Needless Guilt

by Graemme J. Marshall

The fact that so many Christians still feel so much guilt seems odd. Wasn't Christ's purpose "to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free" (Isaiah 58:6)? Shouldn't turning from one's former way of life and embracing God's truth release a person from such bondage?

Why should feelings of guilt ever overwhelm those called men and women of God who are enthusiastically striving to live God's way? Let's analyze why so much un-necessary guilt still oppresses so many!

The right kind of guilt and the wrong kind

First, understand this: There is a right kind of guilt- the kind that comes from breaking God's laws. When you as a Christian feel this kind of guilt, it moves you to repent and seek God's forgiveness. Christ's sacrifice covers sins that you confess and repent of, and personal guilt is removed. Notice I John I :9: "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." Yet many Christians still feel terribly guilty. Daily!

This guilt is mostly unwarranted- and it can and should be purged from your life. Where does the wrong kind of guilt come from, and how can you live your life essentially free of it? Needless feelings of guilt arise when you do either of two things:

1) compare yourself with others and feel inferior, or

2) live by the "shoulds. "

Have you felt this way?

Comparing yourself with others and believing you must live up to their expectations or standards makes you feel inadequate and inferior- and needless guilt overwhelms you. Maybe you didn't do what your mother or father wanted you to do with your life. You didn't enter a certain profession, or marry a certain person, or develop a certain kind of personality. This can make you feel you are a "bad" person.

You feel like a failure because you think you haven't measured up to or become what others hoped you would. You can feel guilty about not having gone to college. You can feel guilty because you haven't been able to put enough money away for retirement, or because you haven't bought a house like "everyone" is supposed to. You can feel guilty that you are " poor" when others are better off financially. A divorced person can feel guilty over marriage failure. Singles can feel something is wrong with them if they are unmarried. Christian parents can suffer pangs of guilt if their children stop attending church. Some feel guilty about an inability to say no--even to a door to-door salesman. Why do comparisons make us feel badly? Because life has dramatically changed during the past 5O years.

What was generally true for Mum and Dad is often no longer valid or accurate. "Saving up for a rainy day" or "saving until you have the money to pay cash" is often impossible under this world's system. This trying to do things to please others' expectations- and failing, as anyone who tries to please others inevitably will sooner or later- is what causes much unwarranted guilt.

False guilt comes, too, from being manipulated by the make believe fairy tales of television, movies and magazines. These portray instant happiness and simplistic solutions. They confuse love and its meaning by "hyping" impossible sexual adventures.

TV's perfect families make problem solving look easy. The actors look so loving, kind and controlled. Because happiness must be worked at, we feel guilty when we fall short of the ideal, choreographed solution. We feel guilty when we allow ourselves to be manipulated. Doing things because we feel we must blindly follow the crowd produces false guilt.

Feeling you "should"

You will also experience feelings of unwarranted guilt when your life is ruled by activities you feel you "should" do, even though you personally don't feel the need to do them.

Trying to do things to please others' expectations-and failing, as anyone who tries to please others inevitably will sooner or later-is what causes much unwarranted guilt.

Some Christians use the word "should" a great deal: "I should be praying (studying, fasting, giving, fellowshipping) more." You can feel guilt because you think you are not sacrificing enough, are not zealous enough or are not directly involved in God's Work.

You can feel guilt over watching "too much" television. Or even over merely owning a television. You can feel guilt for listening to some types of modern music, being unsure whether a Christian should. You can feel guilty if you sleep in, or just have the urge to rest awhile. The voice of guilt whispers that you'll be seen as lazy, decadent and unproductive!

Guilt can paralyze you and prevent you from saying no to too many outside activities that take you away from important jobs that need to get done at home. Needless guilt from thinking you don't entertain enough can adversely affect your family budget by causing you to overspend. The "shoulds" also affect how honest you are about your emotions. You think you know the right attitude you should have.

Have you ever answered, " Oh, great, wonderful!" when someone asked you how you were, even though you weren't? Any or all of these problems may have plagued you at one time or another. If they have, put them in their proper spiritual perspective. Remember: We are not discussing the right kind of guilt, which comes when you sin. We are talking about needless guilt that comes from accepting someone else's standard for your own behavior--or needless guilt that comes from failing to do what you think you should.

How to be free

You need to know how to rid yourself of these needless kinds of guilt! Here are three easy steps to free yourself from unnecessary guilt:

1) Take stock of whose voice it is you listen to. "Listen to Me, you who follow after righteousness, you who seek the Lord: Look to the rock from which you were hewn" (Isaiah 51 :1). Are you acting on God's clear biblical instruction and on official Church policies based on clear Bible principles? Or are you following some human opinion to which you feel subjected? Feeling guilt over not following God's clear requirements is right! Get in step. But trying to live by what someone says because you think that person is the ultimate authority on the subject brings unwarranted guilt feelings when you fail to live up to his or her personal standard. People are not God, and their standard is their own (Isaiah 55:8-9). Fine for them-but it may be inadequate, even incorrect, for you . At best, the opinion of others is still quite human.

2) Establish your priorities. You know how much time is in your day. Take stock of your spiritual and physical needs. You must draw your own line about what is important in your life. What does God require of you, given your own capacity and the means God has given you?

3) Eliminate or diminish the influence of people in your life who make you feel needless guilt. Some people are always giving unsolicited and ill-founded advice. You don't live according to their standards, but according to God's. Staying around these types will always send you on a guilt trip. The apostle Paul asked, "If God is for us, who can be against us?" (Romans 8:31). And, "Who shall bring a charge against God's elect?" (verse 33). Christians needn't be burdened with needless guilt. As we strive to be like Christ, we have to free ourselves from needless guilt, and encourage others to do the same. Christ's is the way free of guilt. Follow it!

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