One of the most powerful deterrents to improving overall mental and spiritual health is a person’s guilt and shame. I have found in my line of work that the topic of guilt will come up in almost all of the counseling relationships I have. It is clear in reading the Bible that God wants us to have a healthy relationship with our guilt. There is a difference between false guilt and true guilt that must be separated in a person’s life.
False guilt is an unnecessary burden and responsibility we place on ourselves for a failure to live up to our own or someone else’s expectations. True guilt is caused by sin and is God’s way of calling us to repentance, seek forgiveness, and to examine our own hearts. If a person does not manage their guilt correctly, it can eventually lead to deep feelings of shame. Shame is a close cousin to guilt, but the difference being that the person now experiences more significant depressed thoughts about their own performance and begins to doubt their ability to change their actions and who they are.
The first man (Adam) experienced feelings of guilt and shame that caused him to blame another and hide from God once he realized what he had done (Genesis 3:10). Peter denied Jesus three times. When he remembered that Jesus had predicted this, he wept bitterly (Luke 22:61). Peter is an example of a man who turned his guilt/shame into a more purposeful life. He was humbled by this experience and was never the same for it. He died to self and truly became a follower of Jesus.
In order to maintain that our guilt will be healthy, it is important for a person to accept the verses of Ephesians 2:8-9, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.” Getting into the right place with God can help us develop the necessary confidence in ourselves and will inevitably affect how we communicate with others. If a person can humbly accept their sinful nature, they will also be better at accepting responsibility with their relationships with other people.
A few steps to consider with regards to guilt:
- Consider the feelings connected to situations – Go to God in prayer when trying to understand the nature of your feelings. Some people suffer from a guilty conscience and others suffer from not knowing when to feel guilty. Talking to others we trust about our situations can help give us perspective on whether it is true guilt or false guilt.
- Determine the source – If the guilt is because of something you are truly responsible for, what steps will be taken to seek forgiveness from God and possibly others? If the guilt is more related to feelings of low self-worth, work on improving your self-worth through healthy activities and affirmations.
- Move on and stay busy – Learn to confess, apologize, and make restitution. Then, learn to let go of the guilty feelings. Being true to this process will allow God to forgive the sins we commit. It is also important to not beat ourselves up for being human. We make mistakes and will always make new mistakes, which will require the same forgiveness process. Our lives require staying busy and active while doing things for others and learning to practice forgiveness.
Michael Linn is a Licensed Professional Counselor in the state of Pennsylvania and a Nationally Certified Counselor. He is the owner of Resolute Counseling, located in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. He can be reached by calling 717-264-0450 or visiting www.resolutecounseling.com.