written by Debi Russel, BA
As a Christian counselor, I address issues of guilt and shame frequently in the lives of my clients and one question that often surfaces is “Is it bad to feel guilt?” (Which, by the way, is an excellent question as, too often we simply accept our feelings/experiences without questioning them.) The answer is highly clinical: that depends (picture me shrugging my shoulders.)
Webster defines guilt as “the fact of one having committed a breach of law or conduct; the state of one who has committed an offense; the feeling of culpability for real or imagined offenses…” Biblically speaking, guilt involves the breaking of God’s commands and standards, which we typically call sinning. Most people, Christian or not, recognize that we aren’t perfect. As Christians, we understand that “all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory…” (Romans 3:23) So, in part, there are times in which you will have sinned and at that point, guilt is highly appropriate. More important of course, is your response to those feelings of guilt. The bible says we are to confess our sins to God, to repent, or turn away from sin and to make amends with those we have sinned against. (1 Jn. 1:9; 2 Cor. 7:9-10; Js. 5:16) This is a biblical model for dealing with real guilt, and it works! It causes you to acknowledge your faults and therefore face reality. It causes you to get your heart back in agreement with God’s will by confessing to Him that what you did was not in His perfect will for you and was harmful. It causes you to be honest and open with others by going to them to make amends and allows for forgiveness and reconciliation to occur. So in assessing your feelings of guilt, the first thing to do is ask, “Have I sinned?” If the answer is yes, follow the biblical model and those feelings will be resolved.
But, what if the answer is “No. I didn’t sin”? I think it is so interesting that even the dictionary allows for the possibility that our guilt may be based on faulty perceptions. False guilt is as common as true guilt. People pleasing, perfectionism, codependency, brokenness and many other causes contribute to this false guilt problem. And when dealing with false guilt there is a different approach needed to overcome it. In counseling I always say, “There are no ‘shoulds’ unless Jesus says it.” We often come to realize our guilt exists because we have disappointed someone, someone is angry, we didn’t live up to our own perfectionistic standards, etc. At this point, your false guilt will begin to tell you to do something to get rid of the feelings. Apologize, even though you’ve done nothing wrong. Turn your no to a yes. Beat yourself up for hours in your mind. Make it up to the person later- be extra nice. You get the idea. If you obey that voice, it will get stronger. If you’ve been obeying it for years, it may feel impossible to handle the feelings that come with your false guilt. (As a side note, it’s NOT impossible and you CAN stand it because you’re reading this and I’ve done it!) However, if you choose to start disobeying your false guilt, over time it will become smaller. It is helpful to have a supportive friend to share those experiences with as you work to reduce and eliminate the effects of false guilt in your life. The bible says “You cannot serve two master’s…” and “If I were still trying to please men, I could not be a servant of Christ.” (Mt. 6:24; Gal. 1:10) Not only is false guilt emotionally painful, it is spiritually destructive.
There are many wonderful resources for dealing with guilt and false guilt, beginning with God’s word. Read the gospels and make a note of just how often Jesus did not do what people expected or wanted him to do. There are some great books- one of my favorites is Boundaries, by Henry Cloud and John Townsend. And often support groups can help give you the confidence to break out of unhealthy patterns. (We currently have a Codependency Support Group meeting at Branches) Take one step toward dealing more appropriately with your guilt feelings. Ask the question, “have I sinned”, follow the biblical model for sin, and get “very disagreeable” with the false guilt. As Paul says in Galatians 5:1, “It is for freedom that Christ has set you free. Stand firm then and do not let yourselves be burdened by the yoke of slavery.”