The Concept of Sin and Guilt in Psychotherapy

The Concept Of Sin And Guilt In Psychotherapy
Charles A. Curran
Layola University

You are all familiar with the perceptual figures used in psychology, especially to ilustrate Gestalt concepts. One the particular you recall, is, either an attractive young girl or, an extremely ugly old hug, depending on which perceptual clues you are focused. If, by chance, you see the old hag first, it is sometimes extremely difficult to see the young girl, one finds great difficulty in appreciating how others are reacting to the ugliness of the old hag.

This seems to fit something of the problem of guilt an sin. Understandably in psychotherapy we usually see the effects of these concepts in very ugly forms in the ways they have effected the lives of disturbed people. And from this focus, it is often difficult to see that these same concepts might have, for others, a positive and constructive value. Alterntely, when one absence of desirable goodness for which on is striving and the stimulation and urging oneself on the greater efforts to acquire that goodness, one in apt to have difficulty understanding the horror and ugliness these same things can produce in many people’s lives.


I would like, therefore, to consider both aspects of this question. Aquinas defined vice or evil as turning completely to oneself and away from others, whereas virtue, as he saw it, was the consistent capacity to turn to others, not as rejecting opposing oneself but as giving onself in an act of love to others. Christ ssummed up all the Commandments positively when He said, “Love God above all and your neighbor as yourself”. That is to say, this is a balanced integration between our own rights an duties to ourselves and our own self-meaning and the rights others have and their meaning as persons and our duty and love towards them.

Looked ar in another way, sin is always a failure to love. “The sinner,” said Aquinas, “does not love himself enough.” In not and respecting himself dequately, he cannot really give himself as something worthwhile to others in love or to God and he does evil to himself in place of good.

It would, therefore, be a patient or client distortion to make a state of individual sin synonymous with worthlessness. On the contrary, David in the Jewisg tradition and Paul and Augustine in the Cristian tradition could be held up as classic examples of people who admitted having committed very grave sins and yet as sinners recognized their own worth in God’s forgiveness an redemption. Christ said, He that without sin cast the first stone” to the crowd around the adulterous woman and no one dared and the crowd sheepishly an shamefully dispersed. Of Mary Magdalen he said  only, “because she has loved much, much is forgiven her.” In fact, the classic figure of Judas does not really involve his sin as such – Petter’s was probably as great – but his horrible and violent self-condemmation and his despair. This is the final temptation of sin, to refuse the possibility of being made whole again and of being a decent person in one’s own eyes who is worhty of others’ love and the love of God. In the light of this, what sins a patient or client has committed are not the issue, but his willingness to love again and to let himself be forgiven and to forgive himself.

The positive notion of love – not sin – is the real basis of the central Judaeo-Christian theological tradition.

Intellectual Insight Not Enough
We certainly must come to grips with the questions Mowrer has raised – the basic inadequacy of either psychology or psychiatry to resolve the essential fear of loss that is behind every human achievement or purpose. We must face too, that while there is a tendency towards disorder, a lack of expected integration between what man knows and convinced he should do and what he actually does. Paul stated it thus, “The good I would I do not, and the evil I would not, that I do.” That is, insight alone is certainly not enough as Mowrer has emphasized. Rank, we know,  soon saw this and insisted, contrary to Freud, that when people changed, the changed not because someone gave them insights but because but because they acquired a whole new view of themselves in the therapeutic experience of feeling and willing. This awareness has had very significant result not only the increasing psychotherapeutic research an skill, particularry under the title of client-centered therapy.

Such concepts would definitely relate to a value scheme of very ancient Judaeo-Greek-Christian origin. This quite a different viev of morality and values, than the Kantian catagorical imperatives and Rousseaunian simple insights and goodness, with which our most recent ethical concepts have been so heavily influenced.

Exaggerated Self-Condemnation
But we must meet too, Ellis’ equally cogent point, particulary his stress on the horrible self-condemnation that sin and guilt so often produce as we witness them in their distortions in the psychotherapeutic interview. If sin is not really  the issue – we are in fact all sinners in some form or other – but this violent self-condemnation and rejection, under the guise of a distorted notion of sin and guilt, something must be done to help change this.

Exchange of Viewpoints
Certainly, as Mowrer suggests, more intelligent coorporation and mutual understanding and respect must develop between the clergy and the psychological and psychiatric professions. Serious thought must be given too, to those factors which cause this distorted view of sin and guilt to be prevalent and the degree to which this gravely affects mental illness.

At a recent conference in which I had the opportunity to participate, a group of representative people gathered and discussed the place of religious education in the training of psychiatrists. There was much agreement on the idea that some basic religious awareness was necessary for the psychiatrist so that he could distinguish between his patient’s religious distortions and confusions, and the actual theological doctrines which the patient’s religion really teaches. This would, I believe, apply equally to the psychologist, social worker, etc. A number of the people in the group – among them psychiatrists and psychologists – maintained that the clergy as a whole probably knew more about what the psychiatrist and psychologist were doing than these professions understood of the religious backgrounds of their patients or clients.

