Many people live with a burden of guilt. This results in conflicts and the following characteristics: insecurity, perfectionism, constant self-accusation, fear of failure (with the consequent state of permanent vigilance), and being overly demanding of others. A sense of guilt is a useful resource when it stimulates correct and respectful conduct and favourably getting along with others. A real sense of guilt is a symptom of an alert conscience that serves for self-censure and to prevent failures and lack of morals.
For many years, Carlos lived as if he had no guilt regarding the family he had abandoned and the daughter who grew up with a series of emotional problems because of what she experienced in childhood. Now, living in a rest home and sensing death approaching, finally his conscience seemed to wake up. However, what could be done with this feeling? He was no longer able to ask his wife for forgiveness, and his daughter refused to visit him. His despair and frustration increased day after day.
The solution to guilt is found in seeking to make reparation whenever possible, to ask God for forgiveness as well as the people who were offended. Did you know that God is willing to forgive even the greatest mistakes, even those that are unforgivable at the human level?
“Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.”(Isaiah 1:18)
To receive forgiveness and reconciliation from God, it is also necessary to forgive others; this helps in the process of forgiving oneself.
Regarding unnecessary or exaggerated guilt, the process requires certain attitudes. Among the main ones we can cite are the following:
Do what is right, and rest in God
Make decisions and form attitudes based on divine principles, and rest in God regarding the results and consequences.
Learn lessons from your errors and mistakes
After asking God for forgiveness and also asking the individuals affected by your mistakes, and seeking to make reparation, make this a learning experience and a motivation to respond in a different manner in the future.
Open your heart to someone who is trustworthy
Talking about your feelings of guilt with a trustworthy friend helps to organise your own ideas. In all cases, it serves as a relief to reduce part of the tension created by this feeling.
When the conscience becomes perverted
The conscience does not always provide a wise standard of conduct. Sometimes the conscience is too narrow and restrictive. In some people the conscience has no limits. Those who have a severe, restrictive conscience expect that others will react in the same manner as they have chosen. And those without limits think all things are good, even the bad. This is why the book of Proverbs states,
“There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death.”(Proverbs 16:25)
Therefore, it is necessary to count on ethical principles found in the Bible. The apostle Paul warns his disciple Timothy regarding those who, having an insensitive conscience, would order believers to do absurd things (1 Timothy 4:2, 3).
An insensitive conscience is incapable of serving as a guide of trustworthy conduct.
Healthy in the right proportion
A study carried out by Grazyna Kochanska and her colleagues verified that the feeling of guilt, in the right amount, helps children to observe rules and respect others. A total of 106 boys and girls from two to five years of age participated in this study. To verify the measure of guilt, the researchers made the children believe that they had ruined a valuable object. Afterward, they observed the behavior of each one, and the opinion of each child’s mother was requested. These are the most important results:
— The girls showed greater feelings of guilt than the boys.
— The preschool children from stable families demonstrated less guilt.
— The children with feelings of guilt broke fewer rules than those who did not feel guilt.
— The right proportion of guilt helps to prevent bad behavior.
Forgiveness of the Father
One of the most beautiful and well-known parables Jesus told is that of the prodigal son recorded in Luke 15:11–32. It tells the story of a father and two sons, one of whom grew tired of the calm and peaceful life and decided to abandon everything and look for freedom away from home. As if this rebellious and ungrateful attitude was not bad enough, he also asked for his part of the family inheritance—something customarily received after the father’s death. The father, respecting his son’s choice, gave him the money. And the son left home. Free from paternal restrictions, the young man began to squander the money with drinking, partying, and promiscuity. While his financial resources lasted, he was surrounded by “friends.” The money ran out, and he found himself starving. What should he do? He went to find a job and ended up tending pigs, a humiliating task for someone of Jewish origin. The young man who had bragged about his freedom suddenly found himself a slave to his circumstances. The one who had complained about the food at his father’s table was now tempted to eat the slop in a pig trough to keep from starving to death.
Where were his “friends,” the women, the parties?
The text states that the young man had decided to go to “a distant country,” an appropriate symbol for sin, since it takes us far from God and from ourselves. It rips away all good things in our life, nurturing for some time the illusion of freedom and joy. But there is no true joy far from God in the “distant country.” What the young man discovered is that in the “distant country” there is only frustration, sadness, humiliation, emptiness, and guilt.
In the midst of that deplorable situation, he decided to return home with the intention of being accepted by his father as one of his slaves. This son still had a lot to learn about the man he had turned his back on. However, even though his understanding was limited, he knew that his father was just and loving. It was this thought that made him consider returning. It is always the kindness of God that leads us to repentance and attracts us to Him (Romans 2:4; Jeremiah 31:3).
With his head down, his tattered clothing and a ton of guilt upon his shoulders, the young man walked toward home. His father saw him in the distance, ran to his son, embraced him warmly, and covered his son’s misery with his own robe. The father had always been waiting. The father had never stopped loving his son. For this reason, he received the repentant young man as his son, without reminding him of his sins. The past was forgotten; the sins were forgiven; no one could say anything to the contrary.
Satan, the prodigal son who never returned to the Father, is the one who tells the lie that the Lord cannot accept sinners back unless they are good enough to be able to return. If the sinner waits until “good enough” happens, he or she will never return to God.
The main message of this parable is the love of the father, who clearly represents God. He accepts us, forgives us, and loves us always. This knowledge will make a great difference in the life of Carlos and of every sinner who lives under the heavy cloud of a sense of guilt.
Have you made the decision to return to the Father?
There is an intimate relationship between certain behavior and guilt. The following questions present behavior associated with guilt. Answer YES or NO.
1. Did you grow up in an environment where there were authoritarianism and intimidation? ___
2. Is it very difficult to forgive your own mistakes? ___
3. Is it difficult for you to forgive those who offend you? ___
4. Are you constantly afraid of breaking some social rule? ___
5. Are you frightened when faced with the possibility of bad news? ___
6. Do you feel frightened whenever you think about the future? ___
7. Do you become very upset when something does not turn out perfectly? ___
8. Do you feel excessively bothered with a lack of punctuality? ___
9. Do you often feel insecure? ___
10. Do you easily feel upset with yourself and with others? ___
11. Do you become excessively concerned about what other people may think about you? ___
12. In your imagination, is God always upset because of your sins and imperfections? ___
If you answered YES to more than three questions, you are prone to false guilt and should seek solutions. Begin with the counsel in this chapter, and if this is not enough, seek the help of a professional.
The content of this post is taken from The Power of Hope — Overcoming depression, anxiety, guilt, and stress, authored by Julián Melgosa and Michelson Borges.
Julián Melgosa holds a doctorate in educational psychology from Andrews University. A member of the British Psychological Society, he was a university professor and is the author of various articles and books in the area of emotional health.
Michelson Borges is a journalist with a master’s in theology from Brazil Adventist University. He is the editor of “Vida e Saúde” (Life and Health magazine), is a seminar presenter and has authored books on media, science and religion.