Fighting False Guilt

Jared MellingerBy Jared Mellinger18 Minutes

Excerpt taken from Think Again: Relief from the Burden of Introspection by Jared Mellinger

Several years ago, I was interacting with a friend in his mid-twenties who was troubled about his lifestyle and his future. He had grown up reading the stories of missionaries from centuries past who had left everything for the gospel. He had recently heard of Christians who had sold their homes and took other radical steps to avoid wealth.

My friend told me that he did not want to settle into an American lifestyle. He was uncomfortable with the prospect of living in a culture of consumerism. How can it be okay to have a kitchen stockpiled with food when so many in the world are starving? How could he possibly join a church with an expensive building and nice furniture when so many people in the world are homeless? When he reads the story of the rich young ruler in Luke 18, he feels guilty for being as rich as he is. He was considering leaving the country because he did not see how living in America could be compatible with the call to sacrificial discipleship. At points, he spoke through tears.

More recently, I met a woman after Sunday service. It was her first Sunday at the church. As she was telling me her story, she mentioned that she was a recently divorced single parent. She hung her head as she spoke. I told her I was sorry. I mentioned that we have a number of divorced people in the church, and told her I have a lot of respect for single parents. I said I hoped she felt at home here, and expressed confidence that she would be welcomed and loved by the people of the church. Her eyes lit up, as if surprised she hadn’t received the rejection she was expecting, and then she cried.

There Is a Type of Guilt That Leads to Nothing Good

Guilt is a burden that many believers carry every day. It is the soundtrack in our minds, the white noise relentlessly hissing in our ears. Persistent guilt afflicts the insecure and the confident alike.

Where do you experience a sense of guilt and failure? Do you keep a mental list of the ways you are failing? Do you live with a vague sense that you are doing a lot of things wrong? Do you feel guilty for not being a great friend? Do you feel guilty as a church member, guilty as a parent and spouse, guilty as a disciple of Christ?

The Lord does not intend for us to go through life this way. One of the ways Christ bears our burdens is by graciously exposing the presence of false guilt in our lives.

Essential Distinctions for Fighting False Guilt

Distinction #1: Divine vs. Human Approval

False guilt has a strong horizontal element: What are others thinking of me? Do they approve of me? Am I failing or disappointing others? The fear of man is a snare (Proverbs 29:25). One way the fear of man ensnares us is by weighing us down with the false guilt that comes from seeking the approval of others. People are ready to issue judgments on us for any number of things. But our Father does not want us to be controlled by human opinions or enslaved to cultural expectations. We must learn to be content with others thinking less of us. And we must learn to distinguish between the assessments of others and the assessments of our Father in heaven.

The gospel compels us to live for Christ and overthrows people-pleasing and self-approval. In Galatians 1:10 Paul says, “For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.” In 1 Corinthians 4:3, he adds, “But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or any human court.” His outlook on life doesn’t rise and fall with the encouragement or criticism of others because the perspective of others is “a very small thing.” In the next verses, he says, “It is the Lord who judges me,” and when Christ returns, “each one will receive his commendation from “God” (1 Corinthians 4:4–5).

We spend so much of our time and energy making negative judgments, condemning ourselves, and condemning each other. But when Christ comes, human condemnation gives way to divine commendation, and all those who are in Christ will receive personal affirmation from the King. Therefore, not only is God’s assessment of us more important than all other assessments, it is often far more gracious.

Distinction #2: Accurate vs. Inaccurate Self-Assessments

Learn to distrust your evaluation of yourself. Self-evaluations are unreliable and often inaccurate. We are capable of thinking of ourselves more positively than we ought, and we are capable of thinking of ourselves more negatively than we ought. Don’t make the mistake of investing every negative self-assessment with divine authority. Our guilty self-assessments must be submitted to Scripture.

God’s Word reveals God’s perspective of his children and exposes the presence of false guilt. When you feel guilty because you don’t think you have any useful spiritual gifts, or because you think your life isn’t making any difference in the lives of others, remember that God says “each has received a gift” (1 Peter 4:10). It is likely he is using you in ways you are unaware. When you feel guilty because you think you are no longer growing as a Christian, and it seems you are only becoming more anxious or irritable or angry, remember that God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure (Philippians 2:13). When you feel guilty because you have been physically or emotionally abused, and you think it’s your fault that someone verbally battered you or sexually violated you, remember that victimization is real, and each person is responsible for his or her own sin (Deuteronomy 24:16). It’s not your fault.

Negative self-assessments assail us: I am not a good friend to others. I am failing as a spouse. My prayer life is nonexistent. Of course, it is possible that a negative self-assessment is accurate. But it’s also possible that we perceive failure, wrongdoing, or sin in our lives where it does not exist. Such assessments are often emotionally driven, reactionary, and they have not been confirmed by others. A trusted friend or two can help us sort through our negative thoughts about ourselves and guide us in determining their accuracy.

