Guilt, God, and Self-Esteem

guiltThe Hebrew word for sin means “to miss the mark.” Sin is missing the mark of God’s holiness. It is falling short of his righteousness. Some of us fall shorter than others, but all of us fall far short of God’s perfection. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

Despite what some would have us believe, there is such a thing as true moral guilt. Therefore, not all guilt feelings are invalid—they may stem from a true condition. We do people no favor by saying “Don’t feel guilty” when in fact, according to God’s Word, they are guilty. Our goal should be a conscience cleansed of sin, not a conscience that denies sin.

The unbeliever is alienated from God, objectively guilty before Him. If he experiences alienation, guilt, and an overall sense of distance from God, he is experiencing what’s true. People are actually fortunate to have such feelings—they may draw them to Christ, the only one who can ultimately free them from guilt.

When we, as Christians, are living in sin and are therefore out of fellowship with God, we too experience alienation and guilt. Our reconciliation to God through Christ does not change, our future destiny does not change, but meanwhile we cannot enjoy the benefits of walking with God. As we sense this condition, it can result in constructive sorrow that leads us to deal properly with our sin (2 Corinthians 7:8-10).

David provides us one of the most vivid descriptions of stress in God’s Word:

When I kept silent, my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
For day and night
your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was sapped
as in the heat of summer. Selah

Then I acknowledged my sin to you
and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, “I will confess
my transgressions to the LORD “—
and you forgave
the guilt of my sin (Psalm 32:3-5).

David’s health deteriorated; he spent his days sighing and groaning; he felt alienated from God and was left drained and exhausted by unresolved sin in his life. Not all stress comes from sin, but sin is a powerful source of stress.

But there was a solution to David’s sin problem, just as there is to ours—”If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

David confessed to the Lord the sin that was weighing him down. He then experienced forgiveness from the guilt that plagued him. The rest of Psalm 32 makes clear that the stress was removed when the sin was dealt with. That is why David was able to write this introduction to the same Psalm:

    Blessed is he
            whose transgressions are forgiven,
            whose sins are covered.

    Blessed is the man
            whose sin the LORD does not count against him
            and in whose spirit is no deceit (Psalm 32:1-2).

David was forgiven for many sins, including adultery and murder. Notice that he had an accurate perception of reality—he felt guilty when he was guilty and he felt clean and forgiven when he was clean and forgiven.

If we break God’s law, as all of us do, we are guilty whether or not we feel guilty. Likewise, once our sins are confessed and repented of before Christ, we are forgiven whether or not we feel forgiven.

Residual Guilt

Many Christians do not feel forgiven after they have asked for God’s forgiveness. They suffer not from true guilt but from a lingering sense of a guilt that Christ has removed. Their residual guilt haunts them.

Though she has confessed and genuinely repented of her adultery, Helen lives in a self-inflicted purgatory. She is convinced God cannot forgive her, despite his Word’s assurance that he has. God says he has forgotten Helen’s sin and has buried it in the deepest sea (Jeremiah 31:34; Micah 7:19). But like the dog who digs up his old bones to chew on them some more, Helen won’t let her sin lie where God has buried it. She refuses to accept the atonement. Instead she tries to repeat it.

When Christ died on the cross, he said, “It is finished.” The word translated “It is finished” was commonly written across certificates of debt—it meant “Paid in Full.” God insists on paying it all.

God has seen us at our worst and still loves us. None of our sins—past, present or future—are hidden from his sight. No skeleton will fall out of our closets in eternity. God is on our side (Romans 8:31). Jesus is our defense attorney (1 John 2: 1). No matter who throws dirt at us, including Satan, “the accuser of the brethren,” it will never stick. In Christ we are totally, absolutely, unconditionally cleared of all our sin.

Jesus suffered for our sins so we would not have to. By refusing to accept his provision, we imply that he died in vain. By inflicting suffering on ourselves, we imply that we are good enough to pay our own way.

False Guilt

Others are plagued by false guilt. False guilt is different from residual guilt, though it has many similar effects. False guilt is a self-condemning, self-punishing response to things for which we are not and never have been truly guilty. False guilt is purely imaginative—but its effects on us are painfully real.

Have you ever driven by a policeman when you weren’t doing anything wrong, yet your heart pounds, your muscles tighten, and you breathe rapidly? You treat yourself as if you were guilty even when you aren’t! That’s false guilt.

False guilt may stem from perfectionism, or from unrealistic expectations of yourself. Often these unrealistic expectations are learned early in life, from home or school or church or any number of influences. Sometimes they are simply part of a demanding perfectionistic personality that is instinctively hard on itself. Such personalities can emerge even out of the least demanding environments.

