From the Director’s Chair: Bad Guilt

Not all guilt is good guilt.  Good guilt is temporary.  It alerts us to spiritual danger and provides us with a way back to God.  Good guilt is not a way of life.  It is a way back to life.  That’s a good thing.

Bad guilt has nothing to do with God’s desire for us.  It hangs around, makes a home, and drives us away from God.

There are at least two kinds of bad guilt.

One kind is false or unreasonable guilt…a sense of remorse or responsibility for things we have no power to change.  People who suffer with chronic illnesses often “feel guilty” about the work they cannot do, for example.  People who are gifted care-givers will often suffer from guilt when they confront circumstances beyond their control.

Another kind of bad guilt is projected or carried guilt.  In spiritual direction, I often find myself listening to the struggles of people who labor under the burden of false guilt.  Women will often confess to a sense of shame; men will admit to a sense of inadequacy.  When I begin to ask questions about those feelings, my directees often discover that the origin of those feelings date back to their childhood and to a time when they could not have possibly done anything to deserve reproach for their behavior.

More often than not, that is when they discover that the guilt they experience is actually not about them at all.  It is — more likely — about the struggles of their parents:

  • mothers who have never addressed the sense of shame that they feel (or the shame that yet another generation projected on them)
  • fathers who have never faced their own insecurities (or the insecurities of their fathers)

Bad guilt of this kind is almost always about someone else’s struggle — or need for control.

Both unreasonable and carried guilt are dramatically different from good guilt and they can be recognized:

  • Bad guilt hangs on, it doesn’t allow us to move on.
  • Bad guilt is almost never about our own wrongdoing, but about something else — a sense of responsibility for things beyond our control, a sense of shame or inadequacy that really belongs to someone else.
  • Bad guilt never offers an opportunity for confession and amendment of life, but traps us.

Name it.

Let God free you from it.

Take refuge and comfort in the knowledge that God has set you free.

And then allow God to help you build the kind of life that bad guilt has kept you from building and enjoying.

Your struggle with bad guilt may come back around.  Often the watershed experiences in our lives set up a dynamic that cannot be conquered all at once.  But if you name the bad guilt that has been undermining your spiritual growth, it will get easier over time to recognize it and dismiss it.  God loves you better than you love yourself and you were meant for glory.

About Frederick Schmidt

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Rueben Job Institute for Spiritual Formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and consulting editor at Church Publishing in New York. He is the author of numerous published articles and reviews, as well as several books: A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009), and The Dave Test (Abingdon, 2013). He and his wife, Natalie (who is also an Episcopal priest), live in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, with their Gordon Setter, Hilda of Whitby. They have four children and five grandchildren: Henry, Addie, Heidi, Sophie, and Drew, with a sixth on the way.