Guilty or Not Guilty
"Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death."1
"Why do I feel so guilty when I haven't done anything wrong," someone asks. Another asks, "Even when I have asked God to forgive me for things I have done wrong, why do I still feel awful?"
I think these are questions many struggle with. I certainly have in the past. The problem lies in the confusion between real guilt, false guilt, and shame.
First, let me again qualify real guilt. In the Bible and in our society guilt is a legal term. If we have disobeyed God or the law of the land, we are guilty whether we feel guilty or not. The appropriate emotional response for when we have done wrong in biblical terms is godly sorrow. This is the way we rightly feel when we have sinned and done wrong. If we don't, we may have a dulled or dead conscience. However, at least in our Western society, we tend to think of guilt as an emotional response, so that's the way I will address it here.
With real guilt, as we said yesterday, when we confess our sin and wherever possible put wrongs right, we should no longer feel guilty. God forgives us and we are no longer under condemnation. If we still feel guilty, chances are it is false guilt and/or shame.
True guilt says you have done bad (or badly). False guilt makes you feel bad even when you are not guilty. And shame says you are bad; that is, a bad person. The latter two are both psychologically damaging and are conditioned or learned responses.
For example, some children grow up in families where guilt is used as a means of control. That is, the message (usually non-verbal) is communicated that if you do what I want you to do; behave the way I want you to behave; conform to my wishes; and for some, if you believe what I want you to believe, I will give you my love and approval. If the child doesn't conform, love and approval are withheld and the child is made to feel guilty. This kind of love is called conditional love, which isn't love at all. It's control. And tragically, false guilt is often used in religious circles to get adherents to conform to leaders’ dictatorial control—and people who don’t conform are made to feel guilty. This is false guilt.
On the other hand, if a child grows up with a condemning family and constantly gets the message, "Shame on you … you are such a bad boy (or girl)," over time this message is programmed into his subconscious mind and he comes to believe deep down that he is a bad, shameful person. So when things go wrong—even if he isn't responsible for it—his shame-based belief about himself is triggered and he feels wretched.
So how are we freed from false guilt and shame?
To be continued.…
Suggested prayer: "Dear God, thank You that when I confess my sins to You, You forgive me and I am no longer condemned because You paid the penalty for me for all my sins. Please help me to know and feel the freedom as a result of sins forgiven. If I still feel bad, please help me to see if I am struggling with false guilt and/or shame. If so, lead me to the help I need to overcome this problem. Thank You for hearing and answering my prayer. Gratefully, in Jesus's name, amen."
1. Romans 8:1-2 (NIV).