Freedom from Guilt, Part I
"If we confess our sins, he [God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness."1
"Dear Sir, I have been a Christian for almost a decade," writes a Daily Encounter reader, "but I have this overwhelming sense of guilt. I cannot seem to shake it. What can I do?"
"Dear Stephen (name changed), you are not alone in your struggle. It's a problem many experience. To overcome, it is essential to understand the difference between true guilt, false guilt, and shame. Some psychologists claim that guilt is psychologically damaging. This is not correct regarding true guilt. We ought to feel guilty when we have done wrong. If we don't, we face the danger of developing a seared conscience. It's false guilt and shame that are psychologically damaging.
While true guilt says you have done wrong, false guilt makes you feel guilty even when you haven't done anything wrong. And shame says that you are a bad person not only when you have done something wrong but often when you haven't.
With true guilt when we have admitted that we have done wrong, confessed it to God and asked for his forgiveness and, where necessary, asked the one we have hurt for his or her forgiveness—and wherever possible have put right the wrong we have done, the guilt feelings go. As today's Scripture assures us, when we confess our sins, God forgives us … and then we need to forgive ourselves.
However, if after confessing our sins we still feel guilty, guilt is not the problem. If, for example, I am a perfectionist and have unrealistic expectations of myself and am beating myself up because of what I did wrong, the problem is my perfectionism. Or if as a child I was controlled by an overbearing parent and made to feel guilty if I didn't conform to his or her every demand, present situations where I have done something my parents had opposed—even if there was nothing wrong with it—this can trigger those old memories and feelings of false guilt.
Or if my early life was shame-based; that is, if whenever I did something wrong an angry or critical parent repeatedly said in a harsh tone, "Shame on you … you bad person," as an adult whenever I do wrong, or even feel I have done something wrong, I will feel that old shame regardless of how irrelevant it may be today.
So, how do we overcome?
To be continued….
Suggested prayer: "Dear God, please help me to discern the difference between true guilt, false guilt and shame and lead me to the help I need to overcome any feelings of false guilt or shame in my life. And wherever there is true guilt, give me the courage to confess what I have done, and ask for your forgiveness. Thank you for hearing and answering my prayer. Gratefully, in Jesus' name, amen."
1. 1 John 1:9 (NIV).