Help for our failures

Barney Zwartz on how Christianity helps deal with the guilt we feel over our disappointments and failures.

I took up table tennis in my middle 50s, and almost immediately became addicted. I played four times a week before lockdown, always with high ambition but seldom with matching results.

God’s sense of humour is evident in the combination he has given me of an intensely competitive spirit and extremely slight ability.

When I am getting coaching, and know where the ball will come, from what angle and how fast, I feel my call-up to the Australian Olympic team is inevitable. Then competitive matches start, and all the coaching goes out the window as I flail ludicrously.

There are far more important areas where I fail, and in that I am in good company: every single member of the human race. Once called original sin, English author Francis Spufford renamed this truth, for today’s generation, the “HPtFTU” (human propensity to f*** things up). Melbourne sociologist John Carroll interestingly argues the underlying issue is guilt, which he says is both a curse and a blessing.

The Apostle Paul writes in the New Testament book of Romans: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” It’s a universal human experience: unless we are sociopaths, every one of us feels disappointment at ourselves and our failures. But that disappointment is vital because it leads us to decide that we don’t want to make the same mistakes over and over. It teaches us that we need help.

Modern psychology is good at helping us deal with false guilt. But if we’re convinced there’s such a thing as real guilt, relief from it cannot come from within. The counterweight to original sin in Western thought was always the love and mercy of a gracious God.