Guilt and the Suffering Servant
“We had all gone astray like sheep, all following our own way;
But the Lord laid upon Him the guilt of us all” (Is. 53:6).
According to Sigmund Freud, guilt is “the most powerful of all obstacles to recovery.” Though Freud himself labored under many illusions, nevertheless, he saw correctly the debilitating impact that guilt has upon the soul and body. Unfortunately, in modern psychology, guilt is usually considered to be merely a feeling—and a negative feeling at that. Nevertheless, guilt is widely recognized among psychotherapists as a terribly destructive force. William Shakespeare (considered by one psychologist as the most brilliant of all psychotherapists who never once treated a patient), knew well guilt’s devastating power and described it in his play, Macbeth, as “life’s fitful fever.” This “fever” can be so debilitating that among other things, it can seriously undermine relationships and derail a person’s entire life. It also often results in mental illnesses such as anxiety, obsessive-compulsive and bipolar disorders. Guilt then indeed, is a most powerful obstacle to the health of body and soul.
Guilt is Detrimental
St. Thomas Aquinas agrees that guilt is detrimental. In his Summa, he says that neither sorrow nor pain is man’s greatest evil, rather, “guilt is a greater evil than punishment.” Guilt is so evil, that according to the Angelic Doctor, it can even prevent a man from entering into Paradise. It is no wonder then, that God who wills the salvation of all men, has provided a sure remedy for this great evil of guilt.
To understand how and why God delivers us from guilt we must first establish the link between the suffering servant and Our Lord. We learn in Is. 52:13-53:12 that it is the suffering servant, who atones for our sin and guilt. When St. Matthew relates the healing of St. Peter’s mother-in-law by Our Lord, he quotes Is. 53:4 “that it might be fulfilled which was spoken through Isaiah the prophet, saying, ‘Himself took our infirmities and bore our diseases’’’ (Mt. 8:17). Later in the same Gospel, Our Lord quotes Is. 53:10-11 and refers it to Himself when He said: “For the Son of Man also is not come to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give His life a redemption for many” (Mt. 20:28). Finally, from the very beginning, the Church has always held to this identification of the suffering servant with Our Lord. In the book of Acts, when the Ethiopian Eunuch asked Philip who the “sheep led to the slaughter,” was in Is. 53, Philip identified him as Jesus. Therefore, as is clear from Sacred Scripture, when we speak of the suffering servant, we are speaking about Our Lord, Jesus Christ.
The Church teaches that the prophecy of the suffering servant foretells of a sinless One, who in our place, and for our sins, would suffer and die like an innocent sacrificial lamb. Essentially, the prophecy is about the Catholic dogma of vicarious atonement because it shows that through His sacrificial act, the Lamb obtains for us peace and justification. Both of these results occur with the eradication of guilt. The truth that Our Lord offered satisfaction for us to God the Father by His Passion and Death on the Cross, was taught by the Council of Trent and would have been raised to a dogma at Vatican I, had the Council not been brought to a premature conclusion.
One verse in particular, in the prophecy of Isaiah, shows clearly how this sacrifice effaces guilt and its effects. Referring to the suffering servant, the Prophet Isaiah writes: “We had all gone astray like sheep, all following our own way; But the Lord laid upon Him the guilt of us all” (Is. 53:6).
Guilt is More Than a False Feeling
For the Prophet Isaiah and for the Church, the guilt here mentioned is not a mere feeling. Though the affective dimension of guilt is not to be denied, the Church understands guilt primarily as a real consequence or effect of a sinful act. Guilt occurs simultaneously with sin. What guilt adds to the notion of sin is in the concept of imputability or responsibility. An English Dictionary defines guilt as “culpability,” “responsibility,” “answerability,” “blameworthiness,” and “fault.” Guilt, then, presupposes and is the effect of an agent who possesses and yet, misuses, free will. One cannot be truly guilty, nor can sin be imputed to an agent, who was not in possession of a free will. Hence, guilt is not only a feeling, but it is also a real state of a soul which is the result of an irresponsible use of its free will.
The Hebrew text of the prophesy of Isaiah, which is quoted above, verifies this understanding of guilt. God is said to have laid upon the suffering servant the “guilt” of us all. “Avon,” the Hebrew word for guilt, means perversity, depravity, iniquity, or guilt. It refers to the consequence of, or the punishment for, iniquity. That consequence of iniquity is what the Church identifies, and the Hebrew scripture defines, as guilt.
The idea that God laid our guilt upon the suffering servant raises an important question: What does it mean for God the Father to lay our guilt upon His suffering servant? If guilt means being responsible, does that mean God takes responsibility for our sins?
To be responsible does not necessarily mean to be the one who commits or causes an act. The word “responsible” comes from the Latin meaning to promise, bind, and to pledge one’s self again. When a father pays the bail to release his 15-year-old dependent, income-less, son from jail after he has committed a crime (which the father never sanctioned or counseled), the father is being responsible for his son. The father didn’t commit the crime, but he takes responsibility for his son and once again pledges to care and bind himself to his son with love and mercy. The father in this case is being responsible because he knows that there was never a reasonable expectation that his son, who he brought into the world, would be morally perfect. And so, the father was responsible for his delinquent son having known from the onset, that he would care for his son be he good or bad.
In a similar way, God the Father was responsible for us when He brought us into the world. From the beginning, God knew Adam would sin. From the onset, God knew of the provision that He would supply to remedy or expiate Adam’s sin. God did not hesitate to act responsibly when He pledged Himself to Adam in the promise of a Redeemer (Gen. 3:15). God promised Adam, that Satan, the accuser of sinful mankind, would be defeated by the seed of a woman—namely Jesus Christ. This defeat could happen because Our Lord assumed our humanity. God, Himself, assumed our sins as His own as when He cried out, “My iniquities (guilt) have overtaken me” (Ps. 39:13). Our Lord was without sin Himself, yet, as St. Robert Bellarmine comments on this verse, He assumed our sins as His own that they might be borne upon the tree of the Cross.
When Our Lord assumed our sins “as His own,” it was not as if He committed them Himself but, being responsible, He takes their guilt upon Himself. As St. Paul says: “having blotted out the bond written in ordinances that was against us (our guilt), which was contrary to us, He also removed it from our midst, nailing it to the Cross” (Col. 2:14). By bringing our sins to the Cross, Our Lord suffered the punishment that must occur in order for guilt to be expiated. Thus God, being responsible toward us, assumed in Himself our guilt when He suffered the punishment for our sins on the Cross and paid the penalty for our sins, that we could never pay ourselves.
Guilt, indeed, is a most destructive reality in the fallen human condition. This is why it needed to be eliminated by God’s responsible assumption of it on the Cross. Because this truth is so important for the life of the Christian, it is re-enacted at every Holy Mass. And during the Mass, we are continually reminded of our need to have our guilt taken away in the frequent petitions throughout the Mass for forgiveness. That God has taken away our guilt by assuming it Himself, is what we ought to be most grateful for throughout our entire lives and especially at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Having our guilt washed away in the Precious Blood of Christ is a gift beyond compare.