There are two types of guilt: true (or legitimate) guilt, and false (unhealthy) guilt. True guilt is something we need to listen to. It's the nagging feeling when we know we've done or said something we shouldn't have and we need to rectify it, or when we've left something undone that should have been done. It pushes us to be better, to learn from our mistakes, to make amends and to move forward positively. Pretty healthy stuff, in all.
But then there's false guilt. That's when we worry we may have upset someone without any real proof that we actually have. It's when we text someone, don't get an instant reply, and begin to think through all the ways we might have upset them. We can get into patterns of thinking like this, worrying we're letting people down and feeling guilty for things that are quite possibly figments of our imagination. We can also experience false guilt over things that are outside of our control. Someone who has been abused or cheated on will often feel guilt despite the fact they did nothing wrong. When someone we love turns out to be someone different than we thought they were, we blame ourselves for being stupid and not seeing what was happening.
In Will Van Hart and Dr Rob Waller's recently published 'The Guilt Book', they unpack this issue in more depth and give some very helpful and practical advice. Will is a pastor and Rob a psychiatrist so they have spent a lot of time listening to people who are struggling in this area. They say the words that come up time and time again are should, must, ought, always, and never:
I should always be ready for anything that might happen.
I must be a good friend whenever anyone calls.
I ought to have seen that coming.
I will always be in control so no one can hurt me.
I will never allow anyone to hurt me again.
If we find ourselves using these words frequently, we may well be allowing false guilt to control us; setting ourselves impossible standards and making vows we can't and shouldn't keep.
Many of us find this guilt creeps into our spiritual life. Often when I try to pray or read my Bible, my motivation is guilt rather than relationship. We can so easily use the amount of time we spend praying and reading the Bible as measures of how our relationship with God is rather than knowing that it's about so much more than ticking a box. Don't get me wrong, praying and reading the Bible are both crucial elements of being in relationship with God but I wish we could have the right motivations, and let go of the guilt we so often attach to them. Usually we beat ourselves up for not doing 'enough' but what is enough? We're creating a self-defeating goal that can leave us trapped in guilt rather than coming to God out of love and relationship.
When I'd just had a major operation and was lying in bed, still drowsy from painkillers, I was aware of a voice telling me I should be using the time to pray. I was struggling to hold a thought in my head for a few seconds but I still felt guilty. A hospital chaplain came to see me and I nervously shared how I was feeling, awaiting the condemnation I felt I deserved. Instead she said, "My advice to you is not to pray." I thought I'd misheard her through my post-surgery fog. "What do you mean?" I said cautiously, waiting for the catch. "You've just gone through major surgery; the last thing you need is to be lying there feeling guilty because you're not praying. God understands." It was the opposite of the advice I thought I would get, yet was incredibly liberating. This is grace. When we don't hit the mark (God's or our own) it doesn't help if we beat ourselves up endlessly. We need to accept God's grace and forgiveness in order to let go of our guilt.