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Healthy Guilt vs. False and Harmful Guilt

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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.

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.

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You may feel that there is no hope for your marriage and the hurt is too deep to restore the relationship and love that you once had. The truth is, your life and marriage can be better and stronger than it was before. In fact, thousands of marriages, situations as complex and painful as yours, have been transformed with the help of professionals who understand where you are right now and care deeply about you and your spouse’s future. You can restore and rebuild your marriage through a personalized, faith-based, intimate program called, Hope Restored.
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