Guilt is a very powerful emotion. More than that, it’s one that causes a lot of problems. Of all the emotions, guilt is probably also one of the most complex. This tricky little emotion can plague us, and it is hard to pin down. How do we define guilt? What is its purpose? Is it a wholly negative thing or can it ever be positive? And how should we deal with it if it just won’t seem to let us go?
Guilt is generally defined as the emotion we experience when we feel (rightly or wrongly) that we have done something wrong – by our own inner moral code or by someone else’s rules. It’s function is to draw our attention to things we have done wrong – things which clash by the rules we aim to live by. It is closely related to shame – in fact some psychologists use the terms interchangeably – except that shame is generally a more public emotion – what we feel if our mistakes or bad decisions become common knowledge, whereas guilt is a more private, inward emotion.
In the Beginning…
It is interesting that guilt and shame first appear in the Bible directly after Eve takes her first bite of the forbidden apple, and sin enters the world. Before this we are told that God looks on his creation and sees that it is ‘good’. This word, the Hebrew word ‘tov’ means that something is good and beautiful but more than that, it means it is just as it should be. God’s original creation was just as it should be. It was God’s ideal for us. Then something happened. Eve took fruit from the tree ‘of the knowledge of good and evil’ (Genesis 2:9 +17, NIV). Intriguingly the name of this tree again uses the same word ‘tov’, but contrasts it in a very ‘black versus white’ way with an opposite, evil. Thus creation pre Eve’s actions was all about God’s ideal, but afterwards something else was introduced which was far from the way things ‘should’ be – in fact it was the opposite of what God wanted.
Guilt and shame stem from our awareness of something being ‘wrong’ when compared to God’s plan or desire for us. It may relate to a specific law or commandment, or it may be a sense of our own actions having conflicted with what God would want us to do. Guilt is not something that was part of God’s ideal – it wasn’t necessary then, because the things far from his plan simply didn’t exist. Guilt isn’t sinful, instead it is a necessary product of sin being in the world. It is, one could say, an awareness of things being the opposite of what God would want them to be.
Guilt is tricky: sometimes we feel guilt because we are painfully aware of how far we ourselves are from God’s ideal; other times guilt is triggered by something way outside of us, something in the world which is the opposite of what God would want. When we carry this second kind of guilt we carry a burden that isn’t our own.
The bible teaches that ‘all of creation is groaning’ as it ‘waits in eager expectation’ (Romans 8:19, 22 NIV). More than that, the same passage talks about how the creation has been subjected to frustration ‘by the will of the one who created it in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.’ (Romans 8:20-21). That word in verse 20, variously translated as ‘frustration’ (NIV), ‘vanity’ (KJV), ‘futility’ (NASB), is the same one as used in Ecclesiastes 1 when Solomon cries out ‘everything is meaningless’. (Ecc 1:1 NIV). It carries that same essence of things being so far from the way God intended them to be, and the emotion it generates when we become aware of this gulf between our world and God’s ideal. The key message from Romans 8:19-22 is that our experience of that feeling is designed to push us one way only, towards God and a greater understanding of what God desires for us: freedom from such things and a return to his ideal. Guilt has a very similar role – when it ‘works’, it pushes us towards good things – it fuels a healthy passion to see change and an energy moving back towards God’s way.
However, guilt, like many things in God’s creation, can also be twisted in our sinful world, to have a wholly negative effect on us. If guilt, instead of driving us out of ourself and towards what God desires, can become turned inward and eat us up as we become more and more aware of our own inadequacies. This kind of guilt undermines our sense of who we are. It challenges our intrinsic value and can leave us incredibly vulnerable, as we take the blame upon ourselves. This kind of guilt pushes us into isolation as we withdraw – not just from other people but also from God.
Paul talks about two very different kinds of distress in 2 Corinthians 7:10 – different in the impact they have onus, in where they drive us: ’Distress that drives us to God…turns us around. It gets us back in the way of salvation. We never regret that kind of pain. But those who let distress drive them away from God are full of regrets.’ (The Message). Guilt, when it is positive or constructive, drives us closer to God and God’s promises for us. But when it is negative it opens up a gulf and consumes us.
False guilt + guilt driven ‘passion’
Some people – in particular often those who have experienced great trauma – abuse or suffering often at the hands of other people – carry this kind of guilt even though what they experienced was through no fault of their own. They become convinced that they are the opposite of what God intended – I’ve heard many people talk of a fear that they are intrinsically ‘evil’ or ‘bad’ people. this kind of guilt can be overwhelming, and difficult to escape: it tends to smoulder and resist our efforts to deal with it, rationalise it or drive it away.