Be that as it may, we surely need much more mature religious and theological presentation particularly on a university and professional training level. We must bring together adequately prepared people in psychology, psychiatry and theology to examine, as we are doing here, some of the complex problems which these  interrelationships inevitably involve. Finally, perhaps, this kind of mature and informed interchange must become a consistent part of all our professional training – clergy, psychology, and psychiatry.

There is another way, however, of considering this question. We are all familiar with the child who is, by a strange and rare exception of nature, born without any reaction to pain. We know that he is tragically handicapped because he has no capacity to feel the warmings of pain and thus to avoid or recoil from, or at least to face, situations that are physically very dangerous or injurious to him.

In somewhat the same way sin and guilt can be perceived in a positive light even if they are not the main point of the Judaeo-Christian theological tradition. Theywarn us of the dangers to ourselves, they alert us to the isssues that we must face at the time when we wish to avoid facing theam. We would seriously handicapped without some warning and alerting signals in our psychical, spiritual life. This does not mean that we seek guilt and sin any more than we seek to increase pain. Yet we have only done ultimate harm to a patient if by drugs or neurosurgency we have removed his feeling of pain without in any way removing the causes of this pain. He is all the more gravely handicapped and his cure can be all the more difficult  for him because be has been led to think that feeling no pain, he is actually well.

Consequently, in the light of this function of the feeling of sin and guilt as alerting man psychologically and spiritually, I wonder if anything would be accomplished by changing names. “A rose – and sin – by any other name” would both come out to be the same thing after all. They are intrinsically bound up with both man’s freedom and his responsibility. Rank pointed this out, in the following.

Free will belongs to the idea of guilt or sin as inevitably as day to night and even if there were none of the numerous proofs for the inner freedom of the conscious will, the fact of human consciousness of guilt alone would be sufficient to prove the freedom of the will as we understand it psychologically beyond a doubt. We say a man reacts as if the were guilty, but if he reacts so it is because he is guilty psychologically but feels himself responsible, consequently no psychoanalysis can relieve him of this guilt feeling by any reference to complexes however archaic (1936, p. 62)

Looked at in this way, it would seem that, however desirable it might or might not be, we cannot separate feelings of guilt and sin from the whole psychological process of personal and social reasoned responsibility. To do atherwise would anly weaken the person psychologically.
The Therapeutic Conscience

In the last century or so, as a result of what seems to me to have been a Cartesian, Rousseaunian and especially Kantian philosophical influence, we have tries to saparate moral responsibility from reasoned self-understanding and awareness. Conscience was reduced to a bundle of Kantian catagorical imperatives coming from outside, from one’s parents, family, and what is now even more threatening, from the state. On the other hand, it is becoming increasingly evident that the therapy process itself – no matter how it is brought about – is a process of rational self-awareness and personal responsibility. It is a  movement from a negative irresponsibility for oneself to an  acceptance of responsibility for one’s actions toward self and others. We see this suggested in the following interview excerpt of a woman who has extricated herself from the miseries of sexual infatuation:

. . . but when you stop and think of what could have happened why you see things different. (Long Pause) . . . but I know even now, just by not seeing John, I’m better physically and spiritually too ( Curran, 1952, p. 149 )

It is evident here again in this excerpt from another therapist of a man now out of a series of peccadillo affairs:

. . . I think, among other things that have transpired here, you have through your subtle process stimulated my consciense gland. ( Laughs ). Before I was a free agent. But now it is pleasant to think that before I wasn’t immoral, but certainly amoral, and now I feel that I would like to be a moral person. There is over-all a sort of healthy resolve on my part. I think it’s healthy to walk in the paths of righteousness without being dramatic about it, simply  because I can find life more worth being ( Snyder, 1957).

It was this tipe of awareness of the central source of responsibility that caused Rogers to say in his APA Presidential Address in 1947:

If we take the remaining proposition that the self, under proper conditions, is capable of recognizing, to some extent, its own perceptual field, and of thus altering behavior, this too seems to raise disturbing questions . . . We discover within the person, under certain conditions, a capacity for the restructuring and the reorganization of self, and consequently the reorganization of behavior, which has profound social implications. We see these observations, and theoretical formulations which they inspire as a fruitful new approach for study and research in various fields of psychology ( Rogers, 1947 )

Sin and guilt are, in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, also the result of conscience. We see this in David, in Paul, in Augustine. But it is an entirely different conception of conscience than the Kantian blind and often unreasonable categorical imperative.

Conscience, says Aquinas, according to the very nature of the word, implies the relation of knowledge to something: for conscience may be resolved into cum alio scientia, i.e., knowledge applied to an individual case. But the application of knowledge to something, is done by some act. Wherefore from this explanation of the name it is clear that conscience is an act . . . ( Aquinas, 1947).

