What is guilt exactly?
Wikipedia defines guilt as:
Guilt (emotion) is an emotion that occurs when a person believes that they have violated a moral standard.
Please notice that guilt can happen even when we haven’t done something wrong. If we believe we have done something wrong – we will experience guilt even if God does not say that thing is wrong. This is the issue with a weak or immature believer. He or she does not really understand what God decrees is right or wrong, and believes that many manmade rules are necessary. And if he/she breaks a manmade rule, there is guilt and doubt. If we are doing things out of fear, guilt or doubt – we are in sin.
But the man who has doubts is condemned if he eats (meat offered to idols), because his eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin. Romans 14:23
God has given us the gift of guilt and conscience and we are to only experience it when we violate His standards and His Word. It is that nudge of unpleasant emotion that prods us to repent. But in our sinfulness, we are able to create guilt for ourselves where God intended none. And, at the other extreme, if we have violated our consciences enough, we won’t feel guilt where we should!
So the emotion of guilt can be a gift to help us see sin. And I believe that as God renews and transforms our hearts to be more like Christ, we can become more attune to God’s voice and will feel that prick of conscience more quickly and desire to repent immediately because of God’s Spirit working in us. But our feelings of guilt alone are not infallible and we must look to God and His Word and believe His truth, not simply our feelings.
Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. II Corinthians 7:10
The problem here is that many people attempt to induce worldly sorrow in other people. Godly sorrow comes from God’s Spirit contending with us and working in us.
Why is it that many people use guilt (worldly sorrow) to try to get people to do what they want? Well – it works! Or it seems to work – sometimes. But worldly sorrow is destructive. It does not lead to salvation. It leaves regret and brings death. Worldly sorrow brings great depression and despair without hope. It brings death to relationships between people, death to our fellowship with God (until we are restored) – and sometimes even physical death.
Worldly sorrow does not separate us from God’s love and the salvation we have in Christ through faith in His death. But it severs our fellowship with God until we truly repent and achieve GODLY sorrow through God’s Spirit which empowers us to turn away from our sin, turn towards God, have our fellowship with Christ restored and then live in His abundant life.
Worldly sorrow can make people feel wretched and awful. It makes them feel worthless, bad, sinful, evil, insecure, unloved, unforgiven, depressed, defeated, demoralized and like failures. Satan LOVES for us to get trapped into this mire of worldly sorrow. This kind of spirit is NOT of God!
Worldly sorrow can make people (especially with unhealthy emotional/spiritual boundaries) feel compelled to do something in order to try to avoid unpleasant guilt and alleviate their emotional pain. They have two nasty options.
1. They can do what the controlling person wants them to do, but they know they don’t really want to do it or agree with it. And they will RESENT doing it.
2. They can resist the controlling person and face their great wrath for daring to “disobey.” Of course, experiencing someone else’s unjustifiable and inappropriate wrath over and over and over will eventually also cause RESENTMENT.
Those are two awful choices. My own resentment or the other person’s wrath (and then eventually, more resentment).
Resentment KILLS relationships!
Eventually, the person being controlled realizes that if he caves in this time, he is only spared misery temporarily. He only has the controlling person’s “love” if he obeys the controller. And the second the person being controlled hints at doing something that goes against the will of the controller, out come the controller’s claws, threats, lectures, preaching, nagging, guilt tripping, tears, drama and emotional TORTURE.
So – after the person being controlled has gone through this cycle dozens or hundreds of times – eventually, he stops caring about hurting the controller’s feelings and about trying to keep earning her love and just want to RUN FAR, FAR AWAY and not talk to this person anymore! EVER!
Using worldly sorrow and guilt trips DOES NOT WORK. Not on children, not on husbands, not on siblings, parents, friends or anyone. The reason? Worldly sorrow does not change a person’s heart and motives. They are acting out of fear, not love and faith.
AND worldly sorrow is disrespectful of other people’s God-given right to have free will and make their own decisions. It is offensive to others and rightly so. We are overstepping healthy boundaries when we try to force our will and our beliefs on others.
GUILT AT CHURCH
There are some pastors/church teachers who preach guilt trips, trying to MAKE people come to God by making them feel badly about themselves and to try to get more people to come to the invitation after the sermon.
