Real help and advice for the common problem of guilt and bad conscience. Is it possible to escape the pressure of guilt and condemnation for our past actions, and find real freedom? Email advice and counsel is available.
"All sins cast long shadows." (Irish proverb)
Coping with guilt
World Record Holder admits cheating Ffyona Campbell, the first woman to walk round the world, found that she could not live with guilt. It drove her near to breakdown.
"I shouldn't be remembered as the first woman to walk around the world when I cheated," she said.
During one stage of the walk, she became pregnant, and unable to walk 25 miles a day, she rode on the back-up truck, and walked only the last few miles into towns.
In the end, she could not live with the feeling of guilt, and went to the office of her sponsor, Raleigh International, to confess. At her own request, her entry in the Guinness Book of Records has been removed.
Two types of guilt
The feeling of guilt is a powerful one. We feel responsible, we feel condemned, we feel that we deserve punishment.
It can make us ill, depressed, unable to relate to people. It really needs sorting out!
However, there are two types of guilt - real guilt and false guilt! How can we tell the difference? How can we learn to handle them?
False guilt is when we feel responsible for something we did not do, or something we were not responsible for. It can be like a feeling of shame, without perhaps even knowing exactly what we feel bad about.
It can lead to depression, even suicide. It may be a shadowy nagging feeling of guilt, about nothing in particular. How can it arise?
* Maybe, as children, we had a very strict childhood. There were many things we were not allowed to do. Perhaps we were often punished for very small things. Supposing, for instance, that it was regarded as a real bad sin not to wash hands before a meal. Even now, years later, we may feel real guilt and shame, if we don't wash our hands before eating!
* We may always feel bad about ourselves in other ways. We have a negative picture of ourselves and what we can achieve. So we find it easy to blame ourselves for things that go wrong, or accept blame from others when it is not deserved.
* People who survive a bad accident or disaster, in which others were killed or injured, very often feel guilt that they have survived. This can be a very strong feeling.
* A sad result of being abused emotionally, physically, or sexually, as children or young people, is that we feel guilt and shame for these terrible actions which we had no control over.
This sense of shame can be so strong that it feels almost like a coat of dirt around us. Indeed, it can lead to a desire to be always washing.
Is there an answer to this sort of guilt? Yes! It may take time to work through. It may need advice from a counsellor or other professional. Or maybe, just to talk it through with a trusted friend. What can bring healing? First, allowing the truth into your life. Someone said, (do you know who?), 'The truth will set you free'. You are not guilty! Say it to yourself, every time the feeling comes! However, that same person also said and did some key things which can bring healing - see lower down this page.
Where we have been hurt in this way, a key part of recovery and healing is forgiveness - that we forgive the person who hurt us.
This may be a very hard and difficult road, but it is one of the keys to releasing us from the hold of the past over us.
There is such a thing as real guilt. We have a built-in system - 'conscience' - which tells us when we are doing something wrong.
We can be really guilty. With real guilt, we will feel guilty about particular things.
Most psychiatrists and therapists acknowledge that guilt is at the root of many of our problems. However, often the only advice they can offer, is that the guilt is not real, and it can be talked away. In other words, they would try to treat real guilt in the same way as we suggest you should treat false guilt.
Unfortunately, this doesn't work very well, because deep down, we know, quite rightly, that we really are guilty. We know that deep inside, there is something very wrong with our lives and actions. We all know that somehow, evil has to be paid for.
All societies have systems of justice and laws based on this belief. When some accident or disaster happens, we feel that someone must be responsible, that someone must pay. It can be harder to accept a disaster which seems to have no meaning or cause, than one where someone was really responsible!
Is there a way to undo the past?
Yes and no. We feel that if only we could go back, and do things differently. 'If only', we think. But as time travel is not possible, there has to be another way. If we cannot undo the past, then it must be paid for. Yet we can punish ourselves, deny things to ourselves, even be punished by society, and still feel guilty. How can the price be paid?
We may somehow feel we should punish ourselves. Yet at the same time, we want to escape the punishment we feel that we deserve!
This is where we ask you not to turn off! Because this is where we suggest to you, that none of us do enough to wipe out the past. But we know a man who can! What we are suggesting, is that God has the answer to guilt.
The real answer
God made a world that he wanted to be perfect. But people chose to go their own way, run their own lives. The world, indeed the whole universe, dropped - 'fell' - into evil and going against God. Because of this, we all find it easy to do wrong, and be selfish, and ignore God. We live in our own little world with a wall around us against God, and (often) other people.
Only God could make a way round this problem. He chose to come down into his own world, to limit himself - shrink himself, if you will - to a human face that we could understand. He came to earth to be born as a man - Jesus. Yet Jesus was not an ordinary man, because not only did he never do anything wrong - he was, really, also God. Not just a god, or an angel or a superman. And yet, he was 'the man born to die.' The holy writings for 2000 years before, had promised God's special leader - Messiah - as one who would be born (it was even written in which town) and that he would die for the sins of his people.
The punishment that each of us deserves, he took instead. A prophet named Isaiah wrote an amazing book, hundreds of years before Jesus was born. He foretold the coming of an innocent man who would suffer for our guilt. And here is a key sentence, telling how Jesus would die for what we had done:
"All of us like sheep have gone the wrong way. Each of us has turned to his own way. And the Lord has put on Him the sin of us all." (Isaiah chapter 53)
The good news If what we owe has been paid by Jesus, we don't need to pay it again. We are free. Our guilt and shame have been paid for.
It is like the man who bought a car from a garage. Things began to go wrong, strange noises, gearbox trouble, leaking oil. He couldn't afford to put them right, so he struggled on for months. Then someone told him that the garage had given him a total guarantee, and that all the problems with the car would be fixed free! His problem was not the car, or the garage, but not knowing what had already been done for him!
This is just brilliant! We can be free from guilt, fear, all sorts of problems, if we do it God's way. Carry on to our next page to find out more. It is like coming out of the shadow into the sunlight.
One more thing
If you have done something wrong to another person, you will never have peace about it till it is put right.
If the person is still alive, ask for their forgiveness. If you have stolen something, confess it and give it back, or pay back the same amount of money.
If it is impossible to pay the money back directly, (for instance, money taken from a company which no longer exists) then give the same amount of money to a charity.
Actually, the Bible suggests adding 20% on to such repayments!
There is the story of the man who wrote to the tax office.
"I am sending this money I owe, because I have been unable to sleep at night. If I still can't sleep, I will send you the other half."
Advice on other problems
Samaritans and Befrienders offices around the world, offer a telephone advice service. Look in your phone book under 'Crisis'. You can also contact them by email at Samaritans.org in UK, and Befrienders in many countries around the world. They are completely confidential - they will never tell anyone else what you have shared with them They say, "Whatever you are going through, we will go through it with you."
You can also get help at Women Today Magazine and Men Today Online and email their support address.