Christianity teaches that every man, woman and child suffers from a congenital heart disease. The essence of the disease is that our hearts love and desire the wrong things, and its aggravating complication is that our hearts are distressed by guilt.
To love and desire the wrong things is sin, for the word means to miss the mark. To love and desire loving and desiring the wrong things is “living in sin.” A hardened sinner lives in sin in the same way that a fish lives in water. He is immersed in his sin. He loves the “water,” hates the “air,” and is proud to be a hard and finny creature of the deep.
But most sinners are soft rather than hard. A soft sinner lives in sin guiltily, not proudly. He knows what he does is wrong, and hates it in his mind; yet he continues to do it because he loves it in his heart. This soft sinner lives in sin like a frog, his bulbous eyes peeking from the surface of the pond, but his flesh securely rooted in the water and slime. He sees the shore on which he knows he should be perched, snapping up mosquitos with his long and whippy tongue; but he is governed by a weak heart that too much loves the water and slime.
The soft sinner stays in the pond because he lacks the will to do what he knows he ought to do. Thus he suffers from heart disease and he knows it. Because he has a heart disease and knows it, he develops the aggravating complication of guilt. Guilt comes, after all, from the consciousness that one suffers from heart disease.
Let me digress for a moment on guilt. Guilt is one form of shame, the other form being embarrassment. Embarrassment is caused by a failure of skill, as when I do not know which fork to use at a formal dinner, or I cannot complete the arithmetic problem the teacher has asked me to solve on the board. I am embarrassed when I speak a foreign language poorly, or I play a game clumsily, or am so unskillful as to loudly belch at table.
But I would never mistake the shame of embarrassment for the shame of guilt.
Embarrassment is caused by a failure of skill; guilt is caused by a failure of will. It is awareness of my congenital heart disease, my congenital disposition to love the wrong things. I know that I should eat an apple, but my heart fails and I reach for a cookie. I know I should go outside and walk in the sunshine, but my heart fails and I sprawl on the couch. I am a frog with bulbous eyes that peek from the surface of the pond, and that see the shore where I know I ought to be; but I have a weak heart that keeps my flesh fixed in the water and slime.
Modern psychology teaches us that we suffer from weak heads, not weak hearts. It tells us that we are in many cases sadly misinformed, but that we are all at bottom men of good will and sound hearts. When we are sufficiently educated in the merits of apple-eating and sunshine walking, it is confident that we will no longer be found munching cookies or sprawling on the couch. And this same instrument of education will free us from the irrational hang-ups and inhibitions that distress our hearts with needless guilt–that prevent us from following our bliss and diving, like some hard and finny creature, to the very bottom of the pond.
Traditional Christianity teaches us that we are not for the most part ignorant of what we ought to do, and that knowledge of right conduct is, in fact, a prerequisite of the guilt that most of us feel. It tells us that we require a new heart, a regeneration of the will. And this new and regenerate heart will not fail us when we know we ought to swim to the shore, mount the bank, and set to the righteous work of snapping up mosquitos with our long and whippy tongues.