Freedom From Guilt
"Dear Sir, I have been a Christian for almost a decade," writes a Daily Encounter reader, "but I have this overwhelming sense of guilt. I cannot seem to shake it. What can I do?"
Dear Stephen (name changed), you are not alone in your struggle. It's a problem many experience. To overcome, it is essential to understand the difference between true guilt, false guilt, and shame. Some psychologists claim that guilt is psychologically damaging. This is not correct regarding true guilt. We ought to feel guilty when we have done wrong. If we don't, we face the danger of developing a seared conscience. It's false guilt and shame that are psychologically damaging.
While true guilt says you have done badly, false guilt makes you feel guilty even when you're not. And shame says that you are a bad person not only when you have done something wrong but often when you haven't.
With true guilt when we have admitted that we have done wrong, confessed it to God and asked for his forgiveness, and where necessary asked the one we have hurt for his or her forgiveness—and wherever possible have put right the wrong we have done, the guilt feelings go. As God's Word assures us, "If we confess our sins, he [God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness."1 When we confess our sins, God forgives us … and then we need to forgive ourselves.
However, if after confessing our sins we still feel guilty, guilt is not the problem. If, for example, I am a perfectionist and have unrealistic expectations of myself and am beating myself up because of what I did wrong, the problem is my perfectionism. Or if as a child I was controlled by an overbearing parent and made to feel guilty if I didn't conform to his or her every demand, present situations where I have done wrong or even did something my parents had opposed—even if there was nothing wrong with it—can trigger those old memories and feelings of false guilt.
After confessing our sins we still
feel guilty, guilt is not the problem.
Or if my early life was shame-based; that is, if whenever I did something wrong an angry or critical parent repeatedly said in a harsh tone, "Shame on you … you bad person," as an adult whenever I do wrong, or even feel I have done wrong, I will feel that old shame regardless of how irrelevant it may be today.
So, how do we overcome?
Many readers will be familiar with David's sin of adultery with Bathsheba and his ordering her husband, Uriah, to be killed in a vain attempt to cover what he had done. The only person he fooled of course was himself. What he did wasn't hidden either from God or his own conscience. In today's Scripture it shows how he struggled with his guilt but then when he confessed it, he felt free from his guilt—and greatly relieved.
He wrote, "Day and night your hand of discipline was heavy on me. My strength evaporated like water in the summer heat. Finally, I confessed all my sins to you and stopped trying to hide them. I said to myself, 'I will confess my rebellion to the LORD.' And you forgave me! All my guilt is gone."2
Resolving false guilt and shame aren't as simple to overcome because neither one of them is guilt—regardless of how they feel.
As already noted, false guilt comes from early conditioning, usually from parents, but it can be caused by legalistic religion too. To overcome this issue one needs to re-condition his thoughts and feelings. It starts with recognizing what is true and what is false. When feeling guilty, ask yourself, "Am I really guilty? Did I really do anything wrong?" If not, tell yourself, "No, I didn't do anything wrong and I am not guilty." The more you do this (with strong feeling), the more you will be able to slowly recondition your feelings and thoughts.
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