Guilt: True or False?

Salem witch2; guilty

By Joseph Baker (Wikimedia)

How can you tell if you are experiencing true guilt or false guilt?

That’s been a tormenting question my entire Christian life.

I was raised in a church setting and among well-meaning folks who used shame and guilt to control children.

As a dutiful first born, I imbibed those notions deep within. I continually felt guilty about one thing or another.

The most freeing aspect of giving my heart to Jesus was the knowledge that finally, I had something constructive to do with my guilt.

For me, a way to get rid of guilty feelings was enormous.

Liberating.

Freeing.

Joyous.

It didn’t mean I wasn’t guilty of sin or making a mistake. It meant that Jesus was my advocate with God who would speak on my behalf and through whose death on the cross I was/am/and always will be forgiven.

Note: that does not mean I no longer sin. I does not mean I no longer have to apologize for mistakes, sins, poor choices, bad behavior or other errors.

It also does not mean I no longer feel guilt.

I feel guilty all the time.

But it gives me a tool to analyze that guilt into two categories: true or false.

That, for me, is the key to freedom.

What is guilt?

The dictionary defines it well:

1.the fact or state of having committed an offense, crime, violation, or wrong, especially against moral or penal law; culpability:

2. a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime, wrong,etc., whether real or imagined.

3. conduct involving the commission of such crimes, wrongs, etc.
The Bible tells us all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, so we all experience guilt in one form or another.guilt
(Indeed, to not feel guilt or remorse over a bad behavior is another problem!)
Take a look, however, at that second definition at the end: “whether real or imagined.”
That’s what false guilt is, taking on responsibility for something you did not do.

What does false guilt feel like?

For me, it’s a feeling of shame, lethargy, fear; my stomach tightens and I want to hide. I’m afraid to face whomever I’ve offended and panic to “make things right” overwhelms.
I hate feeling guilty. I’ll do anything to make that gut-wrenching feeling go away, including apologize for things I did not do.
The problem is, I’m so conditioned to assuming responsibility that guilt feelings, now, require analysis.
I ask these questions:
* Who is responsible for this action/outcome/behavior?
* Have I intentionally done anything to bring this feeling on myself?
* Am I in the wrong here?
* Have I done anything that requires an apology?
* Where is the guilt coming from?
* Does anyone I trust think I’m guilty?
Christians know that Satan is an accuser and a liar, and he likes nothing better than to twist believers up into knots of false guilt. Knowing that fact, it’s important I not fall into the trap.
The problem with false guilt is, even if I confess or apologize, I don’t feel any better. No burden is lifted. I’m still tied up.
That’s because no burden needed to be lifted. There wasn’t anything there. I was focused on the wrong thing–my guilt–when I wasn’t guilty.
Because I don’t feel better, I assume there is something else I haven’t confessed and I take off on that rabbit trail hunting for something, anything, I can confess and have the feeling lifted.
No dice.
Shame often will set in, along with nervousness and that hunted feeling.
False guilt steals my joy, my peace and can lead to damaging my relationships–because it’s based on a lie.

guiltTrue guilt can be a gift.

When I have done someone wrong or sinned against God, I feel guilty again.
You know, that shoulder hunching, not looking at others, unsettled feeling.
I’m aghast I did something and want to apologize immediately to make that pain go away.
And when I do, God who is faithful and just will forgive me my sins and cleanse me from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)
Author Paul Coughlin writes about the elements of a real apology and how that can assuages guilt. It takes humility and courage to examine your own heart:
“There are four parts to a real apology that recognizes guilt 1. Acknowledging the offence 2. Offering an explanation 3. Expressing remorse 4. Offering reparation. When apologies fail, at least one of these parts is missing. The most common failing is not acknowledging the offense.”
 True guilt leads to confession, forgiveness and restoration of relationships.
With that restoration, we’re free.
Tweetables
Dealing with true and false guilt. Click to Tweet
How to tell the difference between true and false guilt. Click to Tweet
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