Beneath these unrealistic expectations is often a sense of conditional approval—if I succeed in doing all these things then God will love me, others will love me, and perhaps I will even approve of myself. Those who struggle most from false guilt are often the ones concerned about pleasing others and earning their favor, proving they are worthy.

False guilt is especially common for the Christian woman. Perhaps it’s because she is always reminded of what a godly woman she ought to be, what a submissive, cheerful, organized, and generally stunning wife and mother she’s supposed to be. But she knows that she is not all these things—who is? The gap between her expectations and reality is the guilt gap.

Similarly, single mothers may feel guilty because their children don’t have a father. Abused women may feel guilty because they feel responsible for their husband’s behavior. These women expect too much of themselves (more than God expects of them), and the result is guilt feelings.

Sandra apologizes for everything. If the bread is a little overdone or she has to stay home from church to care for the children or she must excuse herself to answer the phone or change a diaper, Sandra always says “I’m sorry.” But she doesn’t confine this to little things that don’t matter and that everyone understands anyway (so why apologize?). Sandra says “I’m sorry” about the weather, about the lost football game, your headache, about anything and everything that is less than perfect (which covers a lot of ground). And she doesn’t just mean “I feel bad for you”—she actually feels responsible for things totally beyond her control. As a result, she labors under a cloud of false guilt.

Sherry told us she went to a doctor with terrible stomach ulcers. She put it off far too long, because she couldn’t bear to admit that she, a Christian, had ulcers. Ironically, her ulcers were made worse because she felt so guilty for having them. Her doctor, also a Christian, shocked her with his response: “A higher percentage of my female patients who are Christians have ulcers than those who are non-Christians.” Why? Part of it is unrealistic expectations. We set unattainable goals, then punish ourselves for not attaining them.

Carol felt guilty for being happy. She was in a Bible study group, where everyone else but her was going through hard times. She felt so guilty she wouldn’t share the wonderful things God was doing in her life because she didn’t want to make everyone else feel bad!

Linda is a missionary who loves to get letters from home, yet goes into a guilt tailspin every time she does because, she says, “I’m so far behind in writing back.”

Of course, men also struggle with false guilt. Todd is a caring brother who felt guilty for backing off from an emotionally needy guy who was constantly calling him. But Todd was busy raising his children, caring for his wife, and ministering to other men...not to mention working for a living. He had to accept the fact that there just wasn’t enough of him to be available to this guy who thought he always needed him. He wasn’t being selfish—just realistic. Todd lined the man up with some other guys who could share time with him. Todd was caring and responsible. There was no valid basis for his guilt feelings.

I now receive so many emails related to my books, asking me questions, that I could easily spend sixty hours a week responding to them. But if I’m ever going to write another book, or do anything else, I can’t. Yet I struggle with guilt feelings, not wanting to disappoint anyone. Our EPM board recently helped me by saying I should only respond personally to a small number of these emails, and not feel guilty about the rest being handled by our EPM staff (who do a great job, by the way).

Combating Guilt Feelings

Ironically, focus on false guilt can keep us away from facing up to true guilt, which most of us have plenty of. But true guilt can be confessed and dealt with. It should not and need not pile up on us. False guilt is more slippery. No wonder, since Jesus died for our real sins not our imaginary ones.

The only solution to residual guilt is to repeatedly rehearse the facts of forgiveness. Likewise, false guilt is combatted as we rehearse the facts, recognizing that our limitations are not sins.

Remind yourself that God cares for you (1 Peter 5:7), God hears you (Psalm 34: 15), and God understands your limitations and the stress they bring (Hebrews 4: 14-16).

And if you’re feeling guilty because you, a Christian, are going through stress take a closer look at your Savior. Jesus was “deeply moved in spirit and troubled” and wept at the death of his friend Lazarus (John 11:33-35), was stirred to compassion by the plight of the multitudes (Matthew 9:36), cried out over his beloved Jerusalem that had rejected him (Matthew 23:37-39). Jesus’ stress was so great that the blood vessels under his skin broke and he literally sweated great drops of blood (Luke 22:42-44).

The God-man knew no sin, but he knew a lot of stress. The next time you think stress is a synonym for sin, remind yourself of the stress of the sinless one.

Understanding and Accepting Who I Am

A great deal has been said about self-esteem. Unfortunately, the self-esteem movement long ago degenerated into a cult of self-centeredness.

