How to live guilt free

What are you feeling guilty about right now? Not spending enough time with God? The family? Not achieving enough? Eating too much? Chances are, there’ll be something, and you’ll probably feel it most acutely during Lent.

Lent: the six-week period we spend lamenting the broken resolutions that we made at New Year (while also trying to avoid remaking the delicious pancakes that we enjoyed on Shrove Tuesday). Of course, its true purpose is to lead us to repentance through careful self-scrutiny, penance and self-denial. But sometimes it seems to me that Lent has been designed to make us feel guilty. In fact, Lent is rather like throwing petrol on an already blazing house fire. Far from needing six weeks of the year to generate even more guilt than the average church attendee already feels, most of us need six weeks of the year purely devoted to helping us overcome our guilt and actually learning how to receive the forgiveness that Jesus offers us.

GUILT UNDER THE MICROSCOPE

When it comes to guilt, the Church has typically had two speeds – guilty or not guilty. However, experience shows us that guilt is far more complex. Guilt can be an emotion, a criminal verdict, the opinion of others, and even a medical symptom. Yet, despite its complexity, guilt is commonly perceived to be an objective qualification of one’s moral state, and as such is rarely scrutinised. Of course guilt plays a unique role in our Christian experience of forgiveness and restoration. As a result, the Church has been unhelpfully cautious in qualifying the sort of guilt we may be experiencing. Our unwillingness to ‘muddy the waters’ over the believer’s conscience is understandable, since nobody wants to ‘psychologise away’ a comprehension of sin that is necessary for forgiveness. Consequently we have a Christian culture that effectively says, ‘If you feel guilty, it is because you are guilty. Therefore bring your confessions to Jesus and receive his merciful forgiveness.’

Imagine Agnes, a saintly woman I interviewed in preparation for writing The Guilt Book. Over 70 years old, an ex-missionary, committed to a celibate lifestyle for Jesus, a prayer leader and gracious minister of the gospel. She concedes that her whole life has been underpinned by powerful feelings of guilt which relate to no particular thing and have failed to be shifted by years of confession and the assurance of forgiveness. She shares this testimony with me in whispers that indicate the level of shame she feels about this experience itself, as if feeling guilty is something to feel guilty about.

Sadly, Agnes’ experience is not unique. A vast number of believers in our churches are plagued by feelings of guilt that remain despite their understanding of grace. Church leaders commonly lament the reluctance of their volunteer force on the basis of apathy, but I think it’s more likely that many feel too guilty to serve the church. The typical reaction to those who fail to accept grace is to chastise them for their lack of gratitude or their seemingly failing faith; hugely compounding their guilt and exacerbating the problem. Dr Rob Waller and I have been writing on the subject of guilt, not to undermine this gospel of grace, but to empower it. In order to do this we have needed to scrutinise guilt and ensure that we are prescribing the right medicine for the right disease.

THE CONSCIENCE DISEASE: A UNIVERSAL EXPERIENCE

You may be relieved to know that the ‘conscience disease’ is not a 21st-century phenomenon. It is something that is universal to the human experience and observed within the history of the Church.

Rev Jeremy Taylor, a 17th-century priest who wrote extensively on emotional health, says of the falsely guilty, ‘They repent when they have not sinned, and accuse themselves without reason. Their virtues make them tremble and in their innocence they are afraid.’ Rev John Fletcher, an 18th-century contemporary of John Wesley, says of them, ‘They are tormented in their consciences with imaginary guilt.’ Wesley himself comments, ‘This is properly termed a scrupulous conscience, and it is highly expedient to yield to it as little as possible, rather it is a matter of prayer that you may be delivered from the sore evil and may recover a sound mind.’

TRUE GUILT VERSUS FALSE GUILT

Some people have an overly sensitive conscience. That can cause them to experience guilt that is completely disproportionate to their actual acts. Rob and I define these experiences as ‘false guilt’ attacks. True guilt on the other hand is the fruit of a godly conscience (1 Timothy 1:19). True guilt is rooted in the truth of God which is neither deceitfully exaggerated, nor muted. True guilt is the repentant realisation of actual sin that leads to the cross where expedient forgiveness is received through Christ. You can see that treating these two conditions with the same medicine will not result in a good outcome. If we repeatedly treat false guilt with a true gospel it only increases a sufferers’ doubt that their guilt is true.

