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False Guilt, True Guilt, and "If Only"

False Guilt, True Guilt, and

There is unspeakable joy… for the person who knows release from guilt and the release of forgiveness. ~ Stuart Briscoe

Guilt says, “You failed.” Shame says, “You’re a failure.” Grace says, “Your failures are forgiven.” ~ Lecrae

When I was ten years old and in the fifth grade, there was a boy in my class whose mother committed suicide. It was a horrible experience for a little boy to find his mother in the garage with the car idling and a hose running from the exhaust pipe to the driver’s side window.

As a ten-year-old it was hard for me to even imagine what it would be like for your mother to take her own life. Max returned to school about a week later. I remember wondering how he would act around the rest of us. I can remember being on the playground, and I noticed he was laughing with the other kids and having a good time. I thought he should be acting sad, so with the immaturity of a ten-year-old boy, I said a very cruel and hurtful thing to him: “You don’t even care that your mother is dead!” He immediately burst into tears and ran inside the building. I then felt horrible as I realized I had hurt his feelings.

A few minutes later I was called to the principal’s office. Both the principal and my teacher let me know that what I had said to this boy was a horrible thing to say. But they didn’t need to worry because I already felt the guilt for what I had said.

I think that is my earliest recollection of struggling with feelings of guilt. But like most people I have had a lot of things throughout the years that I regret or feel guilt over.

When I worked late at night, I felt guilty because I wasn’t at home with the kids. When I was at home, I felt guilty because I wasn’t at work. I felt guilty because I wasn’t a better husband. I felt guilty because I wasn’t a better son. When I was on the treadmill and listening to a novel, I felt guilty because I wasn’t listening to a leadership book. When we would take a family vacation, I felt guilty for spending the money. I felt guilty that I had clothes in my closet I hadn’t worn in a while. I did all the things a pastor should do but I never thought I prayed enough or read my Bible enough. I never felt like I made enough phone calls or visited enough people in the hospital. I felt guilty that I couldn’t be in two places at the same time. I felt guilty when I worked and I felt guilty when I relaxed.

  • I pretty much felt guilty about everything.

Feelings of guilt often come because you don’t think you measure up to your own high standards or because you did something you think you shouldn’t have done or failed to do something you think you should have done. It’s a feeling of shame or regret because of bad conduct or, more often, perceived bad conduct. And you keep yourself in that state of guilt because you think you need to pay for what you did or didn’t do.

“I feel bad for not doing that.”
“I feel horrible for letting her down.”
“I feel like it’s my fault.”
“I’m mad at myself for not…”

If you say things like this, you are probably struggling with guilt.

Through the years my wife has confronted me on several occasions and said, “Steve, you are driven by feelings of guilt, and it’s not healthy.” Which is why I’ve always related to David when he wrote in Psalms,

My guilt has overwhelmed me like a burden too heavy to bear. My wounds fester and are loathsome because of my sinful folly. I am bowed down and brought very low; all day long I go about mourning. Psalm 38:4-6 NIV

And yet while I continue to struggle at times with feelings of guilt, I no longer feel like I’m driven by my guilt. It’s no longer habitual because I’ve taken positive steps to let go of it.

I found this startling research published in the Harvard Business Review: “People who are prone to guilt tend to work harder and perform better than people who are not guilt-prone, and are perceived to be more capable leaders.”1

Does that mean that guilt is a good thing? You do need some guilt. If you have never experienced guilt, it could be a sign you are a sociopath or have narcissistic personality disorder, making you one of those rare people who are incapable of feeling guilt or regret.

There are actually two types of guilt. There is the healthy kind that comes from the Holy Spirit. It is intended to lead us to repentance and a return to God’s plan for our life. Once we respond to the conviction of the Holy Spirit, that guilt is gone and replaced by God’s peace and joy.

The other type of guilt is often called false guilt. That’s when you have feelings of guilt even though you haven’t done anything wrong. Or maybe you did do something wrong but have already fixed it and asked God to forgive you — and yet you still feel guilty.

  • False guilt can affect any area of your life and keep you trapped in an unhealthy place if you don’t do something about it.

Maybe a friend is having marriage problems and they ask if you will come over and talk with them in the morning. But you have to work, so you apologize and ask if there is another time you can get together. They get angry and tell you to forget it, and a week later you hear they split up. Now you are struggling with these feelings of guilt, even though you didn’t do anything wrong!

