Paul never experienced guilt or other psychological states familiar to Americans.
Recently, I wrote about Paul’s so-called “conversion.” Remember when Paul persecuted the followers of Jesus (Galatians 1:12-14; 22-23; cf. with the spin of “Luke,” Acts 7:58—8:3)? Recall how the anonymous author of “Acts” reported that Paul held the robes of those who stoned Stephen (Acts 7:54-60). Do you think, after he encountered the Risen Jesus, Paul felt guilty about that? If so, you are wrong. Paul never experienced guilt.
And do you remember how King David reacted when the prophet Nathan exposed his shameful actions (2 Samuel 12:1-25)? Psalm 51 is said to describe the turmoil of a repentant David. Do you think David or the Psalmist experienced psychological guilt? If so, you are wrong. When you read Psalm 51, don’t trust your English Bible. David was like Paul. Just as Paul never experienced guilt, so also David never did either.
Remember how Peter wept when he denied Jesus three times (Mark 14:66-72; Matthew 26:69-75; Luke 22:54-62)? Recall the scene in the appended John 21. Do you think that Peter was heartbroken with guilt (John 21:17)? If so, you are wrong. Just like David and Paul never experienced guilt, so also Peter never did. Stop thinking these people are Americans.
Paul & Friends Were Not Americans
The Bible was not written for, by, or about Americans. Paul, David, the real Psalmist behind Psalm 51, and Peter were not American individualists. Like Jesus, they were all anti-introspective, collectivistic Middle Eastern personalities. As such, they didn’t know psychological guilt. “Catholic guilt” and “Jewish guilt” applied to Scripture are double-anachronisms.
Seeing That Paul Never Experienced Guilt
To see why Paul never experienced guilt, and why no other Biblical character did either, we have to explore the cultural world of Scripture. Specifically, we need to understand how different societies control human behavior.
How do societies, like ours or that of Biblical culture, force people to behave according to social norms? Context Group scholar Dr. John Pilch would ask his U.S. college students something interesting to get at this. Why would parents trust their 18-year-old collegians to be responsible at university hundreds of miles outside their presence and influence? It was because these parents depended on the upbringing and training they had previously given their kids. They trusted that inside their freshmen offspring lived an internal monitor, a Jiminy Cricket police officer issuing boundaries and maintaining rules.
And should American college students violate these rules, the internal monitor (a meta-self Sigmund Freud called the “superego”) would respond. How? By flooding their system with “psychological guilt,” a social control. This sanction is so powerful! So too are the internal conflicts it breeds. Sometimes, Americans and other introspective Westerners need psychologists and/or psychiatrists to untangle what results.
Paul Never Experienced Guilt, But Knew Shame!
This way of being human is utterly alien to the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern world of Paul. In fact, the entire Bible is oblivious to it. You can’t find any psychological guilt in Paul or anywhere else in the Bible. The reason being that biblical people are anti-introspective—not only do they not “look inside,” they believe they CANNOT look inside. This results in no guilty feelings! Instead, everything in the Bible concerns honor and shame. Hence anti-introspective Paul never experienced guilt!
Whereas psychological guilt is internal, honor and shame are external. The social sanctions for Middle Eastern people like Paul apply external pressure. Go to Italy or any number of Mediterranean cultures. Watch taxi-drivers purposely turn the wrong way onto a one-way street. Watch the driver and his or her concerns. The important thing is that no one sees them do it. Because if no one sees them do it, no sweat! However, if they are caught doing this, this results in shame.
Paul Wasn’t Western
Was Paul a Westerner? Was he socialized to experience psychological guilt? Of course not. Well, since he wasn’t introspective, don’t expect Paul to have experienced any guilt whatsoever. This includes when he recalled his ruthless persecutions of the “Followers of the Way” before encountering the Risen Lord.
Instead, Paul experienced tremendous shame for having believed that Jesus—the Messiah and Cosmic Lord—was a criminal and deviant, someone who deserved crucifixion. Paul was ashamed for being so learned at Israel’s customs, yet nevertheless missed the most critical reality for Israelites!
Paul Never Experienced Guilt, Unlike Americans
Unlike U.S. people, just like Paul never experienced guilt, he also never got anxious about doing, achieving, competing, reaching goals, winning, and American stuff like that. Alien to the Western experience, Paul never worried about such things.
