Dan Trathen DMin, PhD Clinical Psychologist & Certified Business & Life Coach

Grappling with Guilt

By Daniel W. Trathen, D. Min. Ph. D.

I once read of a practical joke Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of Sherlock Holmes stories, played on some of his respected friends. He sent a message to each of which stated, “Flee at once, all is discovered.” Within 48 hours every one of his friends had left the country.

It is impossible to go through life without making mistakes. It is appropriate for us to feel remorse when we have unnecessarily or willfully acted in a hurtful manner toward ourselves or another person in a way that violates our standards. All people sin and do wrong things! The very fact that we feel regret means we have a conscience. If we suffer from guilt it is better to take one or more of the following actions to relieve the distress than to wallow in a “pity (guilty) party”.

First, define the problem and be willing to take personal responsibility for your contribution to it and its consequences. The Bible closely associates guilt and punishment. The threat of punishment is meant to be a deterrent to Christians and their behavior. Guilt is a God given emotion for us when we have been disobedient and crossed over a moral or ethical boundary. An attitude that does not recognize or deal with guilt separates us from God (Hosea 5:15). David’s prayer in Psalm 51 stands as an example to us of the fears that accompany guilt and the hopes which are the outcomes of forgiveness and cleansing.

Second, express your regret without being defensive. “I am sorry for. . . .” Do not make excuses by saying “I’m sorry I . . . , but . . .” Here God offers us a way of release from our guilt. In Matthew 5:23 and 24, Jesus spoke of our need to make things right with others as a part of the process of dealing with our guilt. “So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come offer your gift.” It is interesting that the Temple altar was used primarily in services designed to expiate guilt.

Third, God gives us a way to make things right. “If we confess our sins he is faithful and just, and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:9). In other words, once we have been forgiven and cleansed, what would you have done differently if you had the opportunity. “I wish I had. . . .” identify a specific action that could have made the situation different.

Fourth, it offers us the hope that the Holy Spirit will guide us in a new direction with a new aspect of character and power to change our actions in future situations (Jude 24). Even if we are unable to do this with the person we hurt, we can still make amends by being different with others. This offers us a living hope that we need not repeat the same offenses (I Peter 1:3-11). Guilt has it’s God given purpose to keep us from making the wrong decisions. However, there is another kind of guilt that we must grapple with and that is not God given, but fear produced. In these situations we may or may not have done anything wrong, but we may have failed to meet someone’s unrealistic/realistic expectations of us. What we do with that false guilt can paralyze us.

Most people feel either too much or too little guilt. The chronically guilty take responsibility for everything bad that has ever happened to them or their loved ones. The chronically innocent do not hold themselves accountable for any bad consequences of their actions. It is easier to tone down a sense of over responsibility than to build one in people who have little. However, by owning our part of a problem and only our part, we model how to make amends and make it more difficult for others to shift blame.

Rejection, constant criticism, being told our feelings are wrong, or being blamed for others problems can foster guilt, self-depreciation, and shame. All this can create a mindset of excessive introspection and self-analysis which can further lead to faulty thinking like:

“I’m defective, bad, or unlovable.”
“I’m responsible (for things I can’t control).”
“I don’t do enough.” “I have to be perfect.”
“My feelings are wrong.”
“I have to keep people happy.”
“Others’ feelings come before my own.”
“I’m responsible (for things I don’t cause).”

If we are predisposed by life experience and our negative self talk it is easy to have a false guilt or take excessive responsibility for anything that goes wrong. We may magnify what we’ve done and take personal responsibility for everything that goes wrong, instead of realistically understanding ourselves. Rarely in these instances is a problem all one person’s fault or as bad as it seems at the moment. Make your introspection work for you by reexamining your “wrongdoings” and putting them in perspective. Use the four guidelines to grappling with guilt and seek to “…recognize the spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood” (I John 4: 6c). I do not recommend playing such a reportedly cruel joke on anyone like Sir Arthur Doyle did. However, the Scriptures do teach that we will face God one day and I hope all of us will grapple with our guilt before then by fleeing from sin at once, because all is already known! After all, the only one we are fooling is ourselves.

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