People driven by false guilt feel they have to do everything perfectly so they don’t disappoint others. I’ve heard it said that if false guilt were a chariot, then fear of disapproval from others is the whip upon the back of the horses pulling it. That fear can cause you to picture the worst possible scenario to your problem. It will consume your thoughts and cause you to judge yourself inaccurately and too harshly.

False guilt can also be caused by the feeling that you are responsible to save everyone that crosses your path or asks for help. Psychologists often refer to this as a savior complex. You might sacrifice your own personal needs or overextend yourself to help others because you think you are the only one who can do it.

There can be many other reasons for your false guilt, but the most likely reason is that the devil is accusing you. Revelation talks about how Satan was a fallen angel and thrown out of Heaven.

This great dragon — the ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, the one deceiving the whole world — was thrown down to the earth with all his angels. Then I heard a loud voice shouting across the heavens… For the accuser of our brothers and sisters has been thrown down to earth — the one who accuses them before our God day and night. — Revelation 12:9-10, emphasis mine

The devil is a spirit and therefore has the ability to plant thoughts in your head (1 Timothy 4:1). We call it spiritual warfare because Satan always has a one-two punch. He first hits you with a temptation and then quickly hits you a second time with an accusation. Let’s say he tempts you to cheat on your taxes. You dodge the first swing by resisting the temptation. But Satan then throws his second punch by whispering in your ear, “You are a terrible Christian to have thoughts of cheating on your taxes!” If you believe his lies, the guilt will eat away at you. Jesus said the devil is a liar and the father of lies.

  • Satan doesn’t want you to experience God’s peace; he wants you to live under the weight of guilt.

This type of guilt is self-destructive and abusive. It will do harm to your relationship with God, with others, and with yourself. It puts a heavy burden on your back, a burden you were never intended to shoulder. Which is why Peter said,

Give all your worries and cares to God, for He cares about you. 1 Peter 5:7

Compare the misery from false guilt to the beneficial nature of healthy guilt, or what is often referred to as godly sorrow. It’s that sense of sadness you experience as a result of the sins you have committed. Paul explains it best:

Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done. At every point you have proved yourselves to be innocent in this matter.2 Corinthians 7:10-11 NIV


In the 2 Corinthians passage we just looked at, Paul said godly sorrow leaves you with no regret. But on the other hand, false guilt leaves you with lots of regrets. Guilt and regret are two words that get tossed together a lot. They are like two brothers; they are from the same family and spend a lot of time together, but they are not the same person. In the same way guilt and regret are not exactly the same either, but it’s hard to have one without the other.

And these two emotions can cause us to go down the path of

“if only.”

If only I had kept my mouth shut.
If only I hadn’t dropped out of college.
If only I had gone with them.

“‘If only’ can crush hopes, steal peace, prevent forgiveness, and trap us in negative patterns of behavior. Regret is the second most frequently mentioned emotion after love.”2 Needless to say, it plays a big part in our lives.

Some people actually get so overwhelmed with guilt or regret they become physically ill, while others become so overwhelmed they take their own life. I’ve seen Christians walk away from their faith because they can’t handle the guilt from a mistake or wrong choice they’ve made. Guilt is hard to live with.

This is what regret or guilt does: it consumes you. While the weight of it will pull you down emotionally, the disappointments will disillusion you.

If you are tired of feeling guilty all the time, why not make a decision to do something about it? Guilt is never a pleasant emotion. However, it’s an emotion you can work through successfully and then, over time, eradicate from your life.

  1. Francis J. Flynn, “Defend Your Research: Guilt-Ridden People Make Great Leaders,” Harvard Business Review January–February 2011, -people-make-great-leaders/ar/1.
  2. Jessica Van Roekel, “10 Ways to Overcome Your ‘If-Only’ Regrets,”, -to-overcome-your-if-only-regrets.html.

Excerpted with permission from Creatures of Habit by Steve Poe, copyright Steve Poe. 

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Your Turn

Are you struggling with guilt? Is it false guilt? You don’t have to carry that weight around! God has already forgiven you! Don’t live under the burden of if only. Unspeakable joy can be yours in Jesus! ~ Devotionals Daily