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February 26, 2016

Guilt: The Painful Emotion

Few human emotions are as distressing and painful as feelings of guilt and personal disapproval. When at a peak of intensity, self-condemnation gnaws on the conscious mind by day and invades the dreams by night. Since the voice of the conscience speaks from inside the human mind, we cannot escape its unrelenting abuse for our mistakes, failures and sins.

For some particularly vulnerable individuals, an internal taskmaster is on the job from early morning until late at night—screaming accusations at his tormented victim. Hospitals for the emotionally disturbed are filled with such patients who have been unable to meet their own expectations and are now broken with self-blame and even personal hatred.

But is all guilt harmful? Certainly not. Feelings of personal disapproval can provide powerful motivation for responsible behavior. A husband may go to work when he would rather go fishing, simply because he knows his wife and children need the money and he would feel guilty if he ignored his family obligations. Dr. William Glasser, psychiatrist and author of Reality Therapy asserts that personal disapproval for wrong behavior is absolutely necessary if change for the better is to occur. Perhaps the best example of this principle is seen in a religious conversion experience. Genuine repentance occurs only when we recognize our sorrowful condition and bow at the feet of Jesus Christ.
How, then, are we to make sense out of our feelings of guilt? How can we separate destructive self-condemnation from the genuine accusations of God? In the following discussion we will examine some of the related issues to gain a better understanding of this powerful emotion which surges within each of us.

