I used to believe I was like a stick of seaside rock with the words ‘Bad!’ and ‘Guilty!’ written in indelible ink all the way through. If anything went wrong, whether I had anything to do with it or not, it was my fault! The bottom line was, I felt guilty for being me; guilty for being alive.
If we do something wrong, like gossiping, judging, overstepping a mark or contravening a law, it is right to feel guilty. A troubled conscience motivates us to recognise our wrongdoing, to say sorry and do whatever we can to make amends. But some people experience unwarranted guilt, like a nagging companion, repeatedly goading and tormenting them with that sinking, sickening feeling that comes as another wave of accusation crashes over them for something that they are not actually blameworthy.
You are not alone if you are plagued by guilt with its yoyo cycle of beating yourself up, obsessing about how to make amends and striving to ‘get it right’… until then something else sets it off all over again. My own situation was extreme, but this kind of dynamic is a familiar experience for others too.
There are so many potential triggers: feeling that you’ve somehow missed the mark; regretting something you’ve said or think you should have said; a sense of having tried too hard or not hard enough; feeling like you’ve wasted time or haven’t given enough time. The list is endless.
But, if you haven’t actually done anything wrong and the truth is that you are not guilty, how is it that you can be tormented by such strong feelings that tell you the opposite? Is it just part of your make up or can you really break free?
God has a unique pathway to help each of us walk free.
For many of us, the circumstances of life and the way we have responded to them has woven a sense of guilt into our being that has been reinforced over many years. Most of us know we can’t simply unravel it and change ourselves because we’ve tried! But that doesn’t mean we are powerlessly locked in a guilt-based identity forevermore. Thankfully, God has a unique pathway to help each of us walk free. If we look to Him to show us how such guilt became entwined in our personhood and trust Him to lead us forward, life really can be very different.
From my own experience of doing just that, and against everything I thought possible, those words – ‘Bad! Guilty!’ – are no longer etched inside, controlling me. When things go wrong, I no longer default to feeling like it’s my fault and beating myself up. The cloud of shame that hung over me has given way to an incomparable lightness. This manifests in an ability to receive forgiveness, including my own self-forgiveness, when I do make mistakes and to smile at myself and exercise self-compassion: this is something I could never allow in the past.
those words – ‘Bad! Guilty!’ – are no longer etched inside, controlling me.
The healing journey is different for everyone because we are all different people. But perhaps the starting point for us all is in establishing what is ‘true guilt’ and what is ‘false guilt’. Am I truly guilty of some transgression or do I just think I’m guilty?
It’s possible to begin to look at this, even now, by writing down what you feel guilty about. It might be one thing or several things. Then ask the Holy Spirit to show you, for each point on your list: ‘Am I truly guilty? Or is this something I just feel guilty about?’ Gaining insight and understanding goes a long way to undermining the depressing sense of powerlessness.
‘Am I truly guilty? Or is this something I just feel guilty about?’
The Bible tells us we are all guilty, which could seem to reinforce a guilt-based identity! But we need to embrace the whole message that, yes, we are all sinful people and we can never get everything right. Yet that’s exactly why Jesus came to free us from the consequences of this when He died and rose again.
So, if there are things on your list, that have ‘true guilt’ written next to them, these are the things that you can confess to God now and for which you can receive His forgiveness and freedom through Jesus’s amazing sacrifice. Thank you, Jesus!
There remains a problem though with those things on the list marked ‘false guilt’, where the hammer of self-judgement has come down with its crushing ‘Guilty!’ verdict and ‘Must do better!’ sentence, even though we haven’t actually sinned. God’s heart breaks over this, because He has already made a way for us to be freed of all guilt. He does understand false guilt though and, because He is full of grace and mercy, wants to help us with it so that we can develop those same qualities towards our own selves.
You might find it helpful to simply ask Him: ‘Why am I stuck on this treadmill?’
hidden guilt can gnaw away at us
For some, the root is having been pushed too hard in childhood, for example academically or to live out a parent’s unfulfilled dream as a musician, a doctor etc. This can result in growing up with a sense of being a different person on the outside to the person we are inside (who God created us to be). In these instances, hidden guilt can gnaw away at us: ‘I’m not the person people think I am. I don’t even want to be the person they think I am.’
Others have had to grow up too quickly and be the responsible adult in the house, while Mum or Dad was the child. It may be that childhood needs to play and develop emotionally were buried and have remained hidden inside into adulthood. This can create a responsible, intellectually developed person, who feels guilty and ashamed of their inner immaturity with its hidden longing for attention, affirmation and tangible comfort.
There are many other potential roots to being plagued by guilt, including abuse, but thankfully, God, who knows every step of your life journey, has the answers. If we ask Him, He will reveal the underlying reasons and impart His love and comfort into those painful areas, where we may still be carrying the consequences of negative experiences of our life. This is how He brings His incredible healing deep inside and opens a door to living life a new way, free of the fuel pack that has always fed self-blame.
As we journey out of the guilt and shame cycle, we need to engage with a vital element of the whole Christian walk: we need to stand firm against God’s enemy and our enemy, Satan. Whilst he is undermined when we begin to receive God’s healing to the roots, he doesn’t give up wanting to keep us in bondage and he keeps whispering his lies into our ears, seeking to capitalise on a lifetime’s pattern of sinking under any sense of guilt. So it’s crucial that we develop the ability to stand against every wave of false guilt that rushes at us, instead of continuing to allow them to trigger the old familiar cycle.
it’s crucial that we develop the ability to stand against every wave of false guilt that rushes at us
The weapon God has given us is His Word, the Bible, which we can quote at Satan, just as Jesus did in the wilderness. When we remind Satan that we are NOT guilty, because Jesus paid the penalty for our guilt, he has to flee from us. And the more we stand against him, the more our spiritual muscles develop, and the more ground Satan loses.
I found this very hard at first: it didn’t come naturally. But God is faithful, and His Holy Spirit led and enabled me. And He will do that for you.
Galatians 5:1 says, ‘It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.’ God has made a way. He is calling you forth into that freedom even now, free of guilt and striving, free to be yourself, who He made you to be.
* Written by ‘Sarah’, a healed survivor in long-term recovery from sexual abuse. Sarah’s story can be read in the book Sarah: from an abusive childhood and the depths of suicidal despair to a life of hope and freedom, Sarah Shaw (Lancaster: Sovereign World Ltd., 2009).
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