The topic of my current book is how to develop healthy roots of faith, love, and hope. These are the character strengths that we need to overcome guilt, fear, and shame–three huge obstacles to emotional and spiritual maturity.
I’ve been sharing the content of my book, as I write it, with a small group of people. I’ve decided that I will also share part of it in my blog posts for the next few months. I would appreciate comments and questions, as I want my writing to be clear and helpful to everyone.
Today, I am posting the introduction to chapter four–Good Guilt, Bad Guilt, and No Guilt.
My phone rings. I answer it. A trembling voice asks, “Can you help me? Did I do something wrong? Am I guilty for . . . ?”
I ask a question or two, listen to the answers, and say, “No! You are not guilty. You did not do anything wrong. God loves you, and I love you, too.”
“Okay, then. I’m sorry I bothered you.”
“You didn’t bother me. You can call any time.”
“Thank you. Goodbye.”
I hang up the phone, sigh, and offer up a prayer for my caller, who frequently phones with a problem like this. I feel sad because this friend, who loves God and other people and is very conscientious about doing what is right, feels guilty most of the time. It’s almost an addiction.
Like a dark cloud hanging over our hearts, a preoccupation with guilt blocks out joy and destroys our sense of self-worth. It can be a major cause of depression.
Guilt in our society
In the culture where I live, there seems to be two extremes: Some people (like my friend) feel guilty all the time and others (the majority of us) never feel guilty.
Guilt is not a popular topic of conversation. Most of us don’t talk about guilty feelings (if we have them) or think of ourselves as being guilty of anything. We think of ourselves as good people who do good things. When someone accuses us of wrongdoing, we quickly try to find something, or someone, to blame.
Like a child, who with mouth and hands covered with chocolate, denies he got into the cookie jar, many of us claim innocence in the face of convicting evidence. If we are truly good people, will we not have the integrity to admit to our wrongdoing and consequential guilt?
Guilt may not be comfortable, but is it always a bad thing?
- It’s bad when we misunderstand it, use it to manipulate others, cover it up, and get stuck in it.
- It’s good when we understand it, admit to it, and make changes.
What is guilt and who is guilty?
Our definitions of both guilt and goodness vary, depending on our upbringing and the teaching and standards of our subculture. We generally evaluate people on the basis of their performance, labeling some as “good” (not having guilt) and others as “bad” (having guilt).
Biblical definitions of guilt and goodness (whether we agree with them or not) differ from ours. Paul states in the book of Romans that “the entire world is guilty before God,”[i] and Jesus said, “No one is good but One, that is, God.”[ii] That is why we must not engage in name-calling.
Accepting his evaluation of things means we don’t base our goodness on either the lack or the presence of guilt feelings, because guilt is more than a feeling; it’s a fact. It’s the consequence of breaking a law. When I drive twenty miles over the speed limit, I am guilty of breaking a law. I may not feel guilty and I might never be caught. I might feel rather smug about my ability to escape detection, but the fact remains, I am legally guilty of breaking a law.
God gave us laws. His laws are restrictions of love. They are boundaries, or limits that he places on us, so that we will not endanger ourselves and others. God’s laws define love, and he commands us to obey them. Jesus summarized them by these statements:
“You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important:
‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments” (Luke 10:27 NLT).
Which of us can say we have fulfilled both of these commandments? Doing the best we can does not free us from guilt in God’s sight, and sweeping guilt under the rug of our conscious minds does not make it go away. That’s as destructive as an undetected cancer.Undetected cancer destroys our physical bodies. Undetected guilt destroys our souls.
However difficult it may be to recognize and admit to out guilt, when we do so, God forgives us and gives us the power we need to make changes. He wants us to live in the sunshine of his smiling forgiveness, not under the smog-filled cloud of guilt. When, by faith, we accept Jesus’ sacrificial death as a sufficient payment for our failures to live up to God’s commandments of love, we are set free from guilt.
For your reflection
- Are you living in the sunshine of God’s forgiving love, or under a smog-filled cloud of guilt?
- Invite the Holy Spirit to show you any ways that you might be “sweeping guilt under the rug of your conscious mind.” Write down anything he shows you, admit it, receive forgiveness and the power to change.
- Do you have difficulty internalizing God’s forgiveness? If so, meditate on these words from Psalm 103.
The Lord is compassionate and merciful,
slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love.
9 He will not constantly accuse us,
nor remain angry forever.
10 He does not punish us for all our sins;
he does not deal harshly with us, as we deserve.
11 For his unfailing love toward those who fear him
is as great as the height of the heavens above the earth.
12 He has removed our sins as far from us
as the east is from the west.
[i] Romans 3:19 (NLT)
[ii] Matthew 19:17 (NKJV)