What causes a person to feel guilty?A poll was taken among children ages 5 through 9 on the question, "What is a conscience?" One 6-year-old girl said a conscience is the spot inside that "burns if you're not good." A 6-year-old boy said he didn't know, but thought it had something to do with feeling bad when you "kicked girls or little dogs." And a 9-year-old explained it as a voice inside that says "No" when you want to do something like beating up your little brother. Her conscience had "saved him a lot of times!"
Adults have also found the conscience difficult to define. I tend to believe that a sense of guilt occurs when we violate our own inner code of conduct. Guilt is a message of disapproval from the conscience which says, in effect, "You should be ashamed of yourself!"
If guilt conveys a message from our consciences and the conscience was created by God—then, is it accurate to say that guilt feelings always contain a message of disapproval from God, too?Let me give you an illustration of a young man who struggled with guilt, and then you indicate the role you think God played in his condemnation.
Some friends of mine decided to take a two-week vacation one summer, and they hired a 15-year-old boy (whom I'll call John) to water their lawn and bring in the mail while they were gone. They gave him a key to their house and asked him to maintain their property until they returned.
John did the job satisfactorily and was paid for his efforts. Some months later, however, he came to their house again and knocked on the front door. He stood there, obviously shaken with emotion, saying he had something important to tell them. My friends invited John into the living room, where he confessed that he had entered their house one day to bring in the mail, and had seen a stick of gum lying on a table. He stole the gum and chewed it, but had suffered intense guilt ever since. The weeping young man then took a penny from his pocket and asked them to accept it as repayment for the stolen gum, requesting their forgiveness for his dishonesty.
Now, what do you think was the origin of his remorseful guilt? Was God actually condemning this sensitive adolescent, or was the disapproval of his own making? More specifically, let's suppose you were counseling John and he asked you whether he should return the penny and confess, or whether he should ask God to forgive him and forget it ever happened.
What is your interpretation of John's struggle? I have presented the illustration of John to several groups of Christian adults, and their reaction has been extremely varied. Some individuals feel that the conscience is largely a product of early childhood instruction, and John had obviously been taught to be super-sensitive to the voice within. Perhaps his parents or a minister had made him feel guilty over behaviors which would not ordinarily have distressed him. Those who took this position, therefore, were inclined to emphasize the human factors involved, while minimizing the voice of God in his experience.
Other discussants interpreted John's behavior very differently. They pointed out the fact that stealing is stealing, and the size of the theft is irrelevant to the issue at hand. Taking something that doesn't belong to you is a sin, regardless of whether you confiscate a stick of gum or a new automobile. Representatives of this point of view believe that John deserved the guilt he felt and should have the restitution at my friend's home. To them, God was the author of the young man's guilt.
As to my personal views of John's predicament, I believe he did the right thing in confessing the theft as he did. If he suppressed his guilt in this instance, it would be easier to ignore the effects of greater misbehaviors in the future. Young children who pilfer things from a counter—one cent at a time—can easily progress to full-fledged shoplifting and more serious acts of dishonesty. From this perspective John's guilt appears valid and worthy of restitution.
While I view this young man's responsiveness to right and wrong as a healthy characteristic, I have some concern for his spiritual welfare in the future. A person with a tender conscience, such as John, is often vulnerable to a particular kind of satanic influence. By setting an ethical standard which is impossible to maintain, Satan can generate severe feelings of condemnation and spiritual discouragement. This brings us back to the question before us relating to the origin of guilt. Let me state with the strongest emphasis that God is not the author of all such discomfort. Some feelings of guilt are obviously inspired by the devil and have nothing to do with the commandments, values or judgments of our Creator.
Would you give some examples of a guilty conscience which God does not inspire? Can a person really feel crushing disapproval and yet be blameless before God?Categorically, yes! I serve on the Attending Staff for Children's Hospital of Los Angeles in the Division of Medical Genetics. We see children throughout the year who are victims of various metabolic problems, most of which cause mental retardation in our young patients. Furthermore, most of these medical problems are produced by genetic errors—that is, each parent contributed a defective gene at the moment of conception which resulted in an unhealthy child. When a mother and father realize that they are individually responsible for the distorted, broken, intellectually damaged child before them, the impact can be disastrous. A sense of guilt sweeps over some parents in such enormous quantities that the family is destroyed.
Now, it is obvious that God is not the author of this kind of disapproval. He knows—even better than we—that the grief-stricken parents did not intentionally produce a defective child. Their genetic system simply malfunctioned. Certainly our merciful Creator would not hold them responsible for a consequence which they could not have anticipated or avoided. Nevertheless, the guilt is often unbearable for parents who hold themselves personally responsible.
Parenthood itself can be a very guilt-producing affair. Even when we give it our best effort, we can see our own failures and mistakes reflected in the lives of our children. We in the Western world are extremely vulnerable to family-related guilt. One mother whom I know walked toward a busy street with her three-year-old daughter. The little toddler ran ahead and stopped on the curb until her mother told her it was safe to cross. The woman was thinking about something else and nodded in approval when the little child asked, "Can I go now, Mommy?"
