I think every character in the Bible has worthwhile things we can learn from, and Judas is no different.
The other day I wrote that I believe Judas may be profoundly misunderstood. Whether my thoughts on Judas end up being accurate or not, there are some things about Judas we do know with confidence, and that we can learn from.
One of the main lessons we can learn from Judas is that there are two kinds of remorse– one is good, and one is destructive. I imagine that perhaps a lot of us grow up not ever knowing the difference between the two– because not all remorse is equal.
From the Gospel story we do know that Judas was repentant for his betrayal of Jesus. Instead of hiding in the bushes and watching with glee as Jesus was executed, Judas was full of remorse and even returned the 30 pieces of silver. While there was nothing he could do to un-do the damage he had done, he did do what was in his control and returned the money in an act of repentance and regret.
And then he committed suicide.
It’s a sad ending to the story. In fact, it’s the worst possible ending, as his initial act of repentance was on the right track– returning the money was a great initial way to demonstrate remorse, repentance, and a change of heart.
But then things went south, and the bad remorse seemed to override the good remorse.
I think I have empathy for Judas on a few levels. First and foremost, as someone who lost a close family member to suicide, I think I connect deeply to those who experience a pain and anguish so deep that they travel down the path towards suicide.
Second, I think I connect with Judas as one who has made mistakes that cannot be undone. I mean, we all make mistakes in life– sometimes accidentally, sometimes deliberately — and some of those mistakes can be corrected. Sometimes you can change course and undo all the damage done. Sometimes things can be fixed.
But other times, no matter what you do, no matter how repentant you are, there’s no way to un-break what was broken.
And to be repentant, regretful, and remorseful over a situation you helped create, but have no power to ever fix? That’s perhaps the worst feeling I have ever felt in my whole life– and that makes me empathize with Judas.
In those moments, however, there are two types of remorse– one that’s good, and one that’s horribly destructive and does not come from God.
While I think this topic could be deep enough for an entire book, let me give a bite-sized look at this:
Good remorse is behavior-focused and inspires change, but bad remorse is self-focused and invites shame.
Good remorse, while painful in the moment, leads to a change of course, a deeper empathy for how your behavior impacts others, and results in an internal commitment to try to live differently.
Bad remorse is equally painful in the moment, but leads to a different result. Instead of focusing on how our behavior impacted someone and wanting to live differently as a result, we internalize the behavior and subconsciously allow ourselves to take on the identity of our behavior. This results in deep shame, self-loathing, and ultimately despair– the kind of despair I imagine Judas felt.
Instead of realizing his actions were wrong and harmful, and grieving those actions in a way that would have led to his redemption (much like Peter who denied Jesus and was remorseful), I imagine Judas internalized what he did to the point of hopeless self-hatred.
To me, remorse is a voice inside your head that will tell you one of two things.
Good remorse says, “I did this, I regret the pain I caused, and won’t do it again” while bad remorse says, “I am this, and I hate myself for it.”
I believe we can learn valuable lessons from anyone in the Bible, and I think there’s a critical lesson to learn from Judas:
Good remorse is a temporary grieving process that gives birth to a better version of ourself; it takes responsibility and commits to living different, while bad remorse will lead us down a path of shame, where at times, death feels like what we deserve.
Good remorse comes from God, and leads us to new life.
Bad remorse comes from the Evil One, and only leads us towards death.
Judas, of course, experienced the bad kind of remorse.
May you and I learn from him.
Dr. Benjamin L. Corey is a public theologian and cultural anthropologist who is a two-time graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary with graduate degrees in the fields of Theology and International Culture, and holds a doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is also the author of the new book, Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith, which is available wherever good books are sold. www.Unafraid-book.com.