Jesus fundamentally changes this conversation by refuting, in John 9, the idea that everyone who is suffering must be suffering because of their parents sins. Or how, in the spirit of Psalm 139, Jesus reminds people to “take the plank” out of their own eye before trying to remove a “speck” from someone else’s (Matthew 7:4). In the Bible, guilt is complicated, and rarely straightforward.
Where There’s Smoke
So, where does this leave us with Psalm 79? Well, first, it is important to remember that the Book of Psalms is, in fact, a book. The psalms are in conversation with each other. Especially, sometimes, those psalms that are directly next to each other. So, for instance, Psalm 79 follows Psalm 78, in which the offenses of God’s people are listed. But, Psalm 79 is followed by Psalm 80, in which the psalmist reminds God of God’s love for Israel, Psalm 81, in which God promises to feed God’s people with good wheat and finest honey if they repent, and Psalm 82, in which God chastises the gods of other nations for oppressing the weak and the lowly—perhaps even those like the psalmist of Psalm 79, who complain of being “prisoners” and being “brought very low.” So, in some ways, Psalms 80-82 offer a response to the pleas of Psalm 79. The movement of these psalms go from offense to guilt to a reminder of God’s love, to a promise of care, and finally to direct action against those who cause pain and suffering.
So when we respond to our young people who are suffering, or who feel overwhelming guilt, or who wonder why bad things happen, may we first listen—without rushing to judgment, without trying to fix things, without spreading blame. And then, let us find in that guilt the longing for God.
Even more importantly, from a pastoral sense, we must see the emotions of guilt in Psalm 79 as the smoke of the underlying fire that is a longing for God. Read between the lines against foes, and the expressions of guilt. Look carefully and see that the psalmist is most hurt because the psalmist presumes God’s love and abiding affection. The psalmist presumes the close relationship between God and God’s people. Notice how many times in the first few verses the psalmist uses the word “your,” meaning “God.” The nations have done horrible things to “your inheritance,” in “your holy temple,” to “your servants,” and “your faithful.” The psalmist wonders why horrible things have happened to the people who “call on your name.” The psalmist seems most upset that God seems to be favoring people who do not even know that the God of Jacob exists, while neglecting the people who find their identity in belonging to God.
This is one of the most difficult spiritual places to find ourselves. Many psalmists lament over it again and again. “God, I am trying to follow you; why does it seem like corrupt people thrive while I suffer?” I know I have found myself in this place before. Ultimately, I think our response lies not in trying to affix blame to anyone, but rather in discovering in that lament the longing for God that undergirds the sorrow (this, I think, is the overall message of the book of Job). Job spoke rightly (Job 42:7) because he spoke to God, while Job’s friends only spoke about God. God hears our anger, our rage, our guilt, our jealousy. God is not afraid of our emotions or the consequences of our actions.
So when we respond to our young people who are suffering, or who feel overwhelming guilt, or who wonder why bad things happen, may we first listen—without rushing to judgment, without trying to fix things, without spreading blame. And then, let us find in that guilt the longing for God. And once we have discerned that longing, let us point to God’s abundant love. And then, let us spur each other on to act out of that love, not out of the guilt. We should not avoid guilt; but neither can we let it dominate our actions, or our perception of others.
As you might imagine, there are very few good, singable versions of Psalm 79. And I am reticent simply to recommend songs that talk about forgiveness. We avoid guilt all too often by rushing to forgiveness. So, there are no songs for this week.
Instead, consider participating with your young people in the ancient practice of Examen. The Examen was popularized most by St. Ignatius of Loyola. It is sometimes known as the Examen of Conscience and sometimes as the Examen of Consciousness. In fact, both elements are there. In the Examen, we recognize our faults, and the ways we have turned from God. But we also recognize God’s presence. And we push past recognition of faults to investigate what our emotions might be telling us about what God is calling us to do and who God is calling us to be.
Here’s a fantastic website explaining how to do the Examen simply: http://www.ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-prayer/the-examen/how-can-i-pray.
Here are more resources about the Examen:
Marcus A. Hong is a child of God, the Director of Field Education and Assistant Professor of Practical Theology at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, a PhD Candidate in Christian Education and Formation at Princeton Theological Seminary, and a cultivator of worship who has served in congregations, college chapels, and youth groups for over fifteen years. A lover of movies, fantasy literature, poetry and songwriting, Marcus and his wife Sarah have their hands blessedly full raising two precocious children.