At a lower level, guilt can have an impact on many of us. Think about why you do what you do – why you are passionate about things: what drives you. Passion usually stems from how much we care. It drives us towards certain aims and goals, leads us to pursue things uncompromisingly. We are called to be passionate people, to love God ‘with all our passion’ (Matthew 22:37 The Msg), and promised that this passion will keep us going through tough times. The strength of love that underlies our passion is an incredibly, Godly, powerful force. ‘The passion of love bursting into flame is more powerful than death, stronger than the grave’ reminds the poetic wisdom of the songs of solomon (Chapter 8:6 CEV). As Christians we want to be passionate for the things that God is passionate about. We want to be driven, our motivation to be the same as God’s. We want to love and care deeply (see Romans 12:10).
But, there’s another kind of passion – a kind not flowing out of our love, but driven by our guilt. If we’re honest, sometimes we find that our actions are motivated by guilt rather than compassion. As leaders sometimes we’re guilty of trying to motivate people with guilt rather than passion and vision! We do what we do, not because we want to but because we need to in order to try to drive away our guilt.
The problem with passion that is fuelled by guilt is that it tends to be very destructive. It is unrelenting, exhausting and all consuming. It associates with fear and vulnerability and can lead to resentment and other emotions which drive us apart. It is physiologically and emotionally very stressful. We have to be particularly careful because from the outside this passion can look just the same as its more positive relative. But it hides a dark secret and is far from healthy.
How should we handle guilt? Three questions to ask yourself…
1. Where has it come from?
Its really important that we are wise about what is triggering our guilt. Is this guilt our own or is there a chance that it stems from something that is or was far out of our control? We must be careful about just accepting guilt without questioning it. Think ‘am I really guilty here?’ or ‘Is this something within my power to do something about?’ If you are carrying guilt for something that isn’t actually your fault, is outside of your control or responsibility or that you cannot change, the problem is not you but the guilt! You need to reject that, and seek God’s help to be freed from it.
If however, your guilt is justified – if your actions have been unwise, hurtful or negligent, then the solution is simple: do something about it. Too often out guilt paralyses us – instead of making amends, we make ourselves miserable.
2. Where is it driving you?
The second important question about guilt is about the impact it is having on us. Positive guilt or conscience leads us towards God and towards positive change. Does your guilt make you take positive steps? Unhelpful or negative guilt drives us into isolation. If your guilt makes you want to hide away, or is causing you a lot of stress you may need to get some help with dealing with it. Vow to be motivated by passion, not guilt.
3 – What does God say?
‘Positive’ distress drives us towards God and if there’s one area we need God’s wisdom it is where guilt is concerned! It is vital to seek God in prayer, but also to listen to God’s response. Remember that this response might come from lots of places: the bible, other people, teaching you hear etc
If you are struggling particularly with guilt it’s good to share this with someone. Your instinct might be to keep it to yourself but we know that instinct doesn’t tend to lead anywhere positive. Choose wisely about who you share it with, and be cautious: don’ go telling everyone and make sure that whoever you choose will keep it confidential. It may be that it is easier to share it with someone outside of your normal friendship circle: a counsellor or member of the pastoral/leadership team.
Be wise about separating in your own head what God says from what your emotions say. 1 John 1:9 says that if we confess our sins, God forgives them. If you still feel guilty, then that guilt could well be misplaced (ie not yours to hold). God does not condemn you (Romans 8:1), so try not to condemn yourself. You may need to forgive yourself, and finding that kind of forgiveness is much more difficult than seeking forgiveness from God.
For those struggling with persistent or distressing feelings of guilt
If you know (or if you have been told) that the guilt you feel is not your own, for example if you are a survivor of abuse or a traumatic past, know that recovery from that guilt is a very gradual process that does take time. This is even if you ‘know’ (ie have been told) what God says about it. The time and journeying it takes for that ‘head’ knowledge to become ‘heart’ knowledge can be considerable. This is not a sign of a lack of faith or effort on your part.
Be encouraged: it is possible to be healed from this kind of guilt and pain, but be aware that it takes time. Try to avoid those with insufficient understanding of this complicated area: do not take on board people who feel you ‘should’ have been healed by now or who make you feel condemned. Seek instead those who help you to seek and turn to God.
Here’s a great prayer to say again and again: ‘Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.’ (Psalm 139:23-24 NIV). Remember above all that emotions do not necessarily equal truth. So, just because you feel guilty doesn’t mean that you are. Don’t let your own emotions condemn you when God doesn’t
Need to read more?
Two friends of mine: Rob Waller and Will Vanderhart have written a great book about guilt and how to deal with it, check out The Guilt Book.