The youngster ran into the street and was struck full force by a semi-trailer truck. The mother gasped in terror as she watched the front and back wheels of the truck crush the life from her precious little girl. The hysterical woman, screaming in anguish and grief, ran to the road and gathered the broken remains of the child in her arms. She had killed her own daughter who depended on her for safety. This mother will never escape the guilt of that moment. The "video tape recording" has been rerun a million times in her tormented mind—picturing a trusting baby asking her mother if it was safe to cross the street. Clearly, God has not placed that guilt on the heartbroken woman, but her suffering is no less real.
I could give many other examples of severe guilt which were seemingly self-inflicted or imposed by circumstances.
Would you explain your statement that a sense of guilt is sometimes inspired by Satan?Second Corinthians 11:14 indicates that Satan presents himself as "an angel of light," meaning he speaks as a false representative of God. Accordingly, it has been my observation that undeserved guilt is one of the most powerful weapons in the devil's arsenal. By seeming to ally himself with the voice of the Holy Spirit, Satan uses the conscience to accuse, torment and berate his victims. What better tool for spiritual discouragement could there be than feelings of guilt which cannot be "forgiven"—because they do not represent genuine disapproval from God?
I met a young man who was extremely sensitive to the voice of his conscience. He wanted nothing more than to serve God, and toward this end he accepted every impression or feeling as though it had been sent directly from the Lord. Nevertheless, he still felt remorse at each point of imperfection. He was "living by the law" in this sense, but his personal standards were far more rigorous than the Ten Commandments. If he saw some glass on a sidewalk but failed to remove it, he felt guilty for having caused a possible wound to a child. This compulsion extended into every area of his life, creating discomfort for the things he owned, or anything which gave him pleasure. And, of course, his inability to stifle every inappropriate sexual impulse created further agitation.
This young man (we'll call him Walt) felt he could only be justified in the sight of God by balancing each of his evil acts by a corresponding good deed. Unfortunately, the "sin" occurred faster than his "atonement." In fear that he would forget his misdeeds and errors, he began to write them down. Walt would sit in church and describe his sins on the sides of bulletins and visitors' cards.
Despite his best efforts to be perfect, however, he fell farther and farther behind in the obligation to counterbalance his innumerable misdeeds. His constant sensation of guilt then began to generate theological confusion and spiritual discouragement. There was simply no way to satisfy his angry and demanding Creator.
Through a process of rationalization and emotional crises, Walt's faith and spiritual commitment were finally extinguished. Consequently, this young man is solidly entrenched in atheism today. He has, I believe, shielded himself from the agitation of guilt by denying the existence of the God who had accused him of so many unavoidable "sins."
The Bible describes Satan as being enormously cunning and vicious. He is not at all like the comical character depicted in popular literature, with a pitchfork and pointed tail. He is a "roaring lion, looking for someone to devour" (see I Pet. 5:8). In fact, he is a threat even to those whom God has elected and received as His own. Thus, it has been my observation that Satan does not give up on the committed Christian—he merely attacks from a different direction. In the case of Walt, he destroyed this young man's faith by flogging him with "unforgivable" guilt.
You have shown that some guilt does not come from the judgment of God. In other words, one can feel guilty when he is innocent before God. Now, how about the opposite side of that coin. Does the absence of guilt mean we are blameless in the sight of the Creator? Can I depend on my conscience to let me know when God is displeased with me?Apparently, not always. There are many examples of vicious, evil people who seem to feel no guilt for their actions. We can't know for sure, of course, but there is no evidence that Adolph Hitler experienced any serious measure of self-condemnation toward the end of his life, despite the torment he had inflicted on the world.
How could he withstand the knowledge that, at his order, hundreds of thousands of innocent Jewish children were torn from the arms of their screaming parents and thrown into gas chambers or shot by SS troops? In 1944, when the Allied armies were closing in on Germany, thousands of naked children and babies were exposed to snowstorms and doused with water to cause their deaths by freezing. Hitler conceived and implemented this horrible "final solution," but he is never known to have uttered a word of self-doubt or remorse.
Likewise, Joseph Stalin is said to have murdered between 20 and 30 million people during his long dictatorship, yet, his conscience apparently remained quiet and unprovoked to the end. There was no obvious deathbed repentance or regret.
My point is that the voice of disapproval from within is a fragile thing in some people. It can be seared and ignored until its whisper of protest is heard no longer. Perhaps the most effective silencer for the conscience is found in widespread social opinions. If everybody is doing it—the reasoning goes—it can't be very harmful or sinful.
One study reveals that 66 percent of today's college students now feel it is okay (i.e., not guilt producing) to have sexual intercourse with someone they have dated and "like a lot." One quarter of all individuals of college age have shared a bedroom with a member of the opposite sex for three months or more. You see, if these same "liberated" young people had participated in that kind of sexual behavior 20 years ago, most of them would have had to deal with feelings of guilt and remorse. But now, however, they are lulled into a false sense of security by the fact that their behavior is socially acceptable. Individual guilt is partially a product of collective attitudes and concepts of morality, despite the fact that God's standards are eternal and are not open to revision or negotiation. His laws will remain in force even if the whole world rejects them, as in the days of Noah.

I am saying that the conscience is an imperfect mental faculty. There are times when it condemns us for mistakes and human frailties that can't be avoided; at other times it will remain silent in the face of indescribable wickedness. 

From Dr. Dobson's book Emotions: Can You Truth Them? 

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