Focus on the Family

Living Without Constant Guilt

by Paul Coughlin

Guilt just doesn't get the respect it deserves nowadays. This God-given capacity can help us avoid relational destruction with God, others and ourselves. Through this negative emotion, we can experience positive emotions and behaviors, especially reliability and empathy. Guilt helps us find and keep healthy boundaries.

Our capacity for feeling guilt, the feeling of remorse we experience for a real—and sometimes imagined—wrongdoing that leads to regret, was given to us to be more than a feeling of punishment for wrongdoing, which can be eye-opening news to some Christians. It can act like a beacon toward a better life. This often misunderstood emotion can be an agent of redemption in our lives by providing us with life experiences that can help us change for the better, to turn our suffering into abiding meaning and to create greater responsibility for our own lives. Guilt can free us from behaviors that enslave us through our own destructive attitudes and appetites. It can be a path toward both liberty and responsibility—essential to psychological and spiritual growth.

At the same time, false guilt doesn't receive the scrutiny it deserves. If it did—and that's the purpose of much of this series—more people would live freer and happier lives. Many are unable to separate real guilt, or what Christian counselors call godly sorrow, from false and highly destructive guilt. As this series explains, those who have a difficult time distinguishing between the two usually have not had an experience with authentic love and acceptance. People who suffer under the weight of this manufactured burden have a specific spiritual deficiency: they do not yet understand God's grace and atoning work through Christ. They also share similar upbringings and similar hang-ups: they usually received too much criticism as kids, which gave them a hyperactive conscience. They bear false witness against themselves, which is still a sin. They have what's called the disease to please others, making them too easily influenced and even manipulated by others, among other problems. People burdened by constant and false guilt are unable to forgive themselves and have an inability to give others Vitamin N, telling others "no."

The final section of this unique explanation of this pivotal topic uncovers the cure for alleviating ourselves from constant and actual guilt, taking care of unfinished business in our past relationships.

Healthy Guilt vs. False and Harmful Guilt

False guilt has nothing to do with what's true and accurate, nor is it related to true repentance. Rather, it is usually the fear of disapproval in disguise.

by Paul Coughlin

Our crotchety neighbor has called the police and filed formal complaints against my family--none of which are factual. During Christmas time, someone sneaked onto her front lawn at night and put her two fake deer in, well, let's say a very compromising position. She told police that my sons did it, even though they had spent that night many miles away.

Each year my wife holds a tea luncheon for the women in our cul-de-sac. Our bullish neighbor has been invited in the past, in part as an attempt to show her that we aren't the horrible people she accuses us of being, and we have decided that she will not be invited this year. We believe that bullies should not be rewarded for their bad behavior, which is what people often do with the well-intentioned but naive attempt to reform them.

Card-carrying Bully

She is no longer welcome in our home and this decision initially made us feel very guilty. Why? Not because we had broken a moral law, biblical admonishment or gone against our own conscience, but because we ran the very good chance of earning her disapproval. Why would we worry about the disapproval of a card-carrying bully who very clearly already disapproves of us? Another good question, which helps to explain just how irrational false guilt can be.

False guilt has nothing to do with what's true and accurate, nor is it related to true repentance. Rather, it is usually the fear of disapproval in disguise, and this problem especially hounds people who have a hyperactive or malfunctioning conscience (see the next article for a better understanding of this condition). This problem can be especially hard to decipher among Christians, who take matters of conscience seriously and who might be prone to find reasons to feel guilt where there are none.

This tricky emotion puts us on the hamster wheel of life, a never-ending treadmill of uncertainty. There is no pleasing this task master because there is always another chore to fulfill, another person to try very hard to please—even when pleasing her is sinful. People driven by false guilt often feel that they have to go through life perfectly so that they can avoid criticism and disappointing others. A quick look at the life of Christ proves otherwise: He was perfect and yet Jew and Gentle alike still plotted His murder.