Distinction #3: Weakness vs. Sin

Lou Priolo provides three categories of inferiority judgments, or negative assessments, of ourselves:

  1. Inaccurate perception
  2. Accurate but not sinful
  3. Accurate and sinful.1

This general categorization is useful in the fight against false guilt. Not only must we distinguish between inaccurate and accurate perception, but we must also realize that accurate perceptions are not necessarily sinful.

I don’t think I am good with directions, and that is accurate. I don’t think I am a good singer, and that is also quite accurate and has been confirmed by many. When I get allergy attacks, I feel weak and useless, and it’s true. But these things are not sinful, and we shouldn’t feel guilty over weaknesses.

John Newton says it is common for Christians to “overcharge ourselves.” Not that we think we are worse than we really are, but that we charge ourselves with guilt over weaknesses and impediments that are not sinful. He mentions, as examples, a poor memory and a distressed spirit. We needlessly burden and oppress ourselves, Newton says, by charging ourselves with guilt where there is only weakness and no sin.2

Sin is to be repented of, while weaknesses and limitations are to be boasted in.

Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:9–10).

Distinction #4: Temptation vs. Sin

We often feel guilty for being tempted, even when we don’t give in to temptation. But temptation is not a sin. Jesus was tempted in every way, as we are, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15). Don’t beat yourself up because you are strongly tempted. When you resist temptation, God is pleased, and you are not guilty.

Distinction #5: Responsibility vs. Concern

There’s an idea I first encountered through author Paul Tripp that helps distinguish between “responsibility and concern.3 Imagine drawing a circle on a page—it’s called a circle of responsibility. Everything within this circle of responsibility represents what God has called us to do. Then imagine drawing a larger concentric circle around the smaller circle. This larger circle is the circle of concern, representing things that concern me but are beyond my ability, and therefore are not my responsibility.

This matters because we often think that everything that concerns us is our responsibility. We pull all our cares into the smaller circle, which produces guilt.

  • Parents who are faithfully raising their child feel guilty because he is a living terror and daily throws temper tantrums.
  • A man shares the gospel with his friends and family but feels guilty because he has not led any of them to Christ.
  • A single woman feels guilty for not being married.
  • An elderly man feels guilty because his grown daughter has turned her back on God.

In each of these cases, there is a failure to distinguish between responsibility and concern. While sorrow may be an appropriate response, guilt is not. In fact, each person has fulfilled his or her responsibility to God; the results themselves are in God’s hands.

Distinction #6: Principle vs. Practice

There is a difference between biblical principles that must be obeyed and specific practices or methods that are one of many potential applications of a biblical principle. A principle is a basic truth that guides our actions; a practice is a specific way of doing something.

For example, a principle is to treasure God’s Word; a practice is to have a plan to read through the Bible in a year. A principle is to disciple your children; a practice is to schedule weekly one-on-one time with each of your kids. A principle is to love your wife; a practice is to write her a poem.

Practices that flow from biblical principles are commendable. In fact, practices are essential if we are to faithfully apply God’s Word. But specific practices are not to be confused with biblically mandated principles. Otherwise, we will think we are failing to obey a divine command simply because we are not implementing a particular practice. Success or godliness in a particular area—whether it’s personal devotions, church life, parenting, marriage, or education—soon becomes equated with a particular way of doing things.

Are You Truly Guilty?

The path of false guilt never leads to joy in Christ because it is a path paved with self-preoccupation and self-deception. When we confess false guilt, we often go on feeling guilty. This is because we are failing to properly diagnose the problem. By God’s grace, we can learn over time not to feel guilty unless we truly are guilty according to Scripture.

But what if our guilt is real? What if we discover that our negative thoughts of ourselves are accurate and reveal the presence of iniquity in the sight of God? And for that matter, what if even our false guilt is grounded in envy, jealousy, and selfishness?

“Praise God, we have a Savior, and he has taught us what to do. We repent. We confess our sins and run to Christ just as we did the day we first believed. “I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and you forgave the iniquity of my sin” (Psalm 32:5). True repentance and confession lead to rejoicing, as Christ removes the burden of guilt. “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy” (Proverbs 28:13). “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace” (Ephesians 1:7).

We cast the burdens of real guilt and false guilt upon the Lord. And we rest our guilty souls in the joy of knowing that “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).

1 Lou Priolo, Self-Image: How to Overcome Inferiority Judgments, Resources for Biblical Living (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2007), 7–8.
2 John Newton, The Works of John Newton, Vol. 2: Cardiphonia, 29.
Paul David Tripp, Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands: People in Need of Change Helping People in Need of Change (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2002), 250.

Excerpted from Think Again: Relief from the Burden of Introspection ©2017 by Jared Mellinger. Used by permission of New Growth Press. May not be reproduced without prior written permission.

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