Gratitude for Guilt, for Grace

As Thanksgiving celebrations take place this week, my thoughts have repeatedly turned to gratitude—what it is, what it means, and perhaps more importantly, how to express it. The Oxford English Dictionary defines gratitude as “a warm sense of appreciation of kindness received, involving a feeling of goodwill towards the benefactor and a desire to do something in return” (gratitude n.1). But from the early 16th to the late 17th century, “gratitude” was synonymous with “grace, [or] favour” (gratitude n.2) and “a free gift; a gratuity, reward” (gratitude, n.3). A king, for example, would extend gratitude, or grace, to loyal subjects, as demonstrated in this example from 1524: “Without considring the manyfolde gratitudes that the Kinge hathe and intendeth to shewe unto theym” (T. Wolsey in State Papers Henry VIII (1836) IV. 204).

The etymological intimacy between gratitude and grace is striking, given that God asks for gratitude when He extends us grace. Psalm 100 teaches:

Know ye that the Lord he is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto him, and bless his name. For the Lord is good; his mercy is everlasting; and his truth endureth to all generations. (Psalm 100:3-5)

This scripture passage highlights two key elements: God is the inception of goodness, or inherently good, and we are infinitely in his debt. This debt ever increases with each moment that he graciously sanctions us to be “his people,” stay in “his pasture,” enjoy “his mercy,” and learn “his truth.” Without him, we are nothing; without him, we “can do nothing” (John 15:5). And yet, here we are, “made…a little lower than the angels…crowned…with glory and honour… to have dominion over the works of thy [God’s] hands” (Psalm 8:4-6). The abundance of grace that God extends, without reservation, is overwhelming. But it is especially so when extended to me, one so lowly, so unworthy. When contemplating God’s grace I cannot help but feel an abundant, overwhelming wave of guilt for all this goodness I do not deserve.

The etymological intimacy between gratitude and grace is striking

I have been grappling with ideas of guilt and gratitude and grace both this semester and last, having been immersed in the fiction of Marilynne Robinson. Her latest novel Jack explores these themes in the tragic love story of Della, an African American school teacher, and Jack, a wandering vagrant white man, as they struggle against anti-miscegenation laws and cultural customs that demand they stay apart. The novel opens with Jack alone in a St. Louis cemetery, “a corner of Eden where the bad news had not arrived yet,” wandering among the headstones to find a place to spend the night (84). His loneliness echoes that of Adam, who was left to dress and keep his newly gifted garden alone—the weight of which must have been severe, for God soon after observed that “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Gen 2:18). Jack seeks such isolation because he self-identifies as the Prince of Darkness, the name given to Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost. He finds this name fitting, almost reassuring, of the guilt and regret and despair that plagues him. He fears the harm he feels is inevitable from his touch, his breath, even a casual, careless, off-handed thought. No matter what he does, or how hard he tries, his “inward man—renewed day by day—[is] the same blasted nuisance every time. Sometimes I wish I were just a suit of clothes and a decent shave. Uninhabited, so to speak” (42). Whether he means them to or not, things always go wrong for Jack.

I can’t help but love and pity Jack because I understand him. At times, I am him. For centuries, readers have been doing the same with Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost, encompassed as he is in tragedy and suffering and imperfection. There is something all too unmistakably human in his fall from grace, in the keen pangs of a “conscience [that] wakes despair…wakes the bitter memory / Of what he was, what is, and what must be” (4.23-25). Lengthy isolation can prompt such thoughts (perhaps this is one reason why the Biblical record states that it is not good for man to be alone) and Jack, Satan, and even each of us, experience this isolation. What makes Robinson’s novel so interesting and so ornate, then, is her re-imagining of the Prince of Darkness’ fate by highlighting the exceptionalism that is all humankind and the possibility of one, even such a one taken in darkness, accepting grace.