First, we should correct the almost universally accepted notion that Matthew 22:37-39 teaches three kinds of love: God-love, self-love, and others-love. In fact, it teaches two kinds of love: that we should love God and that we should love others. It does not teach self-love. It simply recognizes and assumes that self-love exists—and that is something very different than teaching it as a virtue to be cultivated.

In the same way, Ephesians 5 says husbands are to love their wives as their own bodies. But it does not say “husbands, love your own bodies.” It just recognizes that we do. The one who loves his body takes care of it. He feeds and clothes it. This is self-love—simply to take care of one’s self. The biblical authors assumed there was plenty of self-love in almost everyone. (We “look out for number one,” right?) They were not commanding more self-love but were encouraging their readers to take care of others as much as they already tended to take care of themselves.

Who You Think You Are

Rather than emphasize self-love, which can become self-centeredness, we need to focus on self-acceptance that is based on an accurate self-image.

It is important to realize the difference between self and self-image. Self is who you really are. Self-image is who you think you are.

Satan, the master of extremes, wants us either to exalt ourselves or degrade ourselves. Scripture tells us it’s important to think accurately about ourselves. “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment...” (Romans 12:3).

Scripture teaches that human beings stand condemned before God. Apart from Christ we are guilty and therefore our self-esteem is naturally low. That is why Christians who try to make people feel fulfilled apart from Christ tread on dangerous ground. Our ministry is not to make guilty people feel less guilty, but to make guilty people know their guilt can be taken away. The good news is not that they are righteous without Christ (that’s a lie). The good news is that they can be made righteous by confessing their sin and accepting Christ’s redemptive work on their behalf.

It’s only part of the story to say God loves us just the way we are. God also loves us too much to let us stay that way. We are not basically good folks. We are sinners in desperate need of grace. But God offers that grace. He cleanses us from our guilt and in doing so he gives us the only valid basis for a positive self-image.

Once God has declared us “not guilty” he says there is no condemnation for us (Romans 8:1). Then and only then should we tell people they should not feel guilty. Why? Because, in fact, they no longer are guilty. They are clothed in the righteousness of Christ: acceptable, even commendable in the sight of a holy God.

Experiencing Your Identity

Just because God has made us righteous and guiltless doesn’t mean we automatically experience the benefits of who we are. Our minds are like tape players, constantly running a message. We see our entire lives in the light of this message. We interpret everything in a way that reinforces our fundamental beliefs about ourselves.

I may interpret everything I do as great, meaningful, more special and significant than what anyone else does. Everything I see reinforces my inflated prideful opinion of myself:

I am more important than other people. My ideas are always better, my insights more profound, my work more skillful. Without me, my family and church would crumble. I am indispensable. God needs me on his team, and everybody should be grateful I’m around. I will see that I get all that’s coming to me. After all, I deserve it.

This is the kind of attitude that Romans 12:3 warns us not to have: “Don’t think more highly of yourself than you ought to think.” However, the verse also says we are to think of ourselves with sound judgment, which means we are to think accurately about ourselves. Thinking accurately means that not only are we not to think too highly of ourselves, but neither are we to think too lowly of ourselves. Some people certainly do have a pride problem, but many others have a self-depreciation problem. This is the sort of tape they run through their minds:

I am a failure, a loser. I lack the personality, good looks, and brains of successful people. I will never be as good as others. I don’t do anything right. Nobody likes me, and those that seem to must just be pretending. God can’t use me. I’m not a worthwhile person and probably never will be.

Both the prideful and the self-depreciating views are a product of a conformed mind, a mind that takes its cues from the world or self or Satan rather than from God. The transformed mind is very different. The tape that runs through it says this:

I am far from perfect, but I’m immeasurably valuable to God. He specially created me in his image, and I’m unique. Christ thought enough of me to die for me and not consider it a waste.

As a Christian, I’m a child of God. I am clothed with Christ’s righteousness. God is on my side. According to his promise, I will spend eternity with him. God has seen me at my worst and still loves me.

This means that regardless of how I feel about myself and how I think others feel about me, I am loved by God. I am totally secure in Christ’s unconditional and unfailing love. And as long as he has me here, there’s a great purpose to my life.

As you re-read these messages, consciously reject the wrong ones and embrace the right one. The more you fill your mind with the biblical truth about who you are, the more your self-image will come into line with God-revealed reality.

Made By the Master

Facial surgeries, breast implants, and other non-accident-related cosmetic surgeries often betray a sad insecurity that still plagues people after they are done. By focusing on appearance and image rather than character and spirit, many people live in a world of superficiality that ultimately dooms their self-esteem because beauty, as they have wrongly defined it (in outer terms), will inevitably diminish, and with it their acceptance of themselves.