A recent  theologian explaining this has said:
Conscience is the intellectual conscience or reasoned awareness of right or wrong in a situation here and know to be judged . . . It is the same cold reason with which we work out a problem in mathematics, - only, to be entitled to the name conscience, it must be engaged upon issues of right and wrong, good and bad, and not upon mathematics quantities. The judgment of conscience is always reasoned judgment. ( Glen, 1936, p. 294).

One major goal of counseling psychotherapy is the movement of conscience toward a contructive and practical outcome.

Self Awareness-Before and After Therapy
Counseling can aid in this process because, as the person mirrors himself and slowly sees all the factors that enter into given series of actions, he grows more able to develop the immediate means to a reasonable solution. This seems to be the basic difference before and after counseling. Before counseling the individual may and usually does consider himself guilty of an unreasonable series of action. Sometimes this feeling of guilt is excessive. In this case he must, and often does, slowly correct this excessive self-blame as he comes to a more adequate understanding of himself, his pas influences and what he has done. But counseling, as in the two excerpt cited, does not always do away with guilt. The person may still feel his acts are truly, wrong but in the beginning, while he recognizes the wrongness of his actions, he is glued to the immediate needs which are desirable and attractive. He feels himself unable to do without the things which fulfill these needs. Through counseling, he is able to see that, while these immediate needs are pleasurable, they are ultimately unhappy and dissatisfying. Moreover, he can now perceive other factors which, in his focus on these immediate pleasures, he previously avoided considering. As he begins to act on these new insight, he find taht they bring him greater permanent happiness and selfaproval. This in turn further stimulates him to follow his reasonable judgment.

Conscious Struggle for Responsibility
Unless a person makes a conscious effort to grasp all the integrated factors that enter into a situation, he may find himself led quickly by a particular emotion to seek an immadiate good which is temporarily satisfying, but is at variance with the integration of the total good which he is seeking. He is responsible for having failed to make an integrated effort because he has the basic ability for such integration. It is not an adequate excuse for the person swept along by his emotions to say  that he could not help it. In many instances he could have controlled these impulses. With the aid of a skilled counselor, he can objectify and see all the factors which enter into his pratical choices. As long as he fails to do this, he may be quickly conditioned by the emotional tonea which particular persons, places or things have for him. These emotions may be so strong that, unless intense effort to prevent it is made, he will find hemself swept along a path of conduct which is unreasonable and which in the long run solves nothing.

A person who seeks help is capable of broadening his perceptions by reasonable analysis so that he can combat this tendency to immediate reactions and precipitant judgment. He can slowly learn to take solutions which include much greater integration of the various factors which wnter into his problem. We see this taking place as we compare the early interview excerpts with later ones in which  these attitudes form themselves into integrated unified solutions. These, in turn, give a realistic and accurate evaluation of the complex aspects of the personal problems presented.

It is difficult to know where responsibility lies in cases of this sort. Objectively, we can consider any unreasonable act morally wrong. We cannot, however, always make the person performing that act completely responsible since, in particular instances his responsibility may be diminished either from lack of knowledge, which could be considered invincible ( that is, which he had no opportunity or obligationto acquire ) or by the degree to which his emotions made him incapable of acting reasonably at the time.

A person’s  conscience ( as a function of his own reasoning ) can witness and retain evidence of past unreasonable conduct as well as given approval or disapproval to present actions and serve as a guide to the future. In this sense, if we were to do away with conscience – that is, the person’s capasity to make a reasonable judgment about his conduct – we would do away with one of the main forces for therapy.

Theological sin as distinct from sin and guilt generally considered, implies at least implicit acceptance of and relation to a Supreme Being. In this sense sin is not only against ourselves and/or our neighbor, but that same sin being against ourselves and/or neighbor is also against God.

But here too, sin and guilt cannot be separated from love. “God is love,” says John the Evangelist in the New Testament, “and he who dwells in love, dwells in God and God dwells in him.” Sin is therefore in some way an impediment to this love between God and man much like the insentive, inconsiderate and selfish person withdraws and prevents the love of others from in his love relationship with God. A line in the Psalms says. “He who commits sin is the enemy of his own soul.”

This idea that sin is ultimately againt God, has profound implications for another important point Ellis raises – using sin as a reason for condemning other as worthless and inferior. Psychologically we know this is most often, if not always, a compensation for refusing to face one’s own guilt and sense of sin which provides a vicarious satisfaction through trying to make someone else mor sinful. This reveals the profound psychological sublety in Christ’s warning, “Judge not, that you be not judged.” This kind of condemnation of others is not only psychologically vicious and unsouns but it is directly againt the core concept of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. This tradition is one of sincere and realistic humility before God in the face of another’s sin and the intence self-awareness that as has been said, speaking of a sin of another, “There, but for the Grace of God, go I do.”
The Concept of Sin and Guilt in Psychotherapy