I have heard messages from pastors and leaders in the past (not at my current church!!) like:
- If you don’t witness to people, they will go to hell and it will be all your fault.
- It’s God’s will for you to teach this class, there is no one else to do it, and God told us to ask you. He told us it was His will. You have to do it.
- It’s God’s will for you to give $X to this building fund. If you were a good Christian, you would give generously.
- You need to take this witness training program and lead X# of souls to Christ per month
- We should be sharing our faith more.
The basic messages of guilt in the church that I have heard involve:
- all the responsibility is on MY shoulders
- God’s sovereignty and His Spirit are not mentioned
- many times, the phrase, “God’s will” is used to try to make people do things that really and truly aren’t necessarily God’s will in reality. But it is hard to argue with someone who says, “THIS IS GOD’S WILL!”
- it usually is something you “should” or “ought” to do in order to please God.
IF we are leaving out the power of God’s Spirit, prayer, the Holy Spirit contending with people and us being filled with God’s Spirit, all the programs and plans we have are not going to amount to anything! It is GOD Who is powerful and necessary here, not me. God might use me. But he is not depending on me. He is sovereign. I look to Him for the power and wisdom to do things, not to programs or to my own strength and wisdom.
GUILT IN PERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS
People in dysfunctional relationships use guilt and attempt to wield worldly sorrow to try to make other people do things. This is evil. It is sinful. It is wrong. It will destroy your relationships. Trust me, I know!
I may respectfully say what I want and need. I may share my feelings. But for me to attempt to twist and manipulate the emotions of other people to try to force them to do things my way is hurtful. Here are some guilt-inducing phrases people sometimes use to try to gain control over others:
- You can’t say, “No!” What do you mean, no?!?! That is unacceptable. You are not allowed to say, “no,” to ME! (The message is – “You are not entitled to a free-will from God. I get to control you. You don’t have a choice.”)
- After all I’ve done for you! (The message here is, “YOU OWE ME. What I did for you was not done from love. It was done to control you. There were strings attached. My love is conditional. My ‘gifts’ are conditional. I will only love you when you do what I want you to do.”)
- Oh, no! Don’t worry about me! I’m sure I’ll be just FINE while you go off and have fun. Meanwhile I just have to stay here and slave away. I never get to have time to myself. (The message is – “You do not have the right to leave or have time to yourself. If you leave, you are being unloving and I am a martyr and a victim”)
- That’s right, you go on to bed and go to sleep. I’m sure you’re tired. Of course, I’m tired, TOO! But can I go to bed now? NOOO! (You are going to have to imagine the tone of voice here! This is also a bit of martyrdom thrown in with the guilt for extra umph.)
- No one loves me! No one cares about me at all. If I died tonight, no one would miss me! (the message is, “I am a victim. I need to be rescued. You have to do the rescuing. I cannot save myself. You are responsible FOR me. I am not responsible for myself. If you don’t do what I want, I might hurt myself and it will be your fault, or I might die in my sleep and you will always regret not doing what I demanded of you and have to live in guilt and shame the rest of your life!”)
- If you were a decent human being, you would do X. (this is a huge insult to the person’s character!)
- You must think… You must feel... (assuming what others think and feel is presumptuous and is often used in guilt-trip lectures. LISTEN to the person, let him say what his feelings are. He gets to decide what he feels. You get to decide what you feel!)
- You CAN’T leave!
- How DARE you do Y?????????
- (sometimes guilt is mixed with insults and disrespect:) Be a REAL MAN! You’re a horrible leader! You’re a terrible Christian!
- You don’t love me!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! You don’t care about me at all! (Accusing a person of evil motives will often induce guilt.)
- You’re an awful father. You don’t love your children!
- If you really loved me, you would…
- If you really cared about me, you would…
- If I mean anything to you at all, you would...
- Thanks to YOU, I can’t do ….
- No thanks to You, I have to ….
- You ALWAYS/NEVER … (character assassination + guilt)
- It’s because you didn’t get a job that I cheated. You’re not the same women I married because ever since we had our daughter you lost your drive. Can’t you see that you pushed me to do it?” (Yikes! Maybe I also need to do a post about blaming others for our sin.)
- I hope you live long enough to regret what you’ve done to me!
- Do you think that makes God happy?
