The Guilt Game

My friend worked on the apples while I peeled and chopped bananas for the fruit salad. I admired Lauri’s ability to organize this missions breakfast for a large church: recruiting lots of people to bring food, providing some of the food herself, hosting me in her home, caring for three children, and all the while struggling with chronic pain and physical limitations. As I contemplated all she did, I began to feel inadequate.

I could never do something like this,” I lamented in my head. “I must be hopelessly disorganized. My friend seems to do this effortlessly, in spite of all the other demands on her life and energy. How will God ever use me? I just . . . “

My friend interrupted my thoughts, “I feel like this missions breakfast is the only thing I do all year. I feel bad thinking about all you do at the mission—working at the office and having people in your home all the time. It seems like you are always serving, and this is my one big event of the year. I even said ‘no’ when they asked me to host the speaker. I said I would only host you, because I needed someone who would help me with the fruit salad and who wouldn’t mind if the house wasn’t completely tidy.”

Right away I had to ‘fess up what I had been thinking and we had a good laugh. You see, my friend is my partner in false guilt. Over the years we have felt guilty together, empathizing with each other about the things that make us feel that way, confronting each other when those feelings were unjustified. We knew we had just caught each other simultaneously engaging in the guilt game.

I’m convinced that women feel guilty more often than men. My husband always says in jest that I feel enough guilt for the two of us, so he doesn’t have to feel guilty. My friend and I have thought and talked and prayed about the subject; and God has changed us over the years so that we rarely catch ourselves saying that we “feel guilty” any more. Let me share with you why.

True guilt is not a feeling, it’s a fact. If I sin, I am guilty, whether I feel like it or not. If I gossip, I am guilty whether I ever feel any remorse. It is possible to sear my conscience through repeated sin, so that I no longerfeel guilty; but that doesn’t change the fact that when I sin, I am guilty and must rush to repentance, so that I can rejoice in God’s forgiveness and my restored relationship with him.

On the other hand, I have often felt guilty about things that were not sin. I would look at one of my co-workers who seemed to accomplish so much more than me, and feel guilty that I wasn’t having Bible studies with as many women as she was.  I’d see my friend organizing the missions breakfast at her church and feel guilty because I had never done anything of that magnitude administratively before. While visiting supporters in the U.S., we would share a meal with a family with seven home-schooled children who ran their own bread-baking business on the side and I would feel guilty, wondering, “Am I warping my kids for life by not home-schooling them and having a home business for them to work in?”

All of these feelings I was lumping together in the guilt category were the fruit of comparing myself with others. I was looking to others’ lives and gifts for my life pattern. While I can certainly learn from others and may be inspired and trained by others, ultimately I am to imitate Christ’s character and exercise my gifts in a way that gives him glory. God has equipped me to serve him in unique ways. I don’t want to miss out on what he has called me to do because I am trying to imitate his plan for somebody else. Instead I want to throw myself wholeheartedly into the tasks for which he has designed me, trusting him to equip me for them all.

As I examined other instances of false guilt, I found another major source of false guilt in my life. It used to be very hard for me to hear of any need or call for volunteers and not jump up to meet that need. If I refrained from volunteering I would feel negligent for not taking on another task. I used to feel guilty if my children misbehaved in public, thinking I didn’t measure up as a mother. I used to feel guilty if my child asked for something, and I responded, “Please get it yourself,” instead of getting it for them. (I got over that pretty quickly!) I felt guilty if I took on a job and didn’t do it perfectly. This last one is still a challenge for me.

Actually, my problem was that I had an insatiable desire to please others. Guilt results from a failure to please God, and it demands repentance; but as I began to examine my guilt feelings, I discovered that they often had nothing to do with a failure to please God. Instead those feelings had everything to do with a failure to please people. I found that I was putting the approval of others over the approval of God. I was living for others, making an idol of their approval. Wow—idolatry! Now that’s something to feel guilty about!

Now when I feel guilty, I examine those feelings before God. Sometimes I call my good friend and together we talk and pray. On some occasions I find that I must repent of some sin of commission or omission; but more often I find that my sin relates more to a failure to think the truth about myself, others and God—something that also demands repentance and restoration, but of a different nature. Much of the energy I used to expend stewing in false guilt about some imagined transgression is now released for God’s use and God’s glory.

How glorious it is to be freed from false guilt.

Beth Barron and her husband have worked cross-culturally for decades, first in the Middle East and now in the U.S. She teaches English to refugees and uses her writing skills to advocate for them. Beth enjoys writing, biking, vegetable gardening and connecting heart to heart with other women. She is involved in her church's External Focus ministry. She and her husband have three adult children, two daughters-in-love and three grandsons. Beth graduated from Rice University in Houston, attended Dallas Theological Seminary and is committed to life-long learning.

One Comment

  • Suzi Ciliberti

    Needed this today!

    Thanks for this great piece on guilt. I loved the way you helped me see the difference between feeling guilty toward God verses toward people. Great post!