Is guilt necessary for a safe and healthy life?
Guilt can be useful to restrain us and redirect us. People who don’t experience any guilt are dangerous to themselves and to others.
Not all guilt, however, is good for us. Guilt can become a burden too heavy to carry- draining the joy out of life.
Unresolved and unnecessary guilt can trap us in a prison of despair (see: Psalm 32:3-5). It’s possible to hurt ourselves and others by not dealing constructively with guilt in a grace-based, future-oriented way.
Let’s take a closer look at guilt as starting point for deeper conversation
Guilt (subjectively) 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; some is invalid. Distinguishing between valid and invalid 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. These things were condemned in his tradition. 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
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.
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 past or present abuse. 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 bondage to guilt into the liberating power of God’s love.
Those who wallow in guilt refuse to believe God’s promise of forgiveness. When we have difficulty fully receiving forgiveness, it’s a call to humble yourself 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