Guilt often has a way of restraining and redirecting us. People who don’t experience guilt are dangerous to themselves and to others.
But not all guilt is good for us. Guilt can become a burden too heavy to carry. It can suck the joy out of life. Unresolved and unnecessary guilt can trap us in a prison of despair (see: Psalm 32:3-5).
I’ve seen people hurt themselves and others by failing to deal constructively with guilt in a grace-based, future-oriented way.
Take a few moments for a closer look at guilt.
I offer this as a starting point for deeper conversations about guilt.
Guilt is a message of disapproval sent to our minds which says, “You should be ashamed of yourself!”
Sources of guilt
The primary sources of guilt include conscience, family, tradition, law and religion. It can be self-induced or projected on us by others. Some guilt is valid while some is invalid. Making this distinction is related to the two dimensions of guilt.
Two dimensions of guilt
Guilt has two possible dimensions: objective and subjective. It’s possible, for example, to feel guilty (subjectively) when there is no valid basis for guilt (objectively). Yet it is equally possible to be guilty (objectively) without any feeling of guilt (subjectively). If I violate the law, for example, I am objectively guilty regardless of my feelings.
Examples of misleading guilt
- Although she did nothing wrong, a victim of incest often feels guilty for actions committed against her.
- A man who came out of the Amish lifestyle admitted struggling with guilt when he used modern appliances and decorated his home. In his tradition, these things were condemned. But this type of guilt is invalid because it is not based on objective, God-given standards of right and wrong. In other words, the man felt guilty without actually being guilty.
Two types of guilt
- Constructive guilt
Guilt is constructive when it corrects us and keeps us on the right path. People who lack the capacity for such guilt hurt themselves and others. Constructive guilt is future-oriented and based on forgiveness.
2. Destructive guilt
Guilt is destructive when it becomes debilitating. Even when we are actually or objectively guilty, we must move beyond condemnation to forgiveness. If we do not, guilt will rule our lives and rob us of the joy God offers through forgiveness and reconciliation. Destructive guilt is past-oriented and based on a refusal to receive forgiveness and embrace freedom from emotional bondage.
Two negative responses to guilt
This could include self-punishment, self-deprecating statements, inability to receive compliments, a martyr-complex, difficulty in saying “no” to the demands of others, feelings of inferiority, insecurity, inadequacy, alienation, depression, and a pessimistic outlook on life.
This could include self-pity, blame-shifting, self-excusing, a defensive spirit, and self-justifying anger.
Both of these responses lead to turmoil and misery. They rob one of peace and freedom. A better way to resolve guilt is to respond constructively to failure and disobedience — in a grace-based, future-oriented, and other-centered context.
Responding constructively is a choice
Failure and disobedience are part of life. We all struggle with guilt and need forgiveness. A constructive response to guilt is a choice to resolve it in a grace-based, future-oriented, and other-centered context.
It’s a decision to refuse to hold against yourself the sin God does not hold against you.
It includes a conscious determination to embrace the NT promise of I John 1:9 – “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”
Guilt for some people is the result of abuse from others. It’s generally best in such cases to seek a counselor to work through the causes behind abuse based guilt. Through the assistance of wise counsel many have found their way out of the bondage of guilt to the liberating power of God’s love.
Others, however, choose to wallow in guilt because they refuse to believe God’s promise of forgiveness. The person who is having difficulty fully receiving forgiveness must humble herself under the sufficiency of God’s amazing grace (See: Romans 5:8; 8:32).
- Why do I still feel guilty? Eight possible reasons
- Guarding cherished resentments
- A closer look at forgiveness