18 Inches: Myths About Guilt

This is the seventh installment of our blog series, “18 Inches: Myths that Disconnect the Head From the Heart.” Our goal is to identify some of the lies we’ve been taught about our emotions and counter it with the truth. Click here to view the rest of the series.

Myth #23: Sincere confession deserves forgiveness

Have you ever heard the statement, “I said I’m sorry! What else do you want me to do?” We have all probably said this at one time or another. However, what we are actually trying to communicate is that, “Since my confession is sincere, I ought to be forgiven.” We often feel as though we deserve forgiveness because we have admitted fault or confessed an offense.

But the truth is, sincere confession grants access to freedom. We must keep this truth in mind because while we are able to find forgiveness from Goddue to Christ’s life and death on our behalfwe are not guaranteed to find forgiveness from other people. Forgiveness and confession lead to the gift of reconciliation. Whenever we confess, we want to know, “Are you willing to give yourself back to me as I give myself back to you?” We cannot force anyone to forgive us. While God expects forgiven people to forgive, we will not always experience immediate forgiveness from others. We do, however, know that when we confess our sins to the Lord, he will forgive them all.

Guilt is the emotion that convicts us. It lets us know when we have hurt others, God, and/or ourselves. Until we confess our sins, our conscience remains imprisoned. As the Psalmist says, “When I kept silent, my bones became brittle from my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was drained as in the summer’s heat. Then I acknowledged (confessed) my sin to you and did not conceal my iniquity. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and you forgave the guilt of my sin.”

When we confess, we gain freedom from the forgiveness of the Lord. We still desire to receive forgiveness from those we sinned against. But we have peace in knowing that when the Ultimate Judge looks at us, he declares us, “Not guilty!”

Myth #24: We can forgive ourselves. We do not need to be forgiven by others or by God.

In his book, The Voice of the Heart, Chip Dodd writes, “When I attempt to forgive myself I am saying that I am in need of no one. I am denying my need of others and God to do what I cannot do for myself. When I try to forgive myself, I am trying to make myself feel better about what I did to repair the temporary damage done to my self-esteem. Self forgiveness is an attempt to trick ourselves into believing that justifying, rationalizing, or excusing our intentions is the same as forgiveness.”

Forgiveness reveals our need for the help of God and others. It is not about finding our own solution. If we do not seek forgiveness, we are (on some level) trying to make others okay with us harming them. Further, we give up the opportunity to receive mercy and grace if we reject our need for forgiveness from others.

The truth is we can only be forgiven by one another or by God. All of our sins are committed against God and others. Therefore, we can only be forgiven by God and/or people. The fact that God and other people are involved brings hope for reconciliation as well as the fear of rejection. Because of the work of Christ, we have a sure hope that when we go before God the Father we will receive forgiveness. But we cannot reach into the heart of another person and force them to forgive us. This reality causes us to fear rejection. We know we are extremely vulnerable when we ask for forgiveness from someone who is not willing to offer it. Because of the vulnerability here, when we do not process unforgiveness well, we can easily end up in toxic shame.

Myth #25: Toxic Shame is the same as Godly conviction

In 1510, Martin Luther was sent to Rome. While there he climbed the Scala Sancta, also known as, “The Holy Stairs.” Legend has it that Jesus climbed these same stairs when He appeared before Pilate. The story goes that these steps were moved from Jerusalem to Rome, and the priests of the day claimed that forgiveness of sins was granted to all who climbed them on their hands and knees. Luther was a guilt-ridden man, so in his desperation he climbed these stairs on his hands and knees in hopes of receiving forgiveness. This story from Luther’s life illustrates how many people confuse Godly conviction with toxic shame. Luther saw no distinction between what he did and who he was, so he succumbed to self-contempt. Toxic shame is a temptation for all of us.

The truth is, Godly shame leads to repentance. Healthy guilt says, “I did wrong because I am human.” Unhealthy guilt leads to toxic shame because it attacks who we are. It says that, “I did wrong because I am a bad human.” The Apostle Paul says, “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, but worldly grief produces death.” This verse makes a distinction between toxic shame and Godly conviction. Godly grief is what we see in the life of Peter. Peter clearly committed a grievous sin by denying Jesus. Peter knew his sin was heavy. He had been in the present when Jesus said, “Whoever denies me before men, I will deny him in the presence of my Father.” Despite the grievous nature of his sin, Peter repented. Peter’s identity as a chosen member of God’s family was not altered due to the sinful action he committed. We are engaged in a fight for faith. Do we believe God’s Words, “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin so that we might become the righteousness of God”? This verse is an identity statement. It says Jesus took on the very sins we commit and, in exchange, we take on His identity as righteous ones. Godly shame brings the gift of humility, which acknowledges that in our humanity we will never be righteous enough. Our best efforts fall short and even when our best efforts meet or exceed the mark they do not show up every time. This acknowledgement leads us toward humility which is meant to direct us to Christ, the only One to ever meet His Father’s perfect standard and who fulfilled this standard on our behalf. Guilt tells me “I am human,” and is meant to lead me to repentance, and ultimately, to Christ.

Dhati Lewis is the Lead Pastor of Blueprint Church in Atlanta, Georgia and the Executive Director of Community Restoration with the North American Mission Board. He earned his Master of Arts in Cross Cultural Ministry from Dallas Theological Seminary and most recently received his Doctorate of Ministry in Great Commission Mobilization from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Dhati has seven beautiful children and is married to Angie, a discerning woman who empowers and encourages him to live fully in his identity in Christ. He is the author of both the Bible Study and book, Among Wolves: Disciple Making in the City.
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