False Guilt: Where Do I Turn When I Feel Guilty for Doing Nothing Wrong?
He never saw the pickup coming. The few years of life he’d experienced hadn’t taught him enough about being safe, about looking both ways before running across the street, about what a moving ton of steel can do to a little boy’s body. The driver was leaving a construction sight in the back of the neighborhood. He wasn’t speeding. He wasn’t texting. And he wasn’t omniscient; he didn’t know the boy was going to come out of nowhere. The driver was innocent. He did nothing wrong. Yet now, about a year later, I’d wager that the guilt he feels over that child’s death is the first thing he feels every morning, the last thing he feels every night.
And he is not alone. I suspect that child’s parents beat themselves up for not protecting their child, even though there was no way they could have prevented the accident. His older siblings feel guilty for not being there to watch over him. On and on the false guilt spreads. Only if I had been a better parent, only if I had been there, only if I had offered to play with him that day, only if I had driven a little slower, only if I had worked late that day. Everyone involved feels guilty over something in which they did nothing wrong.
It is a strange fact of human nature that false guilt very often plagues us more than true guilt. Children think they’re to blame for their parents’ divorce. Husbands think they’re to blame for their wife’s suicide. Parents think they’re to blame for the bad choices their children make. There’s plenty of true sins for which we feel true guilt, but it’s the false guilt over non-sins that frequently keep us awake at night, playing the “only if I had done ______” game of self-torture.
Now I could try to convince you that your feelings of guilt are misplaced, that because you did nothing wrong, you are not to blame. Things happen over which you have no control. There’s no way you could have seen that child coming. There’s no way you could have prevented your parents’ marital strife. People make their own decisions. We can’t control them. We can only control our reaction to them. I could tell you these things. But, honestly, I tell myself these same things on a regular basis, and they wind up providing little comfort. The truth is that I am flawed beyond the reach of psychological reasoning.
We are a tiny part of a deeply flawed world. And the tiny part of the world that we are is just as deeply flawed. There are cracks in my soul, flaws in the core of my being, that are deeper and broader than the Grand Canyon. They are full of true and false guilt, addictions and angers, regrets and shame, horrors over what I’ve done and what’s been done to me. I have old, old wounds on my heart that still ooze pus. And they’re not all self-inflicted. Others have hurt me, even those I loved dearly. And I even feel guilt over them hurting me, as if somehow I’m to blame for their loveless treatment of me. I am a man of flaws that are deeper and broader and full of more pain that any reasoning or counseling can fully cure.
We are right to say that Jesus paid the price for our sins, that He takes our guilt away. But the truth is that I need more than a Savior from my own sin. I also need a Savior from other people’s sins against me. I need a God who can heal me of true guilt and false guilt. I need a Christ who not only removes the shame I feel for what I’ve done, but who washes away the shame that others have smeared upon me. I need a Jesus who doesn’t just fix the parts of me that are broken, but who totally remakes me into a new creature.
And that’s the Savior I have. “Look, I am making all things new,” He says (Rev 21:5). Did you hear that? All. Things. New. Not most things. Not just the things you feel true guilt over. Not just the shame over what you’ve done wrong. I am making all things new. He makes all of me new, all of you new. The cracks in our souls, those deep and broad flaws in the core of our being, He fills with Himself. The Grand Canyon within us, full of guilts and fears and shames and regrets and horrors unspeakable, He fills with His forgiveness and healing and love and compassion. And when fissures begin to show again, He fills them once more.
“It is finished,” Jesus said right before He died. And He meant it. He finished the work of making us new by being made all that is wrong with the world and with us. There is a true Savior for false guilt. There is a true Savior for all flaws, all pains, all that’s wrong with us and the world in which we live. He is one who makes all things new.
What we need in our fragmented world, full of hurting people, is the love of Jesus Christ, who welcomes home sinners with a grace that knows no bounds. My book Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons, is packed with reflections that go that extra mile of grace. Again and again, they present the Christ who is crucified and risen for you. Please take a moment to check it out here. You may also be interested in my collections of hymns and poetry entitled, The Infant Priest, which you can purchase here. Both books are also available on Amazon, as is my booklet Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing (also on Kindle). Thank you for your prayers and support!