Have you ever walked through an airport after a long flight, made your way through to customs and even though you had nothing to declare that you shouldn’t have, still felt guilty as if you had? You’re not alone – many people feel the same way. The question is why do we feel this way? I think it has something to do with us needing to feel like we have a clear conscience. Just as we desire to have happiness, a purpose and to feel loved, we want to feel blameless too. Guilt is an emotional response that tells us that something isn’t right! The good news is, we can fix it and feel better about ourselves again. Whether we feel we have done something, said something or just witnessed a cruel act and did nothing – we all long to feel unburdened by such things. Before we look at how we can do so, here are some symptoms of guilt that you might recognise.
Embarrassment or shame are generally associated with symptoms of feeling guilty about something. This can be experienced privately or publicly. Some people carry it because of shame (privately) and/or embarrassment (publicly). Often, we are in desperate need to be forgiven by other people, God or maybe both. Here is some good news though – by talking to God you can begin the process of being free. When we need to seek forgiveness, we should ask for it; what is the harm of that? The bottom line is – dealing with our feelings intentionally is the only way that we can truly feel lighter in ourselves.
When I was a child I once played with firelighters that I took from my mother’s house. At first, I’d light them away from where I lived, and I wasn’t caught. Even so, I still felt guilty on two levels. Firstly, for stealing and secondly for playing with fire. On one occasion I got caught for lighting them on the doorstep of where we lived; you can guess what happened. When my mother discovered me, I was punished and unable to play-out for a month. Looking back, I deserved everything that I got, but now the guilt had turned into something more terrible. I think there is a lesson for us all here: if what we do makes us feel guilty, we should stop it right away because the consequences could be far worse.
Several years ago, I learned of a woman who for 30 years had held her hand in a fist so tightly that it became normal to her. Just as she would walk, eat, or drink – holding her fist closed was an ordinary, all day, everyday thing that she did without even thinking about it. It emerged that she was in an emotional prison caused by giving away her baby son to be adopted when she was much younger. When the boy was an adult, he found his maternal mother and gave her a loving embrace. Unknowingly, to the clenched fist woman, her child had grown up happy and had had a good life – only possible because he had been given away to another family. There were no regrets, no tears, only gratitude and love for the mother he had been reunited with. The reunion changed things dramatically; within days the woman’s hand relaxed and was normal again. The guilt she had carried for years and years was gone.
Guilt is an emotion that is rarely positive. If this is true, then why do we do we carry it when we could lay it down. The story of the woman with the clenched fist serves to remind us that love, forgiveness, acceptance or any combination of these is often all that we need to have a clearer conscience. Jesus offers all these things to those who truly say sorry with an honest heart. Jesus said:
“Come to me all who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30 (NIV)
Jesus understands us. He knows how we function, after all, He made us. He can certainly cope with anything that we may be feeling. Jesus can even help you to be at peace with matters that are even out of your control. If you are struggling with guilt, no matter what it is, Jesus can comfort us. When we are open to Jesus, the whole atmosphere of how we feel can shift.
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