It’s not quite that straightforward however. Many Christians experience an interplay between both types of guilt. For example, they may feel true guilt and respond appropriately in confession and receive forgiveness, but then be plagued by false guilt relating to tangential memories thrown up by their true sin. During Lent many of those who suffer from problem guilt will find that their problem is not with remembering their true sin, but in trying to extract it from a web of uncertainty, ambiguity and anxiety. As a priest I am regularly asked for reassurance in these matters with the following questions: How can I be sure I did nothing wrong? If I didn’t do anything wrong, why do I feel so bad when I look back? How can I get free of my fear that I am unacceptable?

THE SHAPING OF YOUR CONSCIENCE

Genetics

In 2011 a helpful psychological study was released by Taya R Cohen of the Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh called The Guilt And Shame Proneness Scale (GASP). The focus of this study was to explore which sorts of people would engage in less ethical behaviour but, as a by-product, identified that 30-40% of the population have ‘high guilt proneness’ (regardless of their religious convictions). These individuals are far more likely to suffer from an oversensitive conscience than their low-scoring counterparts who, at the most extreme end, struggle to experience any guilt at all.

This study is not a complete answer but it does go some way towards explaining why you suffer deep guilt for breaching your Lenten chocolate fast, while your ex-con home-group colleague happily recounts the liberation of his conscience despite reminding you he has ‘done in several people, you know’. Of course, he is right, praise God. He is enjoying the full fruits of what it is to know the cleansing of true guilt in Jesus. You, however, may be dealing with something different all together.

Parenting

Genetics are certainly not the only reason why some Christians struggle with false guilt. Both Rob and I have been struck by the immense power of early parental influences on a developing child’s conscience. Those children who have been parented by what we call ‘guilt induction’ as a means of control are particularly susceptible to suffer with problematic guilt in adult life.

Typically, any child who is led to believe that their behaviour unduly influences the mood or well-being of a parent will experience higher levels of guilt and shame than peers who are not. Perhaps the most shocking example we found was a Christian friend who responded to this material: ‘My mum used to do that all the time. If I was swinging my legs under my chair or something similar that she disapproved of, she would say, “You’re only doing that because you want Mummy to die.”’ It is not hard to imagine how this experience, reinforced over time, could affect your sensitivity to guilt over innocuous events or minor errors.

Society

It is not just families that play a part in the distortion of conscience: society at large disseminates an ideology of inclusion on the basis of brand value or cultural acceptability. These subtle messages generate a herd mentality which in turn threatens to exclude those who don’t fit in. Many of our young people are struggling with the double-edged sword of guilt, whereby they feel guilty if they do conform and equally guilty if they don’t.

CHURCH-BASED CONTROL

It would be remiss of me not to mention the Church here, since society likes to blame us wholesale for their guilt issues. In our history there have been instances of the Church enforcing social controls and using guilt as a weapon and not an instrument for healing. ‘Catholic Guilt’ is a cultural motif that many people understand as a coverall for an imbibed religious conscience that often exists despite a lack of Christian faith.

Many young people perceive the Church as a place that will propagate rather than relieve the guilt of a burdened heart. Yet I am so hopeful, since we, the Church, actually hold the answer to all of the true guilt of the world. Despite mistakes and misrepresentations in our history, we carry the only cure for the sin disease. In our natural eagerness to get that message across, we have perhaps failed to show the compassion and understanding needed to separate the faulty conscience from the needy one. We may have compounded the belief that we are in the business of making people feel bad, rather than seeking their transformation.

SEEK TO DEVELOP A MATURE CONSCIENCE

It is important to point out that the Bible does not celebrate an overly sensitive (scrupulous) conscience, but a mature conscience that has been informed by Jesus. We might say, ‘Alice has a very scrupulous conscience; she will make the right decision.’ The Bible instead says, ‘Alice has a scrupulous (uninformed) conscience; we should accommodate her despite this weakness.’ In Romans 14 Paul says, ‘Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters.’ The ‘stronger’ conscience in this passage allows the individual to eat all things, whereas the weaker conscience allows them only to eat vegetables.