Self-image should be based on what God’s Word says is true of us. The world says you are worth a certain amount because you look a certain way or can perform a certain way. God says you are created in God’s image and redeemed by Christ whether or not you can perform by society’s numbers. You are not a product of your performance. You may receive a D but you are not a D.

Being precedes doing. You are not a child of God if you do everything just right. You are a child of God because, fully aware of all your faults and sins, he has made an irrevocable claim on you to be your Father. God loves you with a love that cannot be earned and therefore cannot be lost. Once you truly understand this, you will experience real security. Until you do, you will live in uncertainty and turmoil.

The secure Christian knows who he is and needn’t live under the tyranny of self-doubt. His ego is no longer made out of fine China, but durable stainless steel. Fear of rejection diminishes, because even when rejected he still knows who he is. Fear of failure dissipates, because even when he fails he knows he’s still loved. Furthermore, he knows that even his failure is a character-building tool in the hands of the Master Craftsman, who is not yet finished with him.

In Romans 8 Paul spoke to the Christian plagued with self-doubt. If we really listen to this message, not once but again and again, it can radically change our lives. Here is the essence of Romans 8:

Once you come to Christ there is no condemnation for you. You are a child of God who in times of loneliness and hurt can cry to him from the deepest intimacy, “Abba (Papa, Daddy) Father.” Both the Holy Spirit and Son pray for you continuously. Your Father filters out everything and only allows you to experience what is for your best good. God is totally on your side; he has chosen you unconditionally and defends you against accusation. Absolutely nothing you or anyone else can do or say or think will ever, under any circumstances or in any way, separate you from the love of Christ.

Cultivating Your Inner Life

The greatest truth anyone can learn is this: the most important part of your life is the part that only God sees (1 Samuel 16:7; 1 Peter 3:3-4).

Many Christian lives are like those Florida sink holes, where buildings and streets appear on the outside to be standing strong, then one day collapse under their own weight because of underground erosion that has left them without support.

Many have made it through life on good looks, talent, and drive, but wake up one day to find that none of those are sufficient to support them under the weight of the burdens that have come upon them. Terry was a successful businessman, coach, and men’s group leader, but one day he collapsed under the weight of his own success. He admitted to me that for many months he’d neglected the inner garden of his soul. Now it had all caught up with him.

Time must be budgeted daily to accumulate inner strength and resolve, to fill and deepen our spiritual reservoirs. Make it your highest goal to cultivate your inner self by sitting at the feet of Christ. Set and keep a daily appointment with God. Withdraw from life’s busyness to seek him in solitude.

All of this may mean getting up thirty minutes earlier, carving out forty minutes in the late morning or afternoon, or missing a television program in the evening. It is worth any “sacrifice” to spend time in God’s presence. No time spent with Christ is wasted time. In fact, turn off that television for the whole evening, or the week, and read a good book. Talk with your family. Replenish your spirit.

Nothing so cultivates the inner person and enriches our relationship with God as biblical meditation. Meditation is the process of pondering, musing, and reflecting upon God and his truth. In the process, our hearts are drawn to God, our thoughts are filled with his thoughts, and ultimately, our behavior becomes like Christ’s.

Meditation is more than reading the Bible. It is musing upon it, rehearsing it prayerfully and thoughtfully. It is not swallowing Scripture whole, but chewing long and hard before digesting it. As a therapy for stress, meditation is often superior to medication. (I am not suggesting medication is wrong. Sometimes it can be helpful.) It is in prayerfully Christ-centered meditation that the peace of God is experienced and the inner life is bolstered to withstand the pressures of the outer life.

There is really no secret to meditation. All of us meditate. We may meditate on a novel, a TV program, a sermon, a song, a shopping list, a friend, or this morning’s newspaper ads. Right now you’re meditating on this article. All of us meditate. The key to meditation is the object of meditation...and the worthiness of that object.

Biblical meditation focuses on God—his attributes (Psalm 48:9), his works (Psalm 77:11-12), and his Word (Psalm 119:15-16). As we meditate on him, we become increasingly like him.

We like to hear seven methods and five easy steps and three proven secrets to the Christian life. But there are no shortcuts to spirituality. There is no pill that makes us godly, no checklist to make us view God and ourselves accurately. We become more Christlike only as we take pains to focus our gaze on Christ:

“But we all, with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory” (2 Corinthians 3: 18).

Randy Alcorn, founder of EPM

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over fifty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries

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