Guilt is a strange thing. One one hand, it’s a powerful motivator. It can help us to do what we need to, to make bad things better: to repent, to apologize, to change for the better. Let’s call this responsibility.
But guilt without a clear direction may lead us to a life of vague hopelessness. Repent? Repent how? And from what? Okay, just feel bad, as if that will help somehow. We might call this stigma.
At its worst, guilt is used to shame other people into submission. This rarely does any good; people who are thus disgraced are more likely to retaliate with resentment and their own counterattacks, to loudly proclaim their lack of remorse, or to feel miserable and pull away. This kind of guilt can be called humiliation.
Sadly, stigma and humiliation have long been useful tools of religion. Enough people have been kept in line (and passed the shame on) to make shaming appear successful. Worse, people have pretended to be in line with others’ expectations, hiding their secret shame. I’m not saying that any particular church uses guilt in such a way; it’s something we all share. Parents pass it to their children and friends pass it to friends, often without knowing it. (Personally, I feel that the most damaging form of stigmatization is our current attitude toward mental illness, and religion is partly to blame.)
Unfortunately, there’s not a clear line between good guilt and bad guilt. So we often burden ourselves and each other with the wrong kind. The hallmark of this kind of guilt is that we can do nothing about it. Something happened in the past, something is deeply ingrained, or something is out of our control. Guilt doesn’t fix it.
Guilt that makes people miserable is not from God; it’s from the devil.
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. John 10:10
If you feel guilty over a past misdeed, the best advice I have is to rid yourself of it. Remind yourself (many times, if you have to) that you’re ALREADY FORGIVEN. Confess it and let go.
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 1 John 1:9
If you have been hurt by someone else, don’t shame them. Be honest and try to work it out in the least public way possible. If they aren’t hurting you, don’t shame them. Let it go.
If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. Matthew 18:15
If you feel guilty over something that’s out of your control, remember, you can’t fix everything or everyone. Give it to God and let it go.
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Romans 8:1
But… the other kind of guilt is useful. It’s that niggling feeling that you can do something. Maybe you have to go out of your comfort zone. Maybe it’s just inconvenient. If so, pray for guidance, pray for strength. Then do what needs to be done and let it go.
Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. James 1:22
The opposite of guilt is grace. Through grace, we have freedom from the terrible weight of guilt. What a shame it is if we don’t accept this gift from God. Accept grace.
And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. 2 Corinthians 9:8
Let’s accept God’s grace and be free. And then, instead of spreading hate and misery, we can show the world how wonderful freedom from the burden of guilt can really be!