If a friend, colleague or wife reminds you of something you forgot to do, how do you respond? ‘Thank you for reminding me’ or ‘Well, I was going to do it’ or, ‘Why are you always on my case – what’s wrong with me – aren’t I good enough, etc?’ What is the underlying difference between those two scenarios? Guilt. Guilt can make lives – or destroy them. It can drive us to do what is right or destroy relationships. To be accurate, it isn’t actually guilt that is the problem - it is how we respond to it. Guilt is to our spirit and soul what pain is to the body. If you touch something that is red hot, the nerve ends in your fingers send an instant signal to your brain that your fingers are in serious danger. It registers pain. But pain isn’t the problem – in fact, in this situation it is a good thing because it is telling you that something is wrong and giving you the opportunity to do something about it. Guilt, in itself, is not the problem. It’s how we respond to it.
Now imagine that you touch that hot object and the pain signal is sent to your brain but, for some reason, your brain is incapable of sending a signal to your muscles to remove your hand from that heat. Imagine the destruction of not being able to move your hand. The pain would be awful but the real damage would be because you couldn’t respond to the pain.
So it is with guilt. Guilt tells us that we have done, or are doing, something wrong. Imagine that we felt guilt but that there was no remedy. We would live our lives in constant emotional and spiritual pain. The good news is that we can remove our hand from the hot spot, we can do something about it, we can ask for forgiveness and find it. How? ‘Because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved’ (Ephesians 2:4-5).
What part then does guilt play in a Christian’s life? If we do wrong, we can ask for forgiveness and receive it – and live in the good of it. We don’t have to be defensive or argumentative. So why are we?
Unresolved guilt and false guilt have their roots in a negative view of who we are. We anticipate that this is how others feel about us, including God himself! That negative view can express itself in different ways, including the need to be right, on top or in control. We are already rejecting ourselves so we are already in defensive mode. The fear that we might have got something wrong is equivalent to accepting that we are no good and deserve to be alienated. The individual mistakes we make tap into the general underlying feeling about ourselves and combine to produce false guilt – or muddy the waters so that real guilt remains unresolved. Because it becomes about me being rejected, it produces powerful emotions that result in extreme defensiveness and pushing the blame onto others. We simply cannot cope with the weight of guilt. There is a context for dealing with our real and false guilt - and that is a context of grace. We can look at things because we are loved and safe. I am not rejected. Jesus experienced that rejection on my behalf so that I no longer need fear that. In that moment of receiving Christ my status changed. I was adopted into God’s family. When a family member does wrong, he doesn’t cease to be a family member. It is a safe place to be real about ourselves because the issue of acceptance is not up for discussion. So, next time you feel the defensiveness or hit-outs coming on, slow down, and remember that you are so safe that you can hold your hands up and learn from what is being said to you.