What do you do with your guilt?

Lots of people have been raised on guilt like it was their bread and butter. If they didn’t measure up in any way, guilt! If they transgressed in any way (whether the Bible defined it or the parents defined it didn’t always matter), guilt! Guilt was made to seem like the way of the Christian. If you weren’t feeling guilt, then you wouldn’t stay in line. Guilt was the fence to keep people from going crazy.

This guilt came from fear, because Christian homes were afraid of the world out there, and the hedonism it advocated. They felt that they needed to erect barriers against the world’s influence. Guilt is a powerful weapon in the hands of scared parents. Of course, since many parents never told their children what to do with the guilt (since, if they did, they would lose their best weapon, and the children would go berserk!), the children learned to find ways to cope. Unfortunately, these ways of coping did not take away the feeling of guilt.

The various ineffective ways of dealing with guilt include distraction (food, entertainment, fun events, idealistic crusades, feverish workaholism), self-atonement (making oneself feel really bad, and even guiltier than before, even wallowing in it, so that one can atone a bit and feel a bit less guilty afterward), projection (if I make everyone around me feel guilty, then I will feel less guilty: one suspects this the real origin of the “Jewish mother” caricature), and ignoring it (this never works very well even temporarily).

Feelings of guilt can come from two sources, and these two sources must be handled quite differently. 1. Feelings of guilt can come from actual sin. There is only one way to deal with this kind of guilty feeling: take it all to the cross, to Jesus. Burdens are lifted at Calvary, as the hymn says. However, some people have a proud streak in them, and they won’t let go of their guilt feelings even if their actual guilt before God is gone. Here is it vitally important to make a distinction between actual guilt and feelings of guilt. After all, it is possible to feel guilty even when one has done nothing wrong. It is also possible, through a seared conscience, not to feel guilty even if one has actually sinned. If a person is not letting go of their guilt even after taking it all to Jesus and repenting, then the theological point must be made: this is pride speaking. The person is saying that Jesus’ blood isn’t really good enough to cover all my sins. I need to “double atone” by feeling guilty, even after I read that Jesus has forgiven me. This is a deep theological problem, which can only be answered by stressing the divinity of Christ, and hence the infinite value of Christ’s sacrifice.

2. The second source of feelings of guilt arise out of things that are not sins, but which the person has been duped into thinking are sins. These would be man-made additions to God’s law. The answer is different: education must take place about what God actually requires and what He doesn’t. Here we can think easily of the questions of alcohol, smoking, and other things that fall within the realm of Christian liberty. Of course, Christian liberty is always bounded in these matters by the weaker brother: we never want to make someone else stumble. However, and teetotallers seem to be especially prone to instigating this, we can easily be made to feel guilty by someone who believes in “not a drop.”

The million dollar question that remains is this: if we were to shed all this extra, unneeded guilt, how in the world will we stay in line? Several things need to be said here. Firstly, guilt does not keep people in line! If a person feels guilty, they are most likely to think, “Well, since I’ve already done this, what’s a little more sin?” They are not likely to think that they do not want to become more guilty. Secondly, the cross of Christ has resources not just for forgiveness and the removal of guilt, but also the removal of sin’s power in our lives. we have the Holy Spirit! Remember our theology: justification never happens without sanctification coming along for the ride! Actually, what we need to know is that the beautiful feeling of a clean slate is much more motivating to holiness than guilt is. For then we can plug into the gratitude that we know when we are forgiven. We then have a good thing: we wouldn’t want to damage it. This is a far more effective way of dealing with guilt than the ineffective ones listed above.

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16 Comments

  1. February 7, 2018 at 6:25 pm

    Very good. I like the distinctions between true guilt, false guilt, and guilty feelings, and the need to be able, theologically and spiritually, to discern the differences between them and to apply the appropriate remedies to each.

  2. roberty bob said,

    February 8, 2018 at 10:06 am

    Guilt is God’s verdict against the sinner who has broken God’s Law.

    Those who say that they feel guilty are actually feeling shame for having done what they know, or believe to be, wrong. Other people can put shame on you for doing something of which they disapprove, but which is not in violation of God’s Law. God only puts shame on those who have disobeyed God’s Law; in such instances it is good to feel ashamed, admit to the guilt, repent of the sin, receive forgiveness, make restitution, be restored.

  3. naw4717 said,

    February 8, 2018 at 11:25 pm

    I John 1:9 rings in my mind: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

  4. roberty bob said,

    February 9, 2018 at 10:16 am

    Guilt is not a feeling. Guilt is a verdict passed down to you from a judge. God is the righteous judge over all creation. Judges are also appointed by governments to pass down verdicts in our civil affairs. Parents are judges of the conduct of their children. Elders serves as judges in Christ’s church. Peers judge their peers. We people judge other people (even though we shouldn’t) and declare the guilt of whom we disapprove. Guilt is the verdict upon those who break a law or fall short of a standard. Guilt is not a feeling. People cannot feel guilty. The so-called guilty feeling is in fact the feeling of shame that comes upon a person whose sin or crime is found out and exposed. Adam & Eve were guilty of sin the moment they ate of the forbidden fruit. When they were found out by God, their sin exposed, they felt [not the guilt, but] shame! It is a good thing to feel ashamed of oneself when one is actually guilty of a misdeed. Feeling shame is a sign that one is aware of, and in agreement with, the guilty verdict against him.