False Evidence Appearing Real

If false guilt were a chariot, then fear of disapproval from others is the whip upon the back of the horses pulling it. A very helpful acronym for this kind of fear is: False Evidence Appearing Real. Fear often has us imagining the worst possible outcome to a problem when in reality the outcome is rarely as bad as fear tells us it's going to be. Fear is often a liar.

False guilt consumes our thinking while awake and asleep, and creates in our lives both spiritual and psychological cataracts, stopping us from seeing our relationships with God, others and ourselves clearly. Through false guilt, we lie to and bare false witness against ourselves. It's still a sin. We judge ourselves inaccurately and always too harshly. We become like the Pharisees whom Jesus chastised and corrected with the strongest language throughout his ministry (Matt. 23). Like the Pharisees, who represented false and abusive religion, false guilt is also abusive. It puts heavy burdens upon our backs, burdens we were never intended to shoulder. False guilt is self-abuse.People who suffer from false guilt nearly always have difficulty being truthful with how they think, feel and act. They have great difficulty giving others Vitamin N--telling people "no." Charles Spurgeon, British Reformed Baptist preacher and author, recognized how important this fact is in a person's spiritual growth when he told his students, "Learn how to say ‘no.' It will do you more good than learning Latin."

Tragic Optimisim

Compare the misery from false guilt to the beneficial nature of healthy guilt, or what Christian counselors sometimes call godly sorrow. Victor Frankl, founder of Logotherapy, one of the most muscular and real-world attempts to make sense of life's suffering (Frankl was a Holocaust survivor), praised guilt as one of three components that make the case for what he called "Tragic Optimism." He said that the tragic triad of life are pain, guilt and death. Yet if handled properly, they can spur a person toward abiding meaning and purpose in life. Through guilt, he wrote, people have the potential to change for the better. Healthy guilt is a gatekeeper and boundary-maker. It helps us discover where we shouldn't go in life, what we shouldn't do. And it helps us make amends when we do cause others pain and related hardships. Guilt helps us find our way back toward what's right and repair the torn portions of our lives.

Someone who was once very close to me was also a sociopath, one of those rare souls who are incapable of feeling guilt and remorse. What was astounding about this woman was her inability to express empathy toward others—especially those who she abused. Today she is miserable, alone and sometimes homeless. By looking at guilt's opposite, we see how valuable healthy guilt is to maintaining the virtue of empathy and common decency. Without guilt, we would be counted among the most despised and wretched people. Thankfully, we feel guilt toward others because we understand that our actions somehow depleted another's God-given value and dignity. We should treat each other well, and guilt reminds us when we don't, helping us to avoid sin, the result of which is death in various forms.

For relief and healing, we need to put our guilty feelings under the microscope of our sober minds and see if they are real or counterfeit. One of the best ways to do this is to quiet our minds, close our eyes, breathe deeply, then ask ourselves, "Am I really guilty of what I'm telling myself, or is this another case of false evidence appearing real?" As one who has been hindered by false guilt, this exercise has been invaluable to me.And another question we need to ask ourselves, which carries with it the potential for blessed freedom, is, "Who owns me?" Learn why this is important in the following article.

The Origins of False Guilt

I, like many other earnest people of faith, spent the first half of my church life trying to avoid displeasing my pastor instead of pleasing God.

by Paul Coughlin

I know a man who brought his children to church every week even when they were ill. He would wake them from their deep slumber, the very medicine they needed to receive healing, and bring them to church with a fever, runny nose and tears. That man was me.

Approval Junkie

My spiritual training then consisted of a graceless and temperamental God who demanded tremendous obedience to many rules, unwavering church attendance being one. If I failed to keep the growing list of rules, His heavy hand would be taken from my life and His untold blessings would be replaced by judgment and condemnation. To this day, I cannot remember receiving knowledge that was useful for my soul during the sermons of those fretful years (fear has a way of doing that), but I still felt I had to be there regardless. I submitted to this treatment because I was an approval junkie.

