Then 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~ Psalm 32:5
Not long ago I happened upon a Psychology Today article on the topic of guilt. Closer analysis revealed the article wasn’t really about guilt per se. Rather, the article was about how destructive and futile the writer (a psychotherapist with an alphabet soup of degrees behind his name) believes the whole notion of guilt is to the average human.
The writer went to great lengths to convince the reader (in this case me) that guilt is nothing more than a societal and religious construct (a concept invented by society and religion to motivate people to do what “society” wants them to do). In the writer’s estimation, guilt serves no positive or healthy purpose for individuals and tends to keep people stuck in self-defeating patterns of behavior
When I finished reading the article I was convinced of little but the likelihood that the writer is simply a well meaning, highly educated, and extremely articulate nut-job. However, his views did get me thinking more deeply about the subject of guilt. More specifically, it got me thinking about whether or not guilt is a good or a bad thing.
The answer is “yes”.
But, before we go there, I want to define the meaning of the word guilt for the purposes of this post. According to the word wizards at Dictionary.com, guilt is a feeling of responsibility or remorse for an offense, crime, wrong and etc., whether real or imagined.
Call me old-fashioned, nutty or whatever you wish to call me. But, I have a tough time accepting the view that a feeling of remorse or responsibility after committing a crime or offense is a bad thing. The exception of course would be if the person were feeling guilt-ridden over a fictitious or imagined offense. That situation is a bit trickier to navigate. The nitty-gritties of dealing with imagined guilt are without a doubt way above my pay-grade and outside of the scope of this blog.
I am convinced that guilt is neither good nor bad. Guilt is like the check engine light on a car. It’s simply an indicator there’s something going on that ought to be explored more thoroughly. A persistent sense of guilt warrants some self-examination to see if we need to change course or apologize for something we’ve said or done.
Admittedly, there are folks whose check engine light goes off for no good reason. Those types of people feel guilty over situations they had absolutely no control over. There are also those who feel guilty when someone sins against them, some even feel guilty over the sins others people have committed (like their parents, kids or spouse).
Feeling guilty when we’ve done nothing wrong or sinful is false guilt. False guilt is one kind of guilt that really is a pointless waste of time. Wallowing around in false guilt can feel good and even self-righteous at times. However, it can keep us from seeing clearly the things we really did do wrong and are in need of repentance.
Feeling guilty or regretful when we do sin or commit an offense is a good and healthy thing to feel (Psalm 51, Isaiah 66:2). Guilt drives spiritually and emotionally healthy people to contrition. Contrition motivates people to repentance (change) and changing bad people into better people is what God is all about. However, guilt can quickly morph into a bad thing if we stay stuck and let the guilt fester into condemnation.
Contrary, to popular belief condemnation is not the same thing as guilt. Condemnation is guilt’s ugly cousin, it breeds hopelessness and self-loathing by telling us that there is no way we can ever be good enough and that there is nothing we can ever do to be forgiven or become better. Condemnation, not guilt, is what keeps people stuck in unhealthy patterns of behavior.
The Bible is clear that there is no condemnation (although there might be guilt when we sin) for Christians (Romans 8:1). In a society where people tend to either wallow in false guilt or deny there is any such thing as guilt, Christians need to model a healthy understanding of the issue. Christians should be quick to confess sin, eager to repent and ready to tell others about the freedom we have from condemnation in Christ.