In contrast, Americans feel satisfied when we believe we succeed, but we feel guilty when we think we’ve failed. Mainstream United States culture forces its members to react that way. It employs guilt as a powerful motivator. Indeed, guilt is found wherever there are introspective individualists. If you’re living in an inner-directed society, you will discover psychological guilt’s internalized social control.
The Mediterranean Paul Never Experienced Guilt
Paul’s world, the cultural world of Scripture, is foreign to all of that. For the Mediterranean Paul, everything revolved around interpersonal contentment. Therefore, in the social world of the Bible, people need to be content with whatever they already have. Thus, it would be shameful for any biblical individual to be concerned about moving ahead of others, or achieving more, or becoming better than other people.
Instead, what Paul and other Mediterranean persons got anxious about was infringing on others. This plays into honor and shame.
Societies control human behavior by way of anxiety, a panhuman experience. Every society conditions its citizens to become anxious for approval, acceptance, and applause. Therefore, all people become addicted to doing what their society expects of them, mainly because of two reasons—internal pressure or external pressure. Internal pressure works on an internalized norm (guilt). In contrast, external pressure works on a sense of shame, meaning sensitivity to public opinion.
What human being wouldn’t get anxious about achieving standards, meeting expectations, and reaching goals? However, in most cultures, external controls (stuff like public opinion and widespread publicity) are the most effective means of controlling human behavior. Such is the case with “honor” and “shame,” core values for cultures like the Mediterranean Biblical world of Paul. In his culture, all unacceptable social behavior must be suppressed.
Paul Never Experienced Guilt, But We Do!
But is this how things are in mainstream U.S. culture? No way! Even glancing at it shows that feelings of honor and shame are poorly suited at controlling American social behavior.
Look at the disgraceful antics of Bill Clinton, Ted Kennedy, and Richard Nixon. Despite their shameful behavior, they have all been praised and honored since their scandals exposed them. Look at the number of indictments that members of the Reagan administration faced in various courts. And yet, how many of these disgraced people went on to play again in the game of American politics? Ours is not an honor-shame culture, folks.
Middle Eastern people suppress behaviors from feelings of shame. Still, they are quite aware of what they would enjoy doing if given a chance. External circumstances dictate suppression.
Now, if you really want to control Americans, you’d be better off employing the internal sanction of guilt. External controls don’t work for introspective individualists. Instead, internal controls do. Over here in the West, people are socialized to repress unacceptable social behavior. We are made to bury agonizing and unpleasant experiences deep into our subconscious minds. Psychological guilt results emerging from this burial. Vague, it is challenging to specify! Many of our internal dramas generating guilt happens by way of repression.
So did Paul feel any guilt? Assuredly not. Why? Because the Mediterranean cultural world of Paul is simply not a guilt-culture.
Folks, this gives us yet another reason why it is inappropriate to say that Paul “converted.” For us Western introspective people, there’s a whole psychological dimension to our conversions. Not so for Paul when he met the Lord! The same is true for the repentance of David and Peter or any other biblical character. Theirs were different experiences than ours.
Ancient collectivists (like Paul) simply did not know each other very well psychologically. While we 21st-century Western individualists stress knowing ourselves psychologically or emotionally, biblical people were different. They were oblivious about psychological development. Therefore they couldn’t care about it. Hence, unlike us introspective people, Paul and friends were anti-introspective.
Because of this, whenever American Christians comment about the feelings and emotional states of biblical characters like Paul, 999 times out of 1,000, they are merely being anachronistic, projecting Western cultural sensibilities onto ancient people. This is just one of many ways we are “ugly Americans.”
Without being culturally-informed, the homilies suck, don’t they?
So, Yeah, Paul Never Experienced Guilt
Unlike Americans, Paul cared about how others thought of him (honor/shame), not how he personally thought of his individual reality (winning/guilt).
Ultimately, in the Bible, “conscience” cannot mean what it does in Western culture. Instead, biblical conscience is the accusing voice of other people, not an interior Jiminy Cricket of psychological guilt. Biblical (i.e., Mediterranean/Middle Eastern) conscience means group-conscience because Biblical “self” implies a group-self.
The identity-question of Biblical people like Paul wasn’t our Western, “Who am I?” Instead, the question of biblical people were those asked by Jesus in Mark 8:27–30: “Who do PEOPLE say that I am?” and “Who do YOU [plural] say that I am?” This vital information came from significant others in one’s group and not from a personal, individual inner voice.