Dealing with False Guilt
All of our emotions – even the seemingly negative ones – have a point of “optimum health” that make them useful for a well-balanced, fulfilling life. Stress, for instance, can motivate us to complete a task. In fact, some people say they do their best work when under the threat of a strict deadline. However, too much stress, and the body goes into overdrive and starts attacking itself (which is how some autoimmune disorders get started). Likewise, fear can protect us from danger – if we see a shark near the beach, we consider the consequences and choose to stay away from the water. But when we fear too much, we debilitate ourselves from going anywhere or doing anything. Guilt is no exception. A healthy amount of guilt tempers our behavior and gives us an indication that something we have done is wrong. However, too much guilt, and we begin to feel a constant sense of conflict and start to believe that nothing we do will ever be good enough.
Guilt pervades the highly religious
According to studies in the Journal of Psychology and Theology, the highly religious have greater levels of internalized guilt. This means, generally speaking, religious people feel more guilt more often. As a result, some begin to display obsessive-compulsive tendencies, especially those that carry an inflated sense of personal responsibility. In other words, a person might think, to avoid feeling guilty, I just have to do…(XYZ). But then they can’t stop doing XYZ.
For example, a wife and mother might feel guilty that her house appears messy or dirty when company comes over because she believes it is her job to present a tidy home. So, just in case someone stops by unannounced, she picks up every toy her children leave behind and scrubs the bathrooms every day. If she doesn’t, she feels as though she’s just not doing enough.
Why guilt is tricky
Guilt is tricky because, as mentioned above, true guilt is actually a socially beneficial emotion. Guilt helps us to know when we have acted in ways that are hurtful or harmful. Sin is real, and we are definitely not immune to it. Sometimes we really are guilty. Discerning true guilt from false guilt can be difficult. Studies don’t answer why the highly religious are more likely to feel more guilt than the general population, but I can take a few guesses.
First, the Bible teaches us about right and wrong and reveals to us our sin. Biblical guidelines are different than national law and govern all aspects of life. So, those that read the Bible are probably more aware of when they act in ways that are out of line with God’s best for them.
What’s more, some of the guidelines in the Bible can seem a little vague. For instance, in Mark 12, we are told to love our neighbors as ourselves. What it means to love someone may be up for debate. We may ask/tell ourselves things like:
- Was I nice enough to the cashier? I should have been nicer. Next time I’ll be nicer.
- I’ve lived in my apartment complex for over a year, and I still haven’t tried to get to know my neighbors. Why haven’t I done that?
- Did I speak too harshly to my children? I should stop yelling at them so much.
- Did I spend enough time with my hurting friend?
- I’m awfully tired, but I should make a meal for them tonight
- I should have stayed to listen to them a little bit longer. They need someone right now.
- I should stop being so selfish
- I should give more
- I don’t think I’m vocal enough about the Gospel
- I don’t read the Bible, fast, go to church (etc.) enough
- Is traffic speeding sinning?
Our (unhelpful) response
The space between our actual and ideal selves can be filled with tension. When we feel as though we are not measuring up to a standard we have set for ourselves, we usually end up falling into one of two categories: despair or self-reliance. Despair turns into shame, which says, you’ll never be good enough so why even bother. Self-reliance turns into a form of prideful resolve that says, I’ll get there if I just try harder. Except, we can never reach the perfection we are seeking. Instead, we try harder and harder only to get more and more frustrated. We may begin to believe that God disapproves of us, or that He will eventually catch on to our lack of spiritual action and admonish us for our wrongs. Such “divine struggle” is correlated with reduced mental and physical health.
A (helpful) Biblical response
The truth is, feelings of false guilt can come from many different places. We might have bad boundaries or be easily manipulated. We might allow others to make us feel badly for things we have no reason to feel badly about. If guilt is coming from these places, learning to set good boundaries will probably help the most. Tips on how to do that will come in a future post.
For false guilt that comes from an inflated sense of personal responsibility, an over reliance on self, or fear of God’s displeasure, the best thing we can do is repent of our pridefulness and remind ourselves of God’s character in relation to our own. The comparisons between God and humankind are everywhere in the Bible, but here are a few:
- God is wise and we are foolish (Isaiah 55:8-9 vs. Matthew 9:36)
- God is strong and we are weak (2 Corinthians 12:9)
- God is perfect and we are sinful (Psalm 18:30 vs. Romans 3:23)
- God is everlasting and we are finite (Isaiah 40:28 vs. Psalm 90:5-6).
The bottom line
While guilt can be a helpful emotion, false guilt pervades the highly religious and can cause us to question ourselves and our testimony. When we feel false guilt, we have a tendency to turn to self-reliance and attempt to control our situation by trying harder to be holy. However, in the upside-down world of Christianity, the opposite is actually a more beneficial response. As we humble ourselves and seek God’s face, we will find His power perfected in our weakness. On our own, we will never measure up to the precepts outlined in Scripture – there are simply too many of them, and our flesh is too fallen. However, the more we delight in God’s justice, mercy and forgiveness, the more those same qualities will flow out of us to transform our imperfection into something beautiful.