Needless guilt torments millions of Christians, especially us singles.
The causes are many, but the result is the same for every person: We feel weighed down, as if we're staggering under a backpack full of bricks.
Life shouldn't be this way. We shouldn't have to look in a mirror and be ashamed of something that wasn't a sin.
Let's take a closer look at guilt and see if we can sort this out.
First, guilt comes in two kinds: deserved and undeserved. Deserved
guilt follows when we sin against God, deliberately breaking one of his
commandments. Deserved guilt is one of the consequences of sin, but it
has a good purpose. It drives us to confess our sin to God and repent of
it. God forgives us and we move on.
The second kind,
undeserved guilt, is a subconscious way of punishing ourselves. You
can't enjoy life when you feel shame about something, even if you can't
put your finger on what it is.
If deserved guilt comes from sin, where does this undeserved, needless guilt come from?
One major source is advertising. Several years ago when I took a course on writing advertising, we were instructed to create a problem—then convince the reader the advertiser's product was the solution. How often have you seen that? For years you've been getting along all right without their product, and now you think, "That would make my life better, wouldn't it?"
If that doesn't work, ads subtly imply you will be a) cooler; b) more successful; c) more admired if you buy their product. Those are really the only reasons people buy cologne, but they also work for jewelry and automobiles.
If you can't afford those products, you get a creepy feeling of inferiority. You think, "I'm not as good as people who own that." And when you can't afford something (no matter how unnecessary it is), you may think, "I should be making more money. I'm a failure."
That's needless guilt.
Another cause of these feelings is trying to meet someone else's unrealistic expectations for you. Parents or friends may set high goals to try to motivate us, but unreachable goals only lead to a sense of frustration and failure. Again, needless guilt.
Sometimes we set unrealistic goals for ourselves. If, at 130 pounds, I set my sights on becoming an NFL linebacker, I'd be doomed to rejection. On TV talent shows we see aspiring singers who can't carry a tune, dancers who are clumsy, and comedians who aren't funny.
If you're going to have a dream, make it in the realm of attainability.
Our personal standards, a mix of religious beliefs and societal rules form our conscience. Our conscience is supposed to be a built-in compass that helps us distinguish between right and wrong.
The problem is that some people's consciences are too permissive while others' consciences are too restrictive. In the first case, the person thinks he or she can do no wrong. They commit crimes or offend others and feel no guilt at all. In the second case, the person thinks everything they do is wrong and they feel needless guilt all the time.
While it doesn't look like it from reading the newspaper, people with overly sensitive consciences are probably in the majority, or we'd have a lot more crime and bad behavior than we do.
It's confusing. How do we draw the line between deserved and undeserved guilt in our own situation? One of the paradoxes of the Christian life is that we are both saint and sinner at the same time.
Have you ever noticed how the apostle Paul addresses the Christians he's writing to in the various churches? He calls them Saints. Not sinners, Saints. But from our own daily actions, we know we are sinners. What gives?
Christians who believe in Jesus as Savior have his righteousness credited to them. When God looks at believers, he sees his Son. Our salvation is secure in Christ.
God calls us to confess our sins quickly and ask forgiveness. God always forgives a sincerely repentant sinner.
Sadly, we are all born with a sinful nature that stays with us until we die. Paul lamented he could not behave the way he wanted because of his sinful nature. He rejoiced, though, in his salvation through Christ.
If you can't resolve this needless guilt problem on your own, you may have to talk it out with a pastor, relative, or trusted friend. We all need to recognize, at some point in our lives, that there's nothing to be gained from beating ourselves up.
Since you're on this web site, trying to improve your life and your relationship with God, you're not a sociopath with no conscience. Odds are, you're just trying too hard. You've set impossibly high standards for yourself.
You expect more from yourself than God expects from you.
Trying to force yourself to lighten up won't work, but recognizing the cause for your needless guilt will help you monitor yourself better.
God loves you as you are, but the Holy Spirit is always working with you to conform you into the image of Jesus, in the lifelong process called Sanctification. God never stops loving you in the process, and we're all in process. None of us have arrived, and we won't in this life.
Accept God's forgiveness. Forgive yourself.
Know that you're covered by God's grace. When you can accept that truth, you'll find needless guilt fading until one day it completely disappears.