I, like many other earnest people of faith, spent the first half of my church life trying to avoid displeasing my pastor instead of pleasing God. Those wacky years are past me now, but they help to explain where false guilt comes from: a faulty understanding of one's relationship to others, God and himself.

Spiritually, this faulty understanding stems from the belief that Christians are charged with making others happy, and if they don't they have failed somehow. Many Christians are trained to over-yes and under-no to other people's demands. This error is astonishing in light of Jesus' actual behavior and teaching. For example, Jesus rarely answered a question directly, especially if it were entrapping. And in his warning about casting pearls before swine, he told us to not give to others our precious resources when others are known to squander them and then attack us later.

'Over-Yes' and 'Under-No'

For example, I had a pastor tell me to write a letter of apology to someone for harming our relationship. This person had repeatedly lied and stolen from me, and so I quietly pulled away from the relationship. My pastor convinced me that I was wrong to do so, that my behavior was "un-Christ like." So I wrote the letter in which I pleaded guilty to behavior I didn't commit and worked double-time to drown myself with feelings of remorse. He convinced me that God wanted me to I over-yes to guilt and under-no to healthy and wise boundaries.

What is so ironic about such spiritual training is that hyper guilty people are among the weakest Christians. They rarely do anything very helpful or meaningful and instead make mountains out of moral and theological molehills. Their idol is approval, which comes via conformity. They read their Bibles, not because they want to conform to the real character of Christ, but because that's what the rules state and so they do it. They rank among the least passionate and courageous. Their hearts are far away from God.

Most Powerful People in Your Life

Hypercritical upbringings create a hyperactive conscience as well. When you grow up believing that your most every move is not good enough, and you are forced to constantly confess your unworthiness to a parent or parents, the most powerful people in your life then, you will eventually feel guilty for most everything you do—even for behavior that is morally neutral. You feel that you are wrong and must apologize for your very existence. False guilt becomes your constant companion, your most dangerous childhood playmate.

I had a hypercritical mother, and eventually I felt guilty not because I was a sinner but because I felt I was somehow defective, as if I were born with a kind of soul-stain that others did not. I felt like a child of a lesser god. She was abusive, temperamental and at times very hard on me, and so I learned to be hard on myself. Her love was highly conditional and I was told in numerous ways that I was unworthy of her love because I "was such an evil child." She was unforgiving and so I learned how to be unforgiving to myself as well. I had no right or path toward innocence or forgiveness. I wasn't allowed to be guiltless.

False guilt comes from a guilt-ridden conscience, which means that a person is incapable of self-acceptance and does not really believe that they are accepted by God either. Their efforts are never really good enough in their own eyes and so for them the goal is just always out of reach: They follow the rules for the rules will lead to acceptance. But there is always another rule to follow, another manner to master. There is no finish line, just one sweaty plateau after another to climb. Eventually, beginning in their 30s and early 40s, people just give up, exhausted and usually resentful. Religion is a guilt-ridden burden to them, not a blessing.

Familiar Malaise

You can see how my upbringing made my legalistic spiritual training so damaging. I thought I was running into the arms of a God whose love, grace and acceptance could not be separated from me. But the acceptance I did experience was momentary. Soon I sank into that familiar malaise of false guilt from the pulpits of earnest but misguided men. It was a frying-pan-into-the-fire experience.

This is why the question of ownership of your life is so essential. If we give ownership of our lives to our pastor or our parents as adults, then we inevitably will live for their approval. But if God is the one who owns our lives, and who then gives this ownership back to us along with his loving guidance, then we will live to please him and in doing so save ourselves from false guilt in its various forms.

Cure for Feeling Real Guilt

This prideful man just doesn't want to come clean and admit he made a mistake. So he plays word games.

by Paul Coughlin

Harrison Ford is a real jerk in the movie "Regarding Henry." He plays a high-powered, arrogant and dishonest New York attorney who treats people very poorly, including his only child. He treats her harshly one morning and only reluctantly apologizes to her late that night because his pleading wife—not his conscience—tells him to.

