May 3, 2012

The Good News about Guilt!!

Years ago Dr James Dobson recounted this dreadful story. A woman and her 5 year old son used to walk their long driveway each morning to catch the bus. At the end of their walk was a highway that had to be crossed. The mother and son would wait until traffic diminished and she would then tell him it was clear for them to go. One morning they had an adult friend accompany them on their journey to the highway. The 5 year old ran ahead and waited at the road for his mother and her friend to catch up. He eventually yelled to his mother asking if it was alright for him to cross the road. She was distracted by her conversation and assumed he meant “was it permissible for him to look for cars and then cross.” She told him to go ahead. Tragically what he meant was “is it okay for me to cross now?” He stepped into the oncoming traffic and was killed instantly.

In a thousand years outside of having a similar experience I could not possibly know what this mother went through and likely continues to go through. I’m sure she has experienced and struggled with guilt upon guilt. Now let me say that the purpose here is not to play with words in order to make her ordeal less traumatic because that will not happen. But I am concerned that we use our terms correctly lest we go through turmoil that may not be necessary.

The definition of guilt is:


  1. the fact or state of having committed an offense, crime, violation, or wrong, especially against moral or penal law; culpability: He admitted his guilt.
  2. a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime, wrong, etc., whether real or imagined.

Two things occur to me related to these definitions. First I believe the act or offense needs to be intentional in order for one to be “guilty.”   If not, then it is simply an accident.

Second focus on the terms “real or imagined” for a moment. In the case of the mother… was she really “guilty” of anything? I suppose someone could say she was guilty of not paying enough attention to her son… but frankly any of us could have made that mistake. But “guilty” I don’t think so.

She has no reason to feel guilt, but she has every reason to feel and experience untold grief, horror, nightmares… but not guilt.

Many of us carry “guilt” with us that is in fact something else. Therefore it makes it difficult to feel forgiven… because we have nothing to be forgiven for! We’re focusing on the wrong emotion! Again, we may need to experience some other intense feeling, but not guilt. And please don’t misunderstand me… I am not implying that dealing with really difficult, heart wrenching situations is just a matter of defining our terms.

That being said, there is good news concerning guilt… we can be forgiven! God can and does forgive us. Now, if we choose to refuse His forgiveness… that’s another issue. Think about those things in your life that haunt you and cause you to feel bad… sometimes for years, or decades. Are they really cause for guilt? Did you intentionally do something to hurt someone? If so, maybe you need to ask for forgiveness from them and from God. But maybe your actions don’t warrant guilt. Stop living in guilt when there is none!

But if you do have guilt well…we worship a loving and forgiving God… at least I do. Does your God forgive? If not, well… let me suggest the God of the Bible.


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