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Maybe you are the mother who looked away for a moment and your child was kidnapped. Maybe you are the father who was forcibly restrained by thugs and made to watch while your daughter or wife was ravaged. Maybe you are the coach who failed to act when one of your kids was trying to tell you how bad things were getting at home. Maybe you are the older brother who lost track of your sister at a party and didn’t realize she was getting raped in a back room. Maybe you were the leader of a military op that went south and now some of your guys are critically wounded. Maybe you are the law enforcement officer who failed to give your partner the cover he needed. Maybe you are the fireman who got distracted and didn’t see the debris bury your partner. Maybe you are the father who didn’t pick up on the signs that your daughter was getting molested by her teacher. Maybe you are the bodyguard who got nailed from behind and the person you were supposed to protect was dead by the time you woke up. Maybe you are the babysitter who was rocking out to music and didn’t hear your young charge calling for help until it was too late. Whatever the details of your particular situation, failing in the role of protector can result in some very intense, life stopping, health destroying guilt. If this is where you are at, then you are in a crisis, and that crisis needs to be dealt with. God does not want you to spend the rest of your life stuck in the past. He doesn’t want you clinging to the lies that you can’t get past this, or that it’s wrong for you to stop feeling bad, or that the people you’ve hurt have now become your masters in life. So let’s get into it.
THE NATURE OF HUMANS
Humans are very responsive creatures. This means that we rarely initiate. Most of what we do is a response to a third party’s input. When it comes to guilt, this is especially true. While you might use language like “I blame myself for what happened,” what you’re actually doing is agreeing with someone else’s negative assessment of your actions. Such assessments come from three external sources: God, demons, and other humans. Recognizing that your guilty feelings are a result of you aligning with someone else’s judgment of you is very important, and it is the key to learning how to recover from this oppressive mindset that you are now stuck in.
We don’t get free of guilt by simply choosing to shrug off our intense feelings of shame. As humans, we find it impossible to detach ourselves from blame when the logic stream behind that blame sounds irrefutable. And when you’re already in a state of emotional distress, it is very easy for third parties to make their negative assessment of you sound quite logical and reasonable. “You were the one in charge. We trusted you. You said you could handle it. He came to you for help. You knew it was a dangerous situation.”
Often it doesn’t take much to convince a grieving protector to shoulder full responsibility for what happened, and other humans have very self-serving reasons for wanting to turn you into the scapegoat when things go wrong. We all know that whoever gets the blame will also get the punishment, and once you are made the fall guy, the rest of the group can use you as the dumping ground for any personal baggage they have because of what happened. When 14-year-old Joey gets hit by a car and turned into a quad, the whole family system decides to dump all the blame onto 18-year-old Frank. Now that Frank has been made the official scapegoat for the tragedy, he gets nailed with everyone’s anger, pain, frustration, and grief. It’s a one way street: everyone gets to dump on Frank, but Frank gets punished