But like many people, he offers a fake apology that does not relieve the real guilt for his wrongdoing. Instead, crafty man that he is, he uses the opportunity to restate his grievance against his daughter, who is left feeling even worse than before.

Playing Word Games

This prideful man just doesn't want to come clean and admit he made a mistake. So he plays word games, the most common reason why we are stuck with feelings of real guilt.

Here are just a few of the spin-zone word games that we prideful humans have come up with to avoid providing a real apology and in doing so alleviate real guilt and provide real restoration:

None restore dignity, which I believe is a human need like love, to the offended person.

Four Parts of Real Apology

There are four parts to a real apology that recognizes guilt 1. Acknowledging the offence 2. Offering an explanation 3. Expressing remorse 4. Offering reparation. When apologies fail, at least one of these parts is missing. The most common failing is not acknowledging the offense, and as you can see, this is usually done through some very tricky word play. Our real guilt remains and worse, it festers just like the broken relationship.

In order to rid ourselves of real guilt, most of us will need to clean up after past sins, mistakes and transgressions. This usually includes a real apology and, in order to create one, we need self-awareness, humility and courage.

One direct way to bolster self-awareness is to ask ourselves, "If someone did that to me, would I want an apology?" This can cut through confusion like a knife.

Humility in this case should lead to remorse for our behavior, but it doesn't mean that we have to strip ourselves of self-worth and dignity. Healthy people do not require the person who offended them to behave like a puddle of self-hating and worthless mud. What healthy people want is the four components of an apology listed earlier.

Courage to Do Right Thing

Many of us think that being courageous means doing the right thing without feeling fear. So when we feel our heart beating, we conclude that we just don't have the courage to do the right thing. In reality, many people believe that courage is not possible without feeling fear.

We sometimes fear apologizing because we have no assurance that our apology will be accepted. We fear feeling foolish and being exposed, that it will be thrown back in our face—maybe even in public. We don't want to undergo this horrible feeling of shame. We often mistake guilt, the private feeling when we know we've done wrong, with shame, which is the feeling we receive when our wrong has been made public. Shame, a state of disgrace or dishonor, often leaves us feeling powerless, worthless and exposed, and is often connected with rage. Remarkably, shame tends to reduce our ability to take responsibility for our own actions, as guilt increases this capacity. Shame tends to be graceless, as healthy guilt includes an element of grace and forgiveness.

While guilt or godly sorrow has a useful and even protective component, shame is rarely productive. For example, one researcher questioned 550 fifth-graders and their parents and then followed up with them when the children were 18. The children who were most prone toward feelings of shame were more likely to drink at a younger age and were less likely to apply to college. Those more prone to feeling guilt were exactly opposite: They were less likely to try drugs and alcohol, less likely to become criminals, and less likely to commit suicide.

Shame-Prone vs. Guilt Prone

The same researcher questioned 500 inmates in a detention center near Washington, D.C. and discovered that shame-prone inmates tend to deny their responsibility for their crimes, and their shame doesn't deter them from acting aggressively. But guilt-prone inmates tend to accept responsibility for their crimes and show much less aggression.

One way to overcome this fear of apology-rejection is to provide it in writing. This way you can take your time, and you won't get as flustered as you might face to face. You can craft your apology following the four rules above. Whether you apologize in person or in writing, it's usually best to keep it short. Drawn-out explanations carry the possibility of appearing that you are trying somehow to justify your behavior when you're not.

Also, keep in mind that whether or not your apology is accepted is not your concern. Your responsibility is to do your part.

Bully Apologizes

After a man who read a book I wrote that included how damaging adolescent bullying can be, and through doing so became a Christian, bolstered his courage and contacted four boys who he bullied in high school in order to apologize and in the process relieve himself of real guilt which he carried for decades.

"Three of them told me to go to h___l," he told me during one of my men's conferences.

"And the fourth one?" I asked.

"He accepted my apology and we were able to talk for a long time about how hard high school was, and how we wish we could both do those years over."

Real guilt was released and restoration blesses both of these men today.