The Problem with Guilt by Randall Rheinheimer, Ph.D.,MFT

Is there a problem with guilt? Is it good or bad? Is it necessary, and if so, what purpose does it serve? Many psychological theorists have held guilt to be pathological. However, other theorists believe it to be an aspect of morality. Freud believed that guilt was necessary, without it, he believed there could be no civilized society.

For Christians, Christ’s death on the cross was the ultimate payment for our sin (guilt). So, if we are forgiven, why is guilt such an issue for so many who follow Christ? The problem can be traced to the fall and is a result of our fallen nature. As with many other things in this fallen world, the thing that’s there to guide us (guilt) becomes tainted and works against us. The problem with guilt is understandable if we consider guilt to be a dichotomy with self-punishment on one side and godly sorrow on the other.

Psychology views guilt as an aspect of the superego. The superego is that moral agency that we all have. Theologically, we understand this to be the moral agency that God has instilled in each of us. As such, guilt is supposed to be a signal that we have stepped across a moral line and that we need to do something to restore the moral order. In psychological terms, it is a signal that we have caused injury to a relationship and we need to repair the damage done. The problem with guilt occurs when it is highjacked by a harsh internal judge. Instead of being a signal that we missed the mark and need to repair, it becomes fodder for the judge to use as punishment.

The solution involves several steps. First, we need to develop an awareness that the judge is in fact a problem, not a solution. To see the judge more clearly, I ask people to envision putting their arm around a loved one and start talking to the loved one with the words they use inside their own head when talking to themselves. It usually sounds something like this; you are such a failure, you will never get it right, how can anyone ever love you. . . It is hard for most people to tolerate this exercise because it is so mean and hurtful. We need to see the judge as mean and punishing rather than an accurate accuser. Once we can identify the harshness of the judge, we can take the second step which involves sharing our ‘bad’ and our self-judgement with safe people. The third step requires us to take in their acceptance of our bad (just the opposite of what we receive from the judge). The fourth step involves receiving forgiveness, which enables us to forgive others as well.

To summarize, we need to internalize grace. Our guilt needs to be transformed from condemnation to a signal that we have missed the mark and need to repair our relationship with God and/or others. When we are freed from the internal judge, we are free to repair and move on. Grace wins!

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  1. Dee on April 24, 2018 at 8:14 am

    Sounds like a complicated way to forgive yourself.

  2. Philip on April 24, 2018 at 9:00 am

    Absolutely wonderful to read about guilt. Struggled with guilt for a long time. Thank you

  3. Tony on May 2, 2018 at 1:48 pm

    Thanks Randy, so good to know the grace we been given by Christ and be reminded of it by a community of friends when our internal broken judge condemns us!

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