Hope for the Guilt-Ridden Heart

by Becky Valentine, M.A.

We have all been there. We’ve said something we regret, made a thoughtless comment, or behaved badly. Afterward, the memory of our reproachable behavior rolls around in our heads in an unrelenting, repetitive loop. In an effort to alleviate our shame, we rework the event to create a different imaginary ending, a better ending—any ending other than the one we chose. But it does no good. We are buried under a landslide of guilt and appalled in the face of our profound failure.

Guilt is powerful. It can alert us to problems in our lives and relationships. It can provoke us to action. It can also hang on us like old Marley’s chains, send us into hiding, or even masquerade as remorse so the path to change and growth is obscured from sight.

So, what is the scoop with guilt? Is it good or bad? Is it from God? Maybe so, but I have a feeling it is not where God intends for us to live. Instead, I believe our Heavenly Father calls us to walk with him down a much more hopeful path—the unlikely path of godly sorrow.

What is the difference between guilt and godly sorrow? Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend differentiate the two in terms of four categories:

1. The Subject—on whom we are focused

2. Time—on what point in time we are concentrating

3. Resolution—how we solve our guilt problem

4. View of God—how we see God when we fail

Guilt

1. Guilt bends us inward. It keeps us focused on “me” and it functions to disconnect “me” from others. Like Adam and Eve, we hide and blame when faced with our own sin. Hiding and blaming always, always, always cut us off from relationship. It is impossible to experience forgiveness or offer love when we feel guilty. The very best we can do from this position is try to salvage our reputation.

2. Guilt keeps us locked in the past. In this place, we ruminate on a bad, unalterable thing we did. Our heart is like the Dead Sea—murky and void of fresh solutions. We marinate in the muck of past failures and wonder why can’t reinvent ourselves despite our sincere vows to do things differently.

3. Guilt leads us to believe we deserve punishment. When we feel guilty, our tendency is to beat ourselves up in hopes of evoking lasting change. Self-condemnation is a splendid way to find temporary relief from an accusing conscience. But it is not transformational.

4. Guilt sees God as a punitive judge who is waiting for us to screw up. We become adversarial, tight-fisted and defensive when we feel guilty. We may feel unlovable, beyond hope, or even self-righteous. It is very hard to receive forgiveness or experience joy in God’s presence when we are pounded by guilt. We are trying too hard to protect ourselves.

Godly Sorrow

1. Godly sorrow, on the other hand, focuses on “us” (you and me) and how our actions affect each other. This is a humble, vulnerable stance—and it is very unnatural. When we truly admit how we have hurt someone, we naturally feel shocked and ashamed. Godly sorrow reverses the effect of guilt by turning us outward to God and his great mercy. This heavenly sadness heightens our longing for reconciliation and calls us to deeper levels of healing. It awakens the ache in our hearts for things to be set right. We ache not merely because we are ashamed, but because we hurt another soul and relationship has been broken. 

2. Godly sorrow invites us to be mindful of the present. It also gives us hope for the future. When we grieve honestly over the damage we have caused, it frees us to admit our need for a new solution that comes from someplace outside ourselves. It prompts us to turn to God, open our hands, and ask his Spirit to transform us. We are not condemned to repeat the past. Instead, we have fresh hope for a different future.

3. Godly sorrow leads to grief over the pain we have inflicted. It is honest without being self-accusatory. Unlike guilt, which drives us to hide, blame or condemn ourselves, this divine sadness turns us outward to look into the eyes of Jesus and the person we have harmed. Godly sorrow opens the door for forgiveness, reconciliation, and inner healing.

4. Godly sorrow is our response to God when we know how dearly he loves us. It is hard to admit the full reality of our sinfulness until we feel safely held in love. Godly sorrow enables us to climb into the arms of our gracious Father, and then gives us the strength to hear his voice as divine Judge. We can open our clenched fists to receive forgiveness because we know his goal is not to shame us, but to heal our relationships and restore hope.

Choosing a Path

On what path do you tend to travel? Is your bent toward shame or sorrow? If you identify with the description of guilt, my guess is that you are feeling really guilty about your guilt right now. Take heart. You are not alone. Lift your head. There is hope! Beneath the shame, there is a beautiful desire to be fully known and wholly loved despite your faults and failings. Start by asking God to reveal his loving kindness toward you (Psalm 103). Enlist his help in answering the question: “How is guilt keeping me from being known and loved?” Lastly, take courage. The narrow path of godly sorrow doesn’t lead downward to infinite sadness. Rather, it leads up and outward to freedom and joy.

“Sorrow is better than laughter: for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better.” (Ecclesiastes 7:3)

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4)

Categories Article | Tags: | Posted on July 3, 2013

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