- You don’t think I can do anything right.” “You never trust me.” “You make me act like this.” ” I am never going to change because you don’t believe in me.” (These words are from a man who is most likely feeling profoundly disrespected. A man who feels disrespected HURTS deeply, as much as a woman who feels unloved. People lash out when they are in great emotional pain. A man saying these kinds of things needs to hear a lot less negativity and a lot more praise for what he is doing right whenever possible.)
NON VERBAL GUILT TRIPPING
- heavy sighs
- rolling eyes
- scowling and frowning
- staring and boring holes into the person’s head with hatred
- crying to try to get my way (Crying because I am sad is fine. But if I am crying to try to manipulate my husband – that is a problem!)
WHAT FEELINGS DOES A GUILT TRIP INSPIRE TOWARDS THE WOULD-BE-CONTROLLER?
- anger (justifiably! They are WAY overstepping their boundaries and are completely out of line. Any healthy person would initially feel angry about someone trying to control him/her. But a healthy person will not allow himself/herself to be manipulated by a controlling person.)
- a desire to run away and never return
WHAT IS THE ALTERNATIVE?
Thankfully, there are healthy alternatives to using guilt to try to manipulate people to do what we want! (Many of these are adapted from Laura Doyle’s “The Surrendered Wife”)
- Tell people what you need and ask for what you want respectfully and politely. ”I want X.” ”I don’t want Y.”
- Do not expect people to read your mind.
- You are responsible for taking care of your spiritual/emotional/physical needs. Take care of yourself! Take the time you need with God, do things you enjoy when you can, relax sometimes, get the sleep/nutrition/exercise you need.
- Be ok when people say, “no.” Accept that they have the right to say, no.
- Share your feelings very simply. It is HEALTHY to say, “I don’t want you to move. I will be so sad!” It is unhealthy and controlling to say, “You CAN’T move away! I won’t come visit you anymore. Our relationship will be over!” So focus on your pure feelings, isolate them and share the feelings: loneliness, anger, sadness, confusion, fear, nervousness, happiness, thankfulness, etc… Your feelings are important! Please share them!!!! But share them in a way that doesn’t create blame on the other person or label them as “bad” in some way.
- TRUST GOD’S SOVEREIGNTY over the situation. You need a much bigger and more accurate picture of God! If a person doesn’t do what you want – that is ok! Trust that God will lead them and will use even a painful and difficult circumstance to help make you more like Christ and to bring glory to His Name even if it doesn’t “seem” like the way things “should” happen from your perspective. God has this! Read the story of Joseph!!! Great reminder of God’s sovereignty!
SPEAKING THE TRUTH IN LOVE
How do I confront sin without putting my husband on a guilt trip?
My recommendation is to focus on your pain and hurt – and be pretty brief with a man! And then tell him respectfully and gently what it is that hurt you. And it might be a good idea to check to see if you may have inadvertently disrespected him somehow.
“Honey, I feel sad/confused/hurt when you leave the room when I was in the middle of telling you something. Did I do something disrespectful just now?”
“I feel sad, hurt and scared when you don’t tell me the truth. It means so much to me when you tell me the truth. I respect you so much when you are honest with me. Please always tell me the truth from now on. Thank you.”
DO I HAVE TO FEEL GUILTY WHEN SOMEONE TRIES TO PUT ME ON A GUILT TRIP?
I am in charge of my emotions and feelings. The other person is in charge of his/hers. I can’t make the person stop trying to make me feel guilty. I can ask them kindly to stop. I can refuse to cooperate with them when they are trying to manipulate and control me. I can show love to them but not allow myself to be tripped up.
That person’s emotions are for him/her to deal with. If he or she feels angry at me because I wouldn’t cave in to the pressure – that does not mean I am wrong.
A controlling person who uses guilt to try to motivate and manipulate does not understand proper boundaries or the sovereignty of God, most likely. So that person might feel angry because he/she thinks that it is his/her right to control me. But that is not true!
I can combat lies with the truth of God’s Word.
My goal is to please GOD, not people! It would be nice to live in peace with people and to have all love and harmony all the time. That is not always possible. For me, I focus on wanting to please God and my husband (unless my husband is asking me to do something against God!). Other people’s opinions, ideas and desires are important. But they come WAY, WAY behind what God wants in my life and what my husband wants.