Learning to Deal With Guilt

by James Rudy Gray

Learning to Deal With Guilt

One of the biggest challenges faced in developing a healthy emotional life is learning how to deal with guilt. Unfortunately, children can often grow up with guilt feelings which, as an adult, translate into hostility, isolation, defensiveness, self-condemnation, loneliness, physical difficulties, chronic anger, low self-esteem, and more.

If self-image is the foundation of most other emotions, then how we learn to see ourselves is very important to a healthy emotional existence. In order to develop a good self-image, we must learn to deal effectively with guilt since we are all guilty. How we deal with it is crucial.

The Bible plainly teaches that all of us are sinners. We have sinned and come short of God's standard of perfection. We are guilty. Conversion effectively deals with that guilt. But as we live, we encounter other difficulties and discover that we still sin. Confession effectively deals with that guilt.

Even genuine Christians can have significant struggles with guilt or guilt feelings.

Dr. Les Carter has noted: "All of us are troubled occasionally by the recurring aches of unresolved memories. When left unchecked, this guilt can stunt emotional growth."

It is possible for a person to be so overcome with subjective feelings of guilt that it leads them to condemn themselves and keeps them from personally accepting God's forgiveness. They may have a narrow perspective of God's love, a poor self-image, a critical attitude, or over-identify with rules.

Rules are important. They are especially valuable in the early years of our lives. However, if we relate to the world based on rules, it often leads to stress and tension. Jesus clashed most frequently with people who seemed to over-identify with rules. Principles are better because they represent a higher moral level. First Corinthians 10:31 is a principle: "Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God." Rules represent a lower moral level. They are needed for all levels of development but they are not as effective as principles. Rules may show us what not to do but principles teach us how to do right and avoid wrong.

The rule-bound Pharisees often missed the truth of Jesus because their rules blinded them. They even tried to create a false sense of guilt in Christ but were unsuccessful. They saw Him as a law-breaker because He healed a man on the Sabbath. The great principle Jesus revealed is that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.

Parents have the great opportunity to teach their children the principles of God's truth. That helps children grow into healthier adults and more mature Christians. False guilt may cripple us, even though we have done nothing wrong by God's standard. Such a person often feels there is no hope. Being rule-bound can encourage that kind of destructive thinking and feeling. Living by and growing in the principles of truth enables us to think rightly about ourselves and God, and deal with guilt (real guilt) effectively. Real guilt is a gift from God that leads to an opportunity to grow. False guilt is an emotional counterfeit that injures us.

James Rudy Gray, who pastors Utica Baptist Church in Seneca, S.C., is certified as a professional counselor by the National Board for Certified Counselors, and is a member of the American Association of Christian Counselors.