Guilt: It is that prompting and alert that can either produce change, hope and a future, or it is the ever-lingering, never-leaving cloud that stifles our joy, stunts our growth and inhabits our thoughts.
I have known folks who are paralyzed by the past. They muddle through the present, and the future is only a bleak and black hole awaiting to throw them into despondency. Guilt can literally suck the life out of us and completely drain our joy. Guilt does, however, sometimes serve us well. It is the voice the speaks loudly when we are about to embark upon a forbidden path.
Pastor Larry Barber said, "But even though our conscience can mislead us with false guilt, 'true' guilt has a good purpose. God designed it to create a state of anxiety within us whenever our motives or behavior fall short of his authentic moral standard. C.S. Lewis observed that God uses pain to get our attention. Even though guilt makes us very uncomfortable at times, God uses it to alert us to wrong, just as pain alerts us to disease or injury. God does not desire to condemn us unmercifully for our transgressions, but rather mercifully to give us vital information. Guilt allows us to consider our motives and behavior so that we can learn from our experiences and understand the limits and full weight of our responsibility. Preoccupation with excessive self-blame and condemnation does not facilitate the maturing of our faith. But unlike this false guilt, the true guilt we experience when we commit a real transgression is truly a gift from God. With it, we are given eyes to see the truth about God and ourselves. Thus guilt actually indicates God's spirit is working in our lives."
Like a parent who uses consequences to instruct a child about the value of goodness, God uses the guilt we experience when we fail morally to develop a healthy conscience in us and to mature our faith. Every day situations challenge us to decide how we will interact with others. Because we are morally broken, we will fail and hurt those we love most; as a result, we will experience the existential death, or natural consequence, of sin. This "death" involves guilt. When God gives us eyes to see the reality of a situation in which we have failed, he gives us the opportunity to understand right from wrong from his perspective.
In God's classroom we learn both the value of goodness and our profound need for mercy. Experiencing the guilt that is a natural consequence of our moral failure is a crucial element to maturing our faith and developing a healthy conscience. And along the way, a divine metamorphosis takes place inside us; our values are transformed so that we actually desire goodness. The Bible calls this transforming process "sanctification." Thus true guilt is crucial to developing a healthy conscience and to maturing our faith.
We need God to develop our conscience because it can deceive us - with false guilt.
Because of our brokenness, understanding the difference between our false guilt and the true guilt God uses to teach us can be confusing. We must become attentive and discerning listeners to our conscience, the input of others, and the truth of the scriptures so that we can draw accurate conclusions about our motives and behavior. Most importantly, as believers we must come to see guilt as a gift, an instructor leading us to authentic values and helping us to see our need for mercy, produces a change in behavior and then moves on.
However, sometimes guilt pitches a tent, makes itself at home and is likened to the relative who moves in for a night or two and then stays two years. Guilt more than wears out its welcome. Guilt breaks us down and steals our life, if we allow it to do so.
Most have heard of the "Mom Guilt" phenomena. Moms often remember the mistakes they made many years after they made them. They replay in their minds and often steal the sweet and precious memories. Personally, I am one of them and tend to blame myself for everything from global warming to acid rain. But, as we all know, not every problem our kids or loved ones have were caused by us. But their problems can be "fixed" by us. That's where frustration and false guilt can come in to camp. On the other hand, true guilt serves a purpose in our life to bring about change. True guilt and conviction will bring about "hope." False guilt produces nothing but condemnation.
If we learn to see guilt as a gift, an instructor leading us to authentic values and helping us to see our need for mercy, then we will have hope that God can and will bring change into our lives. Though circumstances may not change, false guilt will then give way to hope, peace and freedom.
A young man I will call "Zack" came to know the Lord after living a riotous life, to say the least. After years of drugs, alcohol abuse and loose living, he was transformed. Though his transformation was inward/outward, the nagging inside his head continually was the "him he formerly was." Memories and flashbacks were constant. It seemed everywhere he turned he thought about his past. The shame almost overcame him until he met a young lady who taught him the truth, that the past is cast into the sea, as far as the east is to the west ... to be remembered no more. That's what grace is ... unmerited/undeserved favor. Zack can now walk in victory because Christ has already won the victory.
You and I have a choice. We can remember our mistakes, our shortcomings and our sins, or we can walk in victory as forgiven people remembering that's why he died. He didn't die to take our sins and then hang them around our necks to discourage and remind us of who we once were. Nor does he desire us beating ourselves up for anything and everything. He died that we might have a new life and know that when God looks down, he doesn't see us, he sees Christ. And when we fail, our need is to confess and move on ... we get back up.
Psalm 103:12 - "As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us."
(Kimberly Short-Wolfe, MA, is a homeschool mom and the grief counselor and chaplain for Mountain Hospice. To contact her, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 304-823-3925, ext. 136.)