Soul-Care Articles: Christ-centered, Spirit-led, Biblically-based, Clinically-sound, Truth-oriented

SOURCE:  Leslie Vernick

What’s The Difference Between True Guilt and False Guilt?

Question: How do I discern true guilt from false guilt? I want to please God and serve others for Him, but I don’t want to give in to manipulators, either in my family or my friends.

Answer:   If a manipulator can make you feel guilty for saying no, he or she is much more likely to be successful in getting you to back down. Their strategy is to make you feel as if you are doing something wrong or you are being selfish when you won’t do what he or she wants. A manipulator’s thinking is simple. He believes, “If you love me, then you’ll always do what I want.” Therefore, if you say no, then you must not love me or you are selfish.

A two-year-old uses this tactic on his mother to get her to buy them something while standing in line at the grocery store. Most mothers are wise enough not to be manipulated by these tantrums. We know that a firm “no” to our child is the most loving thing we can do. The same is true for other relationships. Saying no to manipulation is actually taking a stand against someone else’s sin. This is a good thing.

However, when the manipulator is not our child, but our mother or husband or adult child, it’s much harder not to get sucked into his or her drama. It doesn’t help that they often accuse us of being unloving and selfish because we are not giving into their demands, and consequently, we’re tempted to feel guilty.

So what’s the way out? Let’s first look at Jesus. He never sinned, never was selfish yet he did say, “no.” He didn’t always do what people expected or wanted him to do. Jesus took time out for friendship, rest, relaxation, and prayer (Mark 6:30-31,46). When you feel guilty because you’ve said no to someone, take a moment to read Mark 1:29-39.

In this passage, we learn that Jesus went to Simon Peter’s house for a relaxing dinner, but people brought the sick to Jesus and the whole town gathered at the door. Can you imagine the pressure Jesus felt with everyone pressing in on him to do something? That evening he healed many people, but he eventually said no more and went to sleep. Those who were left behind unhealed must have felt disappointed.

While it was still dark, Jesus woke up and went off by himself to pray. Peter eventually came looking for him. “Jesus, where have you been? Everyone back home is waiting for you.” Jesus answered Peter saying, “I’m not going back to your house. Let’s go somewhere else – to the nearby villages – so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.”

Jesus knew he could not do everything everyone wanted him to do and still do what God wanted him to do. During that quiet time of prayer, Jesus asked the Father to help him discern between the good things and the best things. Just like we do, Jesus had to make some hard choices – to please God or to please others. He chose pleasing God. This priority regularly cost him the disapproval and disappointment of others, including his disciples, religious leaders, and his own family (see Matthew 26:8; Mark 3:21-22).

To break free from the guilt trip, we must all learn to distinguish between true guilt and false guilt. True guilt is a God-given warning signal that we are violating God’s moral law. False guilt arises when we or another human being judges our actions, ideas, or feelings as wrong, even if there is nothing sinful about them.

So next time you’re struggling with guilt, do these three things.

  1. Go to God’s word for clarity. Am I breaking God’s moral law or is it some other human being’s law such as “Thou shall never say no to me”?
  2. Invite the Holy Spirit to search you and see if there is any wicked way in you (Psalm 139:23-24). You may find you have more guilt over feeling angry and resentful that you said “yes” when you wanted to say “no” than you would have if you had just said “no” in the first place.
  3. Ask yourself this question. If I say “yes,” am I saying, “yes” because I want to or because God asks me to? Or do I feel I pressured to say “yes” because I’m afraid to say “no”?

Remember, you are a finite, limited human being. When you say “yes” to something, you also always say “no” to something else.

When you repeatedly say “yes” to a manipulator, keep in mind that you are also saying “no” to your own needs, to perhaps your children’s needs, or to the greater good of what God wants for you. When you accept that you can’t always make everyone happy with you, (Jesus couldn’t either) then the false guilt will dissipate.

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