Grace for guilt

There’s something on the inside of each of us that desires holiness. Created in God’s image, we each bear this mark of God on the inside of us, and something within us desires to feel clean and “good.” Different people seek to satisfy this desire in different ways, even if they’ve never heard of God.

In our searching, however, we have to deal with this pesky feeling of guilt that bubbles up time and time again, destroying the balance of our conscience and driving us to question our decisions. It’s natural to seek “goodness” over “badness” and to desire to be righteous within ourselves. Feelings aren’t inherently bad — they are important indicators that give us clues, just like pain in the body tells us something needs attention. It’s helpful to listen to feelings, even though we don’t want to be ruled by them. Guilt is a messenger that something is not right. Sometimes this means we need to seek forgiveness. But other times it’s just empathy for another person’s emotion that is threatening to blow us off course.

Dr. Henry Cloud, renowned for the Boundaries books he co-authored, shared on his podcast about this topic recently. I’ll recap some of his ideas, but I encourage you to listen to the podcast (he discusses this topic for about the first twenty minutes).

When we feel guilty, we feel that our goodness has been compromised. Feeling we aren’t “good” it’s a very uncomfortable place to be, as though our very value is in question. In seasons of my life when I haven’t been secure in my identity and the truth of God, guilt has harassed me relentlessly. I’ve been “tossed about” (James 1, Ephesians 4) and subject to everyone’s opinion of me. It happens in the vulnerable seasons of our lives, when God is asking us to grow in trust and live out who he made us to be.

Often, guilt creeps in when we’re holding a boundary. We worry that we’re being selfish for saying no, and convince ourselves to give in just this once. We want the discomfort to go away, so we’re tempted to assuage the feeling by reacting to it. It’s easy to be influenced by the emotions of whomever we’re holding space with, whether a crying child or a disgruntled adult. The tense emotions that mask sadness at our decision produce feelings of “badness” in us, as Dr. Cloud describes. We want to restore ourselves to feeling “good,” so we’re tempted to be reactive, and make the decision that will make our guilt go away.

The truth is, boundaries help our relationships thrive. We show people that we respect their “otherness” when we hold our own space. We show them that we value our differences when we don’t treat “no” as a scary word. Differentiation is healthy and normal. With a child, holding boundaries makes them feel secure. They need to be confident that we are in charge, and it helps them to trust us if we’re consistent. I have a feeling it’s not so different with adults. Holding our boundaries helps others trust us, even if they’re upset by it in the moment.

There are times when guilt is telling us we’ve genuinely done something harmful to another person. As Dr. Cloud says in his books, sometimes things hurt others but are not harmful. It’s important to use discernment to find out what’s really going on.

But what about when we feel guilty for saying “yes”? It’s almost as though we’ve transgressed a personal boundary, like eating something we feel we shouldn’t, saying yes to a purchase, or allowing our children greater latitude than usual. Some choices like these make us second-guess ourselves and bring up those familiar negative feelings. When we feel guilty for a yes, it’s important to remember our long term goals. Purpose and values give us a framework for making decisions that we don’t have to feel guilty about. Self control isn’t about stopping yourself from doing things, it’s about setting yourself on the path you want to go. Willpower isn’t very effective if we’re working against ourselves.

Another cause of persistent guilt can be legalism. When we live our lives according to our own rules, seeking holiness by our own works and discipline, we are choosing a life apart from God. Of course we’re vulnerable to frequent attacks of guilt if we believe that the key to our holiness is within ourselves. In my own experience, the Holy Spirit convicting me of sin hasn’t brought up feelings of guilt, but of deep sorrow at the way the sin kept me from a right relationship with God. True conviction in the Holy Spirit leads me to say “I need you,” and keeps me well away from the source of the sin. It’s effective, and it leads to true behavior change and reconciliation with God. This contrasts with nagging guilt and indecisiveness. In the Holy Spirit, things are made clear.

Next time you’re assailed by guilt, remember there is grace for you. It’s natural to desire holiness — God desires holiness for us too. So let that guilt go and listen to the Holy Spirit’s leading as you walk in love towards your fellow man. Let’s repent when repentance is needed, and hold our boundaries in love when they need to be held.