Milton’s Satan, having already fallen from heaven and already rejected grace, has no hope of escaping damnation, no hope of escaping the hell that is himself. He mourns his Paradise lost: “which way shall I fly / Infinite wrath, and infinite despair? / Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell” (4.73-75, emphasis added). Jack feels similar, “caught in the snares of loyalties he could only disappoint. Maybe this was hell…No flames at all, just an eternity of disheartened self-awareness. Outer darkness. Wailing and gnashing of teeth” (204). It is at this moment in Milton’s epic that Satan considers, even for just a fleeting moment, turning back, or repenting. Despite knowing that God would still accept him, he yields once again to temptation and once more rejects grace. Yet with Jack, Robinson proposes another fate for the Prince of Darkness. What if someone had turned to Satan—in his ranting and raging, his lamenting and languishing, his planning and plotting against heaven—and rebuked him, saying that he was no Prince of Darkness, but rather “a talkative man with holes in his socks” (40)? This is what Della does for Jack, and it stops him in his tracks. He is stunned to see her extend grace to him, Guilt personified, and yet this is exactly what the Savior, Jesus Christ, has done for each one of us.

But Jack feels he cannot change, saying that, “Forgiveness scares me. It seems like a kind of antidote to regret, and there are things I haven’t regretted sufficiently. And never will. I know that for a fact” (166). He does not understand grace. He does not comprehend how such a thing can be extended to a creature like him—so unworthy. Yet grace would not be grace if it was deserved, a point Robinson emphatically repeats throughout her work. And in some sense, Jack is as worthy of grace as the next, worthy because he is a human soul, valued and irreplaceable, inherently part of an “abiding sacredness” (Robinson 256). The thought that Robinson prompts here is an interesting one: what if, in that moment of doubt and turmoil, Satan had not been alone, but had instead accepted grace?

I am grateful for guilt, then, because it helps me to remember grace

Robinson argues in her essay “Son of Adam, Son of Man” that the humanity of Christ emphasizes the divinity of man. Lucifer was once a son of the morning, once “Clothed with transcendent brightness [to] outshine / Myriads” (1.86-87). Robinson argues that “it is possible to claim a dignity for humankind that is assured because it is bestowed on us, that is, because it is beyond even our formidable powers to besmirch and destroy” (256). This same dignity would have been bestowed upon this wayward son of the morning, making him worthy of such grace. Perhaps, if circumstances had been different, he would have acted differently—or perhaps not, but the doubt and near repentance of Milton’s Satan suggests as much. Jack does this, as in the end, he allows himself to accept the grace Della extends and be banished together with her, leaving their corner of “Eden” for the harsh and dreary world. He learns to see the loveliness in “the sweet marriage that made her a conspirator with him in it, the loyalty that always restored them both, just like grace” (309). These implications of grace demonstrate Robinson’s belief in human exceptionalism and the possibility of accepting grace and goodness despite, and even perhaps as a result of, humanity’s fallen state.

I am grateful for guilt, then, because it helps me to remember grace—God’s grace, extended to me so freely. And, remembering God’s grace, I am filled with such overwhelming gratitude that I cannot help but want to “Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto him, and bless his name” (Psalm 100) and “desire to do something in return” (gratitude n.1). Perhaps, in this season of gratitude and guilt and grace, I can be the Della to an unsuspecting Jack—not just a grateful acceptor of grace, but a gracious extender of it as well. Perhaps I can more intentionally look for the exceptional dignity that is another human being. Accepting the grace extended to us by the Savior, and extending grace to others and ourselves, then, is how I will express my gratitude this season for mercy everlasting.

This post was written by Kim Hansen, a Humanities Center Student Fellow

Works Cited

The Bible. Authorized King James Version, Oxford UP, 1998.

“gratitude, n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, September 2022, 19 November 2022.

Milton, John. “Paradise Lost.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature, edited by Stephen Greenblatt, 10th ed., Vol. B, W.W. Norton and Company, 2018, pp. 1495-1727.

Robinson, Marilynne. “Son of Adam, Son of Man.” The Givenness of Things, Picador, New York, NY, 2016, pp. 240–257.

Robinson, Marilynne. Jack. Picador, 2020.

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