In 1 Timothy 4:2 Paul pours scorn on those who would enforce a new legalism as, ‘hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared with a hot iron.’ That is not to say that their consciences are morally blunted, but that their consciences are uniformed by Jesus and therefore scrupulous, legalistic and unchecked by Christian liberty. Ironically, Church teaching has very often celebrated a ‘scrupulous conscience’ and enforced the very minutiae of legalised behaviour over the ‘disputable matters’ that Paul himself detested.

If there is to be recovery from this disease of conscience that plagues minds and steals joy, there must be an acknowledgement in our own theology that an oversensitive conscience is not something to celebrate. We must recognise that Paul’s teaching in Romans 12:2, ‘Do not conform… to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind’ was not simply an instruction against immorality, it was also a challenge to the overly scrupulous, the legalist, and the aesthetic. The ‘renewing of your mind’ is not about exchanging a muted conscience for a scrupulous one, it is instead the truth and compassion of God made alive in your mind; a far more glorious and exciting prospect!

HOW TO FIND FREEDOM

How then can we recover from a disease of the conscience? In John 8:32 it says, ‘Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’ One of our key principles for recovery is found in the difference between ‘feeling’ and ‘knowing’. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy principles suggest that our feelings are informed by our thoughts and vice versa. If we correlate these ideas, the verse might be expressed: ‘Truth (accurate diagnosis of any real sin and of any false guilt) will set you free (from imprisoning feelings).’ Of course, as Christians we all know that this is right; the truth of God sets us free from all sorts of false and imprisoning beliefs. Unfortunately, it can take a long time and a lot of hard work for our feelings to catch up with our new (true) beliefs, so here are some more detailed principles.

A key first step in gaining perspective is to recognise that just because you feel guilty, it does not mean that you are guilty. Try to create a more realistic guilt profile of yourself: have you had a propensity to feel guilty over inconsequential issues in the past? Do you ruminate on or check over events or memories to make sure you haven’t done anything wrong? Have you struggled with depression or emotional sensitivity in the past? Is the issue you are considering historic, and so already confessed and addressed? If so, you are most probably dealing with false guilt.

HOW TO BEAT GUILT

1) Make a new appraisal of what is really going on 

An intrusive feeling of guilt sends many people off into a thought cycle that is self-defeating and only reaffirms their false guilt. Try using the feeling clue to prompt a more realistic view of what you are actually experiencing. You may say, ‘Ah, I am starting to feel guilty again. Now, I know I have a tendency towards guilty feelings. I am feeling stressed about letting my mum down, but that doesn’t mean I am making the wrong decision. I think my feelings are trying to set me off on a self-defeating path here, but I am not buying it this time.’

2) Review who is actually responsible 

Most false guilt feeds off a sense that you are totally responsible for bad things that aren’t actually your fault (remember the guilt-inducing parenting style mentioned earlier?) Using a pen and paper, write the scenario down that you are feeling falsely guilty about. Now draw out a cake and divide it into portions of responsibility to see that there are many different influences on the event. If the exercise gives you new information about your less-than-100% responsibility, pray and then act; equally, release other people to their responsibility before God.

3) Tolerate some uncertainty about guilt 

People who struggle with false guilt typically also struggle with uncertainty. They are desperate to feel that everything is going to be ok and yet there is a nagging doubt in their minds that something they have done will exclude them from God’s grace or the love of their family. As a result they are constantly on high alert for any guilt which they perceive as a threat to their security. Tolerating uncertainty activates your trust in the character of God as compassionate and good. It allows for your guilty feelings without frantically searching for their origin, and trusting that God, in his love for you as a father, forgives you for all your sins and heals all your diseases (Psalm 103:3).

4) Show some compassion 

Those who struggle with false guilt are typically hostile towards themselves while being generous and forgiving to others. In Mark 12:31 Jesus commands us, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ (my italics). Being compassionate and forgiving towards yourself is not a self-indulgent attitude, it is merely internalising the gospel of grace. False guilt can often be equated with self-punishment, when ‘the punishment that brought us peace was on him’ (Isaiah 53:5). Nurturing the compassionate and forgiving words of Jesus in your heart during a period of intense guilt is, in my view, God’s greatest remedy.

 The Guilt Book (IVP) available from April. You can pre-order at a discount here

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(This article was first published at Christianitymagazine.co.uk)
Will Van Der Hart, 25/02/2014