Guilt can be such a heavy burden to bear. When you are trapped in it, it can be difficult to see how to get free. Like having cement blocks for shoes, guilt can weigh you down, hold you back and keep you from the life of freedom, peace, joy and service you were meant to have.
Over the years I have had a number of opportunities to work with women struggling with feelings of guilt and shame. Having personally wrestled with these emotions as well, I have had to do a lot of thinking about their root causes and cures. While the process of being set free is often just that—a process—I want to offer some thoughts that have been helpful to me and I hope will be helpful to you as well.
First, it is important to realize that there are two types of guilt: true, moral guilt and false guilt. Both of these can result in the same feelings, but they have very different cures. Therefore it is important to sort out our true moral guilt from our false guilt and deal with each of them accordingly.
True moral guilt is something all human beings have before God. Romans 3:23 tells us that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” True moral guilt is not just a feeling, but a reality as a result of our sin. Any thought, word, deed or motive that falls short of God’s standard of holiness is true moral guilt.
Whenever we sin we should feel guilt. That is a good thing. Those who lack the ability to feel guilt freely go through life unhindered by their self-centeredness. They go on wounding others and doing as they please. Those who are bothered by their failure to love know that they need forgiveness and they need to change the behavior, words or motives that have fallen short of God’s standard.
The good news is that Jesus, through his sacrifice on the cross, offers us the cure for our true moral guilt. As 1 John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins (agree with God about our guilt), he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Though we may still feel guilty after confessing any known word, deed or motive to God, that doesn’t mean we are still guilty. In fact, the Scripture says that we are declared righteous. We are given the gift of Christ’s righteousness in place of our sin and we are given the aid of the Holy Spirit who helps us to change from our old, sinful ways of living.
If we still feel guilty after confessing our true, moral guilt to God, then we dare not let those feelings dictate what is true. The truth is we are forgiven and free of our guilt. If we still feel guilty it is often because we have not really believed God has forgiven us or we have set ourselves up as a higher judge than God, refusing to allow ourselves to enjoy the freedom God has given us until we have paid the penalty we think we must pay. A truly humble and obedient act is to fully receive God’s forgiveness and let go of the guilt and shame that is no longer ours to bear.
In addition to true moral guilt, many of us struggle with feelings of false guilt. That is, we feel guilty for things that do not involve any true moral failure on our part. For example, some of us feel guilty for relaxing or taking time off, for saying “no” to someone’s request of us, for expressing our desires or opinions or for asking for something from someone else. We may feel guilty for having needs or see ourselves as imposing on others if we express our needs. Sometimes we feel guilty for the choices and behaviors of those close to us. Their failures become ours and we feel responsible.
Anyone who has struggled with false guilt knows it is a very debilitating thing to live under. If we are to be set free to be truly all God means for us to be in this life we must deal with our false guilt as well as our true moral guilt.
I have found that false guilt usually points to the fact that we are taking responsibility for and/or trying to control things over which we have no control. Anytime I take responsibility for things like the feelings, thoughts, opinions or behavior of others, I am setting myself up for failure and false guilt.
Often the thing we most desire to control is others’ opinion of us or those we love. We try to control that by being perfect or expecting those close to us to be perfect. That is, we don’t want to do anything that might upset another person or cause them to be disappointed in us. If we do things like express our needs, desires or opinions or say “no” then we put in jeopardy their good opinion of us. Of course, since none of us is perfect, we constantly feel we have not been “good enough,” constantly feel fearful of displeasing others and generally feel guilty.
Sometimes the person we have the most difficulty pleasing is ourselves. We become intensely self-critical, expecting more from ourselves than from anyone else. Again we set up the unreachable goal of perfection to be met before we can accept ourselves or believe ourselves to be acceptable. Rather than trusting in God’s acceptance of us through Christ, we become our highest and harshest judge.
In the case of false guilt, the cure will never be found by trying harder to be perfect or to please others. The cure is in humbly accepting our imperfect selves and relinquishing what we cannot control to the God who loves us and is in control.
When we let God manage the feelings of others toward us, allowing him to give us what we need when he determines we need it, then we can rest free from a lot of pressure and false guilt. This is where false guilt loops back around to point to true moral guilt, for if we confess anything, it should be the sin of failing to trust God for our security—trusting in the opinions of men isntead.
While God commands us to love others, nowhere does he command us to always please them. In fact, at times love will bring about the opposite effect, just as it did for Jesus. Therefore if we are to live a guilt-free life, our job is to take care of our true moral guilt through confession and repentance, relinquishing to God the opinions, choices, behaviors and feelings of others that we cannot control by being “good enough.”