Interpreting Guilt

I had a conversation with someone recently about guilt. They felt that someone had been making them feel guilty about not giving enough to a certain cause. They really didn’t like feeling guilt (and after all, who really does?) and that dislike of the feeling itself seemed to make them resentful of the person making them feel it. This conversation started me thinking about this whole topic of guilt. Because if ‘guilt’ can have the effect of causing/harbouring resentment, then it seems a dangerous thing. Or it is at least a dangerous thing to leave unprocessed. Is guilt a good thing? Should we avoid feeling guilt? Or does guilt reveal something deeper within?… something life-giving, even?

Definition: Guilt – “a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime, wrong, etc., whether real or imagined.”

Now, many of you may already be thinking, ‘duh‘. Maybe you’ve grown up with guilt, feeling guilty about having said or done something and it drove you to make things better. Maybe as a kid you stole a piece of candy and the feeling of guilt made you sicker than the sugar. So, this idea of responding to the feeling of guilt is ‘duh’ because you respond to it quickly and easily. But this is not the case for everyone. And, my guess is that we all too often quietly rationalize away the pangs of guilt without letting guilt have its intended affect.

I believe guilt is good…

It has an intended effect…

IF it is properly interpreted.

To illustrate my point, let me start with an example. Let’s say you’re asked to help out a friend, but you don’t want to help and you say ‘no.’ Then you begin to feel guilt. I’ve observed that at that moment you will make one of three subconscious choices: you will rationalize your reason for not helping or you will change your mind and help or you will simply dismiss the feeling and move on. Any or all of the choices can be driven by either good motives or bad motives. For instance, the feeling can have a good effect and help you ‘do the right thing’. But, the choice to cave in to the guilt and help your friend may simply be a means to remove the feeling of guilt and not be motivated by a genuine change of heart… not such a good effect. Conversely, choosing to dismiss the feeling and move on may be motivated by a quick and subconscious analysis of your reasons allowing you to move on guilt free. And, rationalization is simply a defense mechanism to help us turn attention away from ourself. It is helpful only if it can lead to an honest assessment of our true motives. Rationalization is wholly unhelpful if left as a simple justification or ‘reason’.

So then, what’s the point of guilt if it can be dismissed by choice? And, why is this even worth blogging about?

Guilt reveals our true motives.

Guilt exposes the gap between our true desires (i.e., what we know inherently to be ‘right’ & good, what we most deeply want to do (even if only subconsciously)) and the forces within and around us that would like to lead us in a different direction (such as selfishness, busyness, self-protection, greed, power, lovelessness, etc.) And, because guilt exposes our true motives it can bring life to us, if interpreted properly.

The bible says that God’s purpose for guilt is to lead us  to a complete change of heart and mind.*  This means guilt can bring freedom. And freedom of heart is the essence of ‘life’. But, if guilt is simply buried or rationalized or used to sway us without a true ‘change of heart‘, then guilt brings bondage and a death of sorts. It brings Resentment. Hurt. Relational distance. Sorrow. Guilt must be properly interpreted. We must not let it linger unattended or the consequences may be grave.

Here are some suggestions for dealing with guilt in a life-giving way:

1) When feeling guilt, pause. Don’t rush to rid yourself of the feeling.

2) Ask yourself, what is it I most want to do? In other words, if I wasn’t feeling pressure, what would I most want to do?… what is inherently right for me?

3) What are you hoping to gain?  For example, you may find your motives for giving into guilt are simply to garner affection or position or reputation or safety or ‘credit’ for your actions, and not motived by love.

4) Ask yourself, what is causing the conflict within me?  Am I feeling guily because my weaknesses are in conflict with what I know to be the right thing to do?

5) Can you interpret this alone?  Would it serve you best to seek additional counsel (a friend, the bible, etc.) Hint: Don’t look for counsel to simply reinforce your perspective, rationalization, or weakness… look for counsel that helps you find your true desires and motives.

6) Invite Jesus into the feeling. His desire is to bring life-abundant out of this.

With a few moments of introspection, you may find that the feeling of guilt is actually pointing you to expose a weakness that needs to be dealt with, or a motive that is out of line with your truest desires or who you most want to be as a person, or it might expose a desire you didn’t realize you had.

Taking the time to ‘interpret’ the guilt can transform it from a feeling of bondage to freedom… resentment to release… sorrow to joy… frustration to understanding… regret to opportunity… death to life.

How about you? How do you handle guilt? Have some ideas of your own you’d like to share?

Finding freedom in unexpected places,



* 2 Cor 7:10


UPDATED REMARKS 6/10/11:  I wanted to draw attention to a comment made by Jason because he makes a great observation regarding ‘guilt’ — that of the difference between ‘guilt’ and ‘shame’ (see comments).   Shame is defined as, “the painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonorable, improper, ridiculous, etc.; disgrace; ignominy (disgrace; dishonor; public contempt)”.  I believe it is an important distinction to make between Guilt & Shame. ‘Guilt’ has the potential to be life giving, as described above.  ‘Shame’, on the other hand is most often destructive. It is used by some to manipulate and control.  And, equally as deadly, shame can take hold of a human heart if ‘guilt’ is left unprocessed. Where guilt is left undealtwith and is buried, the remorse from it can surface as shame.  Avoid shame, and certainly never use it to manipulate or control. Embrace the steps I suggest above to process guilt in a healthy manner.


4 thoughts on “Interpreting Guilt

  1. I agree with Jason. Shaming someone into doing something is not from God, and the recipient should not feel guilty, having done nothing wrong.

  2. Yeh I agree that guilt is a good thing Mark. I think that sometimes shame or shaming gets mixed up with guilt though. Like shaming someone into doing something. That, I believe does not come from God.

    1. Great insight! I added some additional remarks in the main posting to ensure your comments were included. I hadn’t even thought to mention the dark parallel to guilt, that is shame. Shame is like a destructive imposter of guilt. Thanks for pointing out the distinction.

Comments are closed.