The Ultimate Guilt Trip?
By Julie-Allyson Ieron
Guilt is a tricky thing. It can work for us or against us. It can warn us off dangerous behavior or it can keep us tied in knots so we can’t achieve our full potential. The key is in identifying its source. Once we know what kind of guilt is plaguing us, we’ll be able to deal with it appropriately.
The first brand of guilt is rational guilt. The definition would be “a remorseful awareness of having done something wrong” (American Heritage Dictionary). This rational guilt is God-sent. It is the built-in guidance system that can keep us from harming ourselves or others, and it can lead us back to the right track when we derail.
We all know wrong when we see it, and that’s thanks to rational guilt. You know what I mean. Lying: wrong. Cheating: wrong. Stealing: wrong. Killing: wrong. So when what you want to do is clearly wrong, you’ll feel good guilt. Not feel-good guilt at the moment. But end-result-good guilt. Guilt’s deterrent element can keep us from disappointing God and missing His perfect standard in the first place, or it can draw us back to Him when we’ve failed.
Good guilt over an offense committed can lead us to restitution, reestablished relationship with someone we’ve wronged, forgiveness, and finally freedom. Listen to the way the psalmist describes the joy of a formerly guilty heart, “I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’—and you forgave the guilt of my sin” (1).
But there is a second, more insidious brand of guilt: irrational guilt. It’s debilitating, and its source is not God. It takes the form of false guilt—as in holding ourselves responsible for things that weren’t our responsibility. And it takes the form of insistent guilt, that refuses to see ourselves as forgiven or forgivable—despite our confession to God and His offer of forgiveness, full and free. As long as we’re focused on irrational guilt, we’re paralyzed and ineffectual.
The root of irrational guilt is—wait ’till you hear this—self-centeredness. It’s saying, in essence, “God, I know You say You’ve forgiven me, but my standard is higher than Yours. I won’t forgive myself.” Well, now, that’s audacious. God requires a contrite heart (2), not sacrifice and penance. When He forgives, He tosses our sins farther away than we could even imagine (“as far as the east is from the west,” He says ) and promises to “remember them” against us “no more” (Hebrews 10:17). When we refuse to forgive ourselves, we are taking on irrational guilt. The solution is to see ourselves as God sees us—sinners who have confessed before Him and have accepted His forgiveness.
So, there is no easy answer to the question of why we feel guilt when we do “what we want to do.” Because the answer may be that we’re feeling good guilt to deter us from doing something detrimental or we may be feeling false guilt that is holding us back from doing what God wants us to do. The only way to know for sure is to become familiar with God’s standard.
See, those who have established a personal relationship with God, who enjoy spending time talking with Him (prayer) and listening to Him (reading His Word, the Bible), will be free of guilt. We’ll find the truth the psalmist/poet penned, “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart” (4). If we meet that first criterion (delighting ourselves in the Lord), we can be free of guilt when we receive from Him direction to move on the desires He places in our heart. And if we’re still not certain about the source of incessant guilt, He offers this invitation, “Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience” (5). Perhaps in the end that’s the ultimate solution to our guilt dilemma.
#1 Psalm 32:5
#2 Psalm 51:17
#3 Psalm 103:12
#4 Psalm 37:4
#5 Hebrews 10:22
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