A Stick Called Guilt

by Robert I. Hooe

The young man had returned from his junior year at the University. A brilliant youth, he had excelled in all areas of study, particularly the social sciences and the rapidly growing field of psychology. The day was pleasant. His grandfather's farm was as the young man remembered three years before — unchanged, unchanging. Such a day meant the old man would insist they go for a long walk.

The old man asked what the young man learned in his three years of study. As they walked the old man listened, occasionally nodding, sometimes smiling or laughing. But as the young man began to talk of the evil of guilt – the old man stopped. "Is this what your teachers are teaching everyone?" he ask.

"Yes," the young man replied, "because it been proven true. Guilt is bad; it destroys people. Unless a person gets rid of guilt he becomes buried and useless."

The old man thought for a moment. He cut a twig from a nearby tree and began removing the leaves. The young man had seen him do this many times. His grandfather would carry the stick and occasionally wave it in front of them as they walked. "This is a magic stick," he would say. "It scares away the evil spirits that hide in the forest." In time the young man had realized that his grandfather simply used the stick to brush away spider webs that crossed their path, but in his grandfather's hand it still seemed to be filled with the magic of years past – a magic stick.

Abruptly the old man turned, raised the stick into the air and struck the young man's arm. The young man cried out. "Did that hurt?" the old man ask. "Well, never mind, continue with what you were saying about guilt." As the young man continued talking about the evils of guilt, the old man stopped again, raised the stick into the air and struck the young man on the leg Again the young man cried out. "Did that also hurt?" the old man ask. "Well, so be it. Please continue with what you were saying."
The young man began to wonder whether his grandfather was getting too old. Perhaps they should return home. "Please continue." The old man said. "I have missed our walks in the woods." Cautiously the young man continued, carefully watching as his grandfather brushed away the webs. Suddenly the old man stopped, turned, raised the stick and struck a third time.

"Granddad, what are you doing?" the young man shouted.

Sadly the old man shook his head. "You still haven't learned." Again he raised the stick.

When the young man stepped back, the old man smiled. "Well, perhaps you have at least learned something. Why did you step back?" he asked.

"You raised the stick," the young man replied.

"And tell me my wise, young college student, when you saw the stick – the stick that today I will call guilt – did the stick remind you of the pain? Did you think you just might get hurt again?"

"Yes."

"But why does the stick make you fearful? It is only a stick. It is neither good or evil." As he brushed away a web, the old man continued, "By itself it can neither protect from hurt." Then striking himself on the leg, he continued, "Nor cause hurt. It is simply a tool that can only do what I choose for it to do."

The old man slowly turned the stick between his fingers, "Perhaps guilt is like this stick – neither good or evil but simply a tool. If I choose to use it for evil – to allow it to ensnare and weaken me, to let it bury and destroy me – then that is the choice I make. Or I can learn to use it for good – to protect and remind me when I am drawn to do again those things that caused so much harm for myself and others – that too is a choice I can make." The old man threw the stick on the ground. "But if I cast away this tool, certainly it can no longer be used to cause harm, but then neither can it be used to protect from harm."

The old man sighed, picked up the 'magic' stick and turned to leave. "It’s time we head home."
As they emerged from the woods the young man said, "Granddad, I'd like to keep your stick called guilt."

As he handed it to his grandson, the old man ask, "Why do you want to keep this old stick?"
"So I will never forget," was his solemn reply.

Perhaps guilt really is neither good or evil. Perhaps guilt is nothing more than a tool- a gift
that can only do what I choose for it to do, protect or destroy.

For Further Study

Verses to Consider

  • Job 9:20-21
  • Psalms 38
  • Psalms 51:3-4
  • Isaiah 48:22
  • Jeremiah 2:19
  • Jeremiah 2:22
  • Romans 7:24
  • II Corinthians 7:9-11
  • I Thessalonians 5:22-23
  • I Timothy 1:12-15
  • II Timothy 2:26
  • I John 3:20-21

Questions to Ponder

  1. What is guilt? What purpose does it serve?
  2. Which is worse: to feel guilty for doing wrong or to not feel guilty?
  3. When is feeling guilty a bad thing? When is it a good thing?
  4. How should the feeling of guilt be dealt with?