You know the feeling.
That deep, sinking feeling you get deep down in your gut that only rears its ugly head when you’ve committed some type of sin and the only person that knows about it (besides you) is God.
It doesn’t even have to be that bad of a sin; just something simple that you’ve messed up now 3,482,302 times and have asked forgiveness for 3,482,301 times. You ask for forgiveness, promise that you’ll do better…
And then you don’t.
The Purpose of Guilt
Despite it’s awful feeling, guilt actually does have a good reason for existing in the first place; namely, to reorient your brain (and your heart) towards God.
David experienced this firsthand after his sin with Bathsheba. Choosing to hide his sin rather than acknowledge it openly, David remarks in Psalm 32 that his body “wasted away,” feeling that God’s hand was “heavy upon [him]” (Psalm 32:3-4).
It was only after confessing his sins to God – who subsequently forgave him – that he was able to find some relief.
The feeling of guilt reveals that you are aware that there is a problem in the first place, and hopefully, that you want to take steps to fix it. The longer it goes, the more nagging the problem becomes and the greater your desire to make it right. As the Israelites found out firsthand, ignore it too long and you’ll eventually just become numb to the feeling (Jeremiah 6:15).
So, even though guilt may be painful to experience, it should be at least somewhat refreshing to realize that it’s not completely pointless. It’s a lot like that alarm clock you placed on the other side of the room to help you wake up, only now it won’t stop beeping until you physically drag yourself out of bed. It may be annoying, but at least it’s effective.
That Doesn’t Necessarily Make it Easier
None of what I’ve said, however, probably makes the whole situation easier to deal with. As we mentioned earlier, living with guilt actually makes you feel awful; you know that something’s wrong, you know that something needs to be done, you just…don’t.
Science has even backed up some of what David even experienced in Psalm 32. According to at least one study, guilt actually made the person feel heavier (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-squeaky-wheel/201310/feeling-guilt-increases-our-subjective-body-weight). It wasn’t until the subjects actually did something about the guilt that they felt as if a weight was lifted off their shoulders – literally.
Moreover, other studies have shown that someone who feels guilty about something generally has an innate desire to make it right to the people that they feel they harmed (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/ulterior-motives/201205/what-does-guilt-do) in the first place. Guilt is normal, but so are the feelings of penance afterwards.
The lesson is simple: When you sin, repent and go to God in prayer and ask for forgiveness. Then do better.
When Guilt Backfires
There are some people, however, who have some kind of satisfaction in dwelling on their past transgressions. Surprisingly, it can even make them happy (https://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/health-and-wellness/shame-addiction-neuroscientist-alex-korb-explains-why-guilt-makes-us-feel-good-20170630-gx1ym7.html).
For other people, feelings of sadness give them a sense of validation to their fears that they are unworthy. Spiritually, we are told over and over again that God is all-powerful and we are not, so when we mess up, it’s just who we are. We sit in our guilt to remind ourselves of our failure as humans.
Unfortunately, Satan can use that guilt to paralyze you (https://drmargaretrutherford.com/how-to-step-away-from-paralyzing-shame/). When your feelings of unworthiness are strong enough, you’ll stay stagnant out of fear of messing up once again. This leaves us broken, depressed, and without hope.
If this is you, repeat after me: My situation is not hopeless. No matter who you are or what you’re doing while you’re reading this, there is no sin too great that God cannot forgive you of; if you don’t believe, just ask the Apostles Peter and Paul. To say that God can’t forgive you sounds sincere, but it is the essence of pride. What you’re saying to God is, “The sacrifice of Christ is strong enough to cleanse every sin but mine!”
What Can I Do About It?
If you’re caught in a vicious cycle of guilt and shame with no end in sight, there are a few things you can (and should) do to break out of it.
- Own the Guilt. If you’ve sinned, deal with it. Face it, man (or woman) up, and make it right with God and the person you’ve sinned against. Carl Jung once said, “People will do anything, no matter how absurd, to avoid facing their own souls.” Be the exception. Stand up to yourself.
- Stop Self-Punishing. You don’t need to scrape yourself with broken pottery to make amends with God. While that can be one way to display grief, all God asks us to do is come to Him and ask for forgiveness. Your grand displays of sadness are, at best, pointless, and at worst, grossly narcissistic.
- Don’t Read Into Things. “Oh, my car broke down right after I cheated on my taxes. It’s a sign from God!” It could be, or it could just be a coincidence (Ecclesiastes 9:11). Regardless, if it got your attention, it could still be a good thing, but don’t perceive everything as divine punishment or you’ll end up feeling guilty for no reason whatsoever.
- Pray Two Prayers. The prayer for forgiveness comes first, but then, pray that God will help you to move on. One of Satan’s best tools is to convince you that you can’t keep living; it worked with Judas, after all. But you’re not him. You believe that God wants to forgive you and that He’s waiting to forgive you. Ask Him to help.