Guilt, real guilt, serves a purpose in our faith and lives. But, as he often does, Satan has taken something God intended for good and warped it. Enter false guilt. We’ll share how to identify it—and escape it—so that you and your writing shine God’s light in this weary world.
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In our last podcast, The Gift of Guilt, we explored what true guilt was and how God uses it in our lives. Today, we’re talking about something completely different: false guilt. The trouble is, it seems the same as true and healthy guilt. But it’s not. Far from it.
Surprisingly, Webster’s doesn’t have a definition for the term false guilt. But here’s what it has to say about false:
: not genuine
: intentionally untrue; adjusted or made so as to deceive; intended or tending to mislead
: lacking naturalness or sincerity
: based on mistaken ideas
: inconsistent with the facts
: threateningly deceptive
It’s pretty clear that something false is all about misleading us, about treacherous deception. And that’s exactly what false guilt is: it’s a deception that leads us to create negative perspectives and feelings about ourselves. We’re not just at fault, false guilt tells us we’re bad or that there’s something wrong with us. And we don’t just deserve punishment, we don’t deserve forgiveness or restored relationships, not with others and not with God.
We all know how guilt feels, because we know when we’ve done something we shouldn’t, or haven’t done something we should. But there are other times…times when there’s that vague sense that something is wrong. You’re not sure what or why, but deep inside is the certainty that whatever is wrong, it’s your fault.
Maybe you set a daily writing goal for yourself, but, you know, life. Things happened that made it perfectly reasonable that you couldn’t meet the goal. But you still feel…guilty. Even bad. You’re letting everyone down. You’re letting God down. Your mind starts down the “I’ll never finish this book, I can’t even meet my daily goals!” track, and that leads you merrily along the path of “Why on earth did I think God could use someone like me? I’m useless.” And so it goes.
Or maybe you haven’t heard from a friend for awhile. A friend who usually gets in touch with you on a regular basis. When you realize that person hasn’t done so for quite some time, the false guilt starts trying to slip in. And darned if you don’t let it. Suddenly you’re thinking, “So what did I do wrong? Did I make her mad? Did I offend her when she told me she wanted to go see a depressing movie and I said I like happy movies instead of depressing ones?”
And off you go! If you two were really friends, she wouldn’t mind that you don’t like the same things! Why do you always mess things up? And on and on, until you reach the firm conclusion that you’re a terrible friend and you don’t deserve her. Or she’s a terrible friend and you’re done with her. Either way, it leads to destruction.
Or a teacher calls you and says, “Hey, your daughter came to school without lunch today.” Your response? “I’m so sorry!” Followed by the thought, “I’m a terrible mother.”
Or you put a LOT of time and effort into a class on writing. When you teach it, 99% of the students come up afterward and tell you how great it was. But then that one person leaves the class without saying anything. And he looked…disgruntled. False guilt whispers, “Did he not like the class? Did it not meet his needs?” And you pick up the baton and fly with it. “Dang it! I knew I should have taught something different. I didn’t even include (fill in the blank). How could I forget that? I’m useless!”
Sure, some of these examples seem extreme. But are they really? The truth is, Satan is always waiting to send false guilt into your heart and spirit so it can put down roots and, like an evil weed, push out your confidence in God’s love and provision.
When you let yourself buy into false guilt, when you fall into the pit of false guilt, it becomes self-fulfilling. Because you’re bad or there’s something inherently wrong with you, and because you don’t deserve healthy relationships with people or God, you end up isolating yourself, growing more and more antisocial. Soon you’re wondering why no one wants to be around you. Which only affirms that you’re no good and no one wants to be around someone as awful as you. Nor would they ever want to read anything you’ve written! Look how terrible you are. How could God possibly use your writing to express His love and grace?
In his article, “Why Shame and Guilt Are Functional For Mental Health,” psychologist Joaquin Selve points to a study done in 2016 focusing on guilt and shame. One aspect of that study looked at the experience of both guilt and shame. Two conclusions from that study seem especially telling.
The first affirms what we said in our podcast on the Gift of Guilt. “People who feel guilt are more likely to want to repair the damage they may have caused than people who felt shame.” Guilt is a true and healthy motivator that God uses to draw us to repentance and restoration. So YAY for guilt! True guilt, that is.
Then there’s false guilt, which almost always instills in us a sense of shame. When it comes to shame, the study concluded that “people who feel shame are more likely to avoid eye contact than people who feel guilty.” How telling is that?
Eye contact is a vital part of being in relationship with each other. It’s a sign of connection, of vulnerability, of care for one another. When someone intentionally avoids eye contact, that can be an early sign that this person is starting to isolate herself, or that he doesn’t feel worthy of the connection, or that she is afraid if she makes eye contact, you’ll see right through her to the core of the terrible person she is.
