October-November Newsletter Article

So, last week I had to write my article for our bi-monthly newsletter. I thought I’d post it here …

If you do a Google search on the Internet for the term “misplaced guilt,” it will return over 4.2 million “hits,” or references to the term in articles, news items, papers, blogs, etc. A quick scan of the top results reveals articles about people who suffer from misplaced guilt due to suicide of family members — they feel guilty because they didn’t see it coming, didn’t say anything, etc. There are references to more general “survivor guilt,” which has nothing to do with wasting time watching “Survivor” on TV, but just feeling guilty because a child or spouse died while you lived. It makes no sense, of course; that’s why it’s misplaced. Another thing that comes up in the search is misplaced guilt on the part of single parents. Their children are suffering because their spouse has left them and they have to deal with the child’s sense of abandonment. They feel guilty as a parent, even though they are the ones who’ve stuck around and are doing the parenting.

Probably around the time Thomas Harris wrote his bestseller, I’m Ok, You’re OK in 1969,   we began to realize that guilt was not all it had been cracked up to be. Guilt is often unwarranted. We make ourselves feel guilty for things we did not do, were not aware of, or for things that we could not have stopped had we known about them beforehand. We allow family members to make us feel guilty when we fail to live up to their unrealistic expectations. I have even known people who, as adults, felt guilty because a parent abused them. The parent convinced them that they deserved the abuse. You were being bad, so I had to beat you. Even when they reached adulthood and knew, intellectually, that this was false and ridiculous, they still had a difficult time not feeling some guilt over the ruined relationship with that abusive parent.

Guilt can be devastating. It can be false and misplaced. We feel guilty much of the time for no good reason. False guilt should be banished from our lives. We should not let it drive us nor use it as a way to manipulate others. Misplaced, or false, guilt is bad.

However [there’s always a however, isn’t there?] not all guilt is misplaced, false, or bad. Sometimes we feel bad because, simply put, we are guilty. The other day I read a letter from a friend in prison. In this letter, he asked me to be more diligent in writing to him. He put it pretty gently, but when I read his words, I felt bad — the simple truth was that I have promised to write to him more than I have been. He did not try to lay a “guilt trip” on me, but did ask me to write more often. I felt guilty and immediately wrote to him and apologized. Why did I feel guilty? Because I was guilty. To view this guilt as false or misplaced guilt would have been wrong. I needed to recognize the fact that I was guilty, feel badly about it, and repent.

King David wrote, in Psalm 38, “My guilt has overwhelmed me like a burden too heavy to bear.” (v. 5) The Message version of 1 John 1:8 says, “If we claim that we’re free of sin, we’re only fooling ourselves.” We all sin sometimes; and when we sin, then we, by God, are guilty. Not all guilt is misplaced. Sometimes guilt is the soul’s equivalent of physical pain: it tells us something’s wrong, something’s amiss, that there are problems deep within us. Sometimes we feel guilty simply because we are.

When we feel justified, legitimate guilt, we need to read one verse more in 1 John to deal with it: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” Not merely dismiss it as “misplaced” guilt, but own it, acknowledge it, and repent of it.

The next time you feel guilty, think about why that might be. There’s a good chance that the guilt you feel is misplaced. Maybe someone is trying to use guilt to manipulate you, or maybe you feel guilty because of a deeply-ingrained, but false, notion of what your responsibilities are. However, it may simply be that you feel guilty because you are guilty. If that is the case, own up to it, recognize your guilt, and then repent. That can be even more liberating than realizing that your guilt is misplaced.

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