    In today’s corrupt American culture you hear a lot about the practice of virtue signaling and shaming in order to get the court of public opinion to render its verdict by declaring “the opponent” guilty of the trumpeted misdeed. The idea is to get everybody to regard the opponent as guilty of something he may never have done, and this can be achieved by heaping huge amounts of scorn and shame upon him. There are many sad accounts of victims who are made to feel ashamed, when the guilt lies entirely with the predator and persecutor.

  5. greenbaggins said,

    February 9, 2018 at 12:28 pm

    Bob, you are nit-picking here. If one wants to call it “shame” rather than “guilty feeling,” okay, but that is irrelevant, really, to the point I am trying to make, which is that sometimes we feel as if we have done something wrong, when in fact we haven’t. Your taxonomy doesn’t seem to allow for that possibility. You seem to think that if a person feels shame, that it is because they are guilty in fact, when they may not be.

  6. roberty bob said,

    February 9, 2018 at 12:41 pm

    “You [speaking about me] seem to think that if a person feels shame, that it is because they are guilty in fact, when they may not be” — gb

    No, that is not at all what I seem to think, as my last sentence in post three indicates.

    I am not nit-picking. Even the most basic dictionary definition of guilt and guilty do not bring feeling into it. Theologically, it is the same. You should be able to distinguish between guilt and shame, and also admit that shame speaks of the feeling aspect of which you speak.

  7. greenbaggins said,

    February 9, 2018 at 12:44 pm

    Bob, people use the term “feeling guilty” all the time. If you want to call it an informal way of saying “shame,” fine. My point is that it doesn’t much matter what you call it. That was the point I was trying to make in response. Your point does not have any relevance to the main point of the OP, which is perfectly understandable, is it not, even if I use the phrase “feeling guilty” as opposed to “feeling shame”? Fair point on the rest of your response.

  8. roberty bob said,

    February 9, 2018 at 6:08 pm

    I accept your point. People do talk that way, even people as astute as yourself. However, people can be helped to get a grip on their feelings as they relate to guilt by also learning the biblical doctrine of shame. I concur with you that it is a good thing to help people understand the difference between guilt that has a basis in truth and guilt that has no basis. It is sad to see someone who has not sinned in God’s sight being sent by a pastor, parent, or companion on a good long guilt trip.

    GB, I appreciate your blog.

  9. billd1207 said,

    February 13, 2018 at 5:14 am

    When God gave the prodigal son new life, and he came to, he though now no longer guilty in the eyes of God’s justice, and being now united to the Guiltless one, still had pig dookie all over himself. Seeing the dookie on me keeps me humble. Call it feeling guilt or shame it is a blessing for me.

  10. Steve Drake said,

    February 14, 2018 at 9:24 am

    An interesting sidebar in evangelistic conversations with unbelieving friends and family, is to ask them how they deal with their guilt. They typically won’t admit that they’ve never felt shame or guilt in something they’ve done and the ‘Why’ and ‘How’ often brings interesting answers.

  11. roberty bob said,

    February 14, 2018 at 12:39 pm

    “Lots of people have been raised on guilt like it was their bread and butter.” GB

    A lot of good Christian parents, out of love for their covenant children, put up fences — maintained standards — to keep their children safe from the corrupting influence of the world which wages perpetual war with Christ. That’s a good thing, not a guilt trip.

  12. billd1207 said,

    February 14, 2018 at 3:25 pm

    Amen. I would rather answer for my fences than for wide gates. I was a fairly avid fence builder. Some were just, some were not. My adult children have thanked me for my efforts. Though I ran the rim of Covenant Moralism at the time, God was ultimately parenting my Children and he did so perfectly for their good and His Glory. I would agree though that extreme examples of legalism, earning you child’s salvation for them and trying to merit God’s favor for them can be catastrophic.

  13. February 14, 2018 at 11:02 pm

    […] the Presbyterian Church in America and is Pastor of Lebanon Presbyterian Church in Winnsboro, S.C. This article first appeared on his blog, Green Baggins, and is used with […]

  14. roberty bob said,

    February 15, 2018 at 10:13 am

    In paragraph 2, GB, you state that guilt is a powerful weapon in the hands of scared parents to keep their children from going berserk. I think that by berserk you mean going wild, breaking the rules. My impression is that you remember this happening in your childhood. You had parents who gave you a list of rules to obey, and you later learned that this list was not a replication of the ten commandments or the sermon on the mount. The parent-made rules were therefore man-made, extra rules that went beyond the God-made rules. So, now you believe that your dad and mom had made you feel guilty for breaking their rules when you needn’t have felt guilty at all since their rules were not God’s rules.

    Am I reading you right? If not, please provide an example or two of what you were thinking when you wrote paragraph 2. What you speak of is so foreign to my own experience as a covenant child of parents who had particular rules for their children to keep. We respected them for it; never did we feel that they were guilt-tripping us into living the Christian life.

  15. greenbaggins said,

    March 5, 2018 at 8:33 am

    Bob, sorry I haven’t replied to this comment before. To answer your question, I am not at all speaking of my own experience. My parents were eminently reasonable in the rules they set out. The ones that were extra-biblical were few and reasonable. Guilt was NEVER the basis of the relationship.

    As to what I was thinking of, I have seen it in many families’ experience, especially of the more fundamentalist variety. I didn’t really have specific examples in mind.

  16. roberty bob said,

    March 5, 2018 at 6:52 pm

    So your parents were a lot like mine, greenbaggins. I should have known! Thanks.


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