Likewise, being authentic and vulnerable are vital aspects of writing God’s truths. We can’t move people’s hearts or minds if we’re writing from behind the curtain. Like the Wizard of Oz, we have to pull back the curtain of our real selves, letting our readers see the good, the bad, AND the ugly. But if you’re steeped in shame because of false guilt, doing that doesn’t just seem impossible, it seems dangerous.
Dr. Mary Lamia, in her article “Shame: A Concealed and Dangerous Emotion,” had this to say about shame:
“As a self-conscious emotion, shame informs us of an internal state of inadequacy, unworthiness, dishonor, regret, or disconnection….Shame can lead us to feel as though our whole self is flawed, bad, or subject to exclusion, it motivates us to hide or to do something to save face. So it is no wonder that shame avoidance can lead to withdrawal or to addictions that attempt to mask its impact.”
No wonder false guilt seems to be one of Satan’s favorite tools to use against believers. Sadly, false guilt is especially effective when used to demoralize or sideline writers seeking to serve God in their work. Think about it. We’ve talked before about how so many Christians writers struggle with feeling like imposters. The whole, “If they knew who I really was, they’d never read my books” routine. Or, “Someday someone is going to realize I haven’t a clue what I’m doing! It’s all an act. I don’t have any talent at all!”
It only makes sense, then, that the same minds and spirits that can be detoured by imposter syndrome are also painfully susceptible to false guilt. And you know what? False guilt doesn’t just focus on making us feel shame when we think, or feel like, we’ve done something wrong. It dredges up wrongs from the past to substantiate just how awful we are.
GotQuestions.org says this about the way Satan uses false guilt against us:
“He brings to mind our most horrible sin—sometimes imagined, but also those God or others have forgiven—and causes us to focus on our terrible selves rather than on God’s forgiveness.”
I mean, of course God forgave me, but how could I have done that? I’m so awful. God has to forgive me, He’s GOD. But I just can’t forgive myself. And on it goes…
If you’ve ever said or thought something like that, about God forgiving you but you can’t forgive yourself, you need to stop, RIGHT NOW, and repent of that attitude. Because what you’re doing when you let yourself think or believe that is putting yourself above God. You’re saying God’s forgiveness isn’t sufficient. That your forgiveness is harder to come by and more important than God’s. What’s more, you’re saying God is a liar. Scripture tells us in Psalms 103:12, “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” (NIV)
The Barnes Commentary on this Scripture brings the point home:
“As far as the east is from the west – As far as possible; as far as we can imagine. These are the points in our [understanding] that are most distant from each other. We can conceive nothing beyond them, so the meaning is, that we cannot imagine any way our sins could be more effectively removed than what God does in removing them… He has…put our sins entirely away. They are so removed that they cannot affect us any more. We are safe from all condemnation for our sins, as if they had not been committed at all.”
Friends, when God forgives, it’s over. The sin is gone, erased. There is no, “I can’t forgive myself.” There is only “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:25)
All of which brings us back to why false guilt is so insidious and dangerous. It whispers to us, “Has God really forgiven you? Then why do you still feel guilty?”
Remember, false guilt is about deceptions, about keeping you deep in the darkness of unnecessary feelings of guilt and not being worth anything. Satan doesn’t want you to figure out the cause of those feelings, to actually know why you feel so full of shame, because if you knew that, you could take it to God. That’s the last thing Satan wants. He does everything he can, unleashes every foul tactic, to keep you from going to God and being truly forgiven. Because you know what God’s forgiveness brings: freedom!
So the enemy uses false guilt to convince you, through untrue “facts,” that you can’t be forgiven. But he’s not the only one who uses false guilt against us. Sometimes, fellow believers do so. And sometimes we do it all on our own.
An InTouch Ministries devotional titled, “The Burden of False Guilt,” shares the three bridges—actions or attitudes or behaviors—that often lead us deep into false guilt: legalism, perfectionism, and trying to please people.
Legalism focuses on man-made rules rather than on what Scripture says is right and wrong. And we all know how easy it is for man’s rules to become the measuring stick of faith and witness. Legalism leads to judgmentalism and pride, and to a faith based on works. None of which “has power for salvation or transformation but instead enslaves us to false guilt” because we can never, in our own power, keep the rules. Heck, we can’t even know what the rules are because they keep changing!
There’s an old saying: “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” In other words, good is never good enough. In fact, nothing is ever good enough.
You can’t turn that manuscript in on time because you know you can do better with it. Your sales aren’t what you’d hoped, so this whole writing thing was obviously a waste of time. Whatever made you think you could do it in the first place?
Jon Bloom, in his article “Lay Aside the Weight of Perfection,” describes it this way:
“Perfectionism is a pride- or fear-based compulsion that either fuels our obsessive fixation on doing something perfectly or paralyzes us from acting at all—both of which often result in the harmful neglect of other necessary or good things.”
For those who take on the bondage of perfectionism, they have to perform to their self-imposed standards, which are seldom reasonable or necessary, or they’ve failed. And failure is the unforgivable sin.
Perfectionism is definitely something I (Erin) struggle with. My dad always used to say, “Anything worth doing is worth doing right.” Somewhere along the way, my little mind turned that into, “Anything worth doing must be done perfectly.” But those aren’t the words he used, and it’s certainly not what he meant.
Still, I became overly critical of myself. It doesn’t help that I’m a detail oriented person. So I see lots of flaws in everything I do. That’s a recipe for a boatload of dissatisfaction if I let things carry on in that direction. But worse, it’s ridiculous and prideful to think I can do anything perfectly. Perfection is for God alone. I need to remember my place. It’s not just okay, but human, to be imperfect. Sure, I should always do my best, but I need to define and accept that as always, in some way shape or form, in varying degrees, less than perfect and in need of grace.
Furthermore, perfectionism can cause us to focus too much attention on ourselves, rather than on God, where it belongs. As the InTouch devotional states: “Christians are commanded to live for Christ, not for themselves and their own expectations.”
Trying to Please People
Of course, as writers, we work to make our stories pleasing to our readers. But this is something different. This is when we make pleasing everyone, no matter what we have to do to accomplish it, our focus. And if everyone isn’t happy with us, we’ve failed.
This kind of people pleasing is not just debilitating—because you really can’t please all the people all the time—it’s crazy-making. It’s looking to other fallible, sinful humans to define you and tell you whether or not you’re worthwhile. Or whether or not your writing is worthwhile. It’s reading reviews religiously to see what people think. But you know what that does? You are elated at the good reviews, and demolished by the bad ones. Doesn’t matter how many good ones there are, the bad ones are the ones that stick with you. Focusing on pleasing anyone but God is not just foolish, it’s crazy-making.
Think about it. Say you’re working a full-time job, taking care of your family, AND doing the task of writing that God has given you. Then you get a call from someone who wants you to come teach a workshop on writing to his writing group. You know you can’t. You know you’ll have to short something else to do it. As if this guy can tell you’re about to decline, he says, “You know, God has given you a gift and you need to share it.”
Oh yeah. He pulled the “God wants you to do this” card. Which wasn’t his to pull in the first place. But now your people pleasing side kicks in because what if he tells his group that you refused because you think you’re too big now to speak to small groups, or that you don’t listen to God? And boom! Just like that, false guilt steps in and you’re not fulfilling an already-accepted responsibility to take on something God never intended you to take on.
False Guilt from Childhood Trauma
There’s another powerful source of false guilt, and that’s a painful or traumatic childhood. If you grow up being taught that every word, every action is unacceptable. Not good enough, you end up believing that. And feeling shame and false guilt. You carry them into adulthood as your constant companions and critics.
But false guilt doesn’t just hurt us, especially where legalism is concerned. We don’t just end up in bondage ourselves, but we try to put others in bondage as well. We judge their actions, words, faith, and so on, based on what we feel is right, regardless of what Scripture says.
We hear about a fellow writer receiving some award or accolade, and we think how unworthy that person is: “If those in charge knew what that writer did/said/or whatever,” sometimes based on what we ourselves have witnessed, but more often than not based on hearsay, “there’s no way they’d have given that unworthy person an award/contract/whatever.” It’s a vicious cycle and Satan delights when you get caught in it.
What to Do About False Guilt
So what can we do about false guilt when we realize it’s rearing it’s oh-so-ugly head?
- The moment you have a sense of guilt and shame, ask God to reveal to you what it’s about. Pray and read Scripture with the purpose of revealing the true source of your feelings.
- Share what you’re feeling with trusted friends and advisors. Ask them to pray with you that God will reveal the source of what you’re feeling.
- Wait. On God, on His truth and revelation. And be at peace. You’ve done what you need to. If it’s true guilt, God will make that clear to you. What’s more, if it’s true guilt, He will show you how to resolve it.
- If no revelation is forthcoming, and the feelings just won’t leave you alone, you can be pretty sure false guilt is at play. In that case, the solution is seemingly easy, but for those predisposed to buying into false guilt, it can be tough. Here are three steps to freedom from shame and false guilt:
- Accept God’s forgiveness and restoration. 1 John 1:9 tells us, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”
- Embrace with both arms the truth of Christ’s atonement, that it covers us completely. 1 Corinthians 1:30 tells us, “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us.”
- Know that in Christ, you are free from ANY condemnation. Even your own. Romans 8:1-2 says, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.”
Friends, God knows our hearts! His forgiveness is forever. No feeling or deception can change that truth. We can rest assured before Him and we can agree with Jesus, in full confidence when He says in John 8:36, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
If you’ve taken your sense of guilt and shame to God, if you’ve surrendered to Him, even if you have no idea why you’re feeling the way you are, and you’ve asked His forgiveness, then…
Your. Sins. Are. Forgiven.
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What helps you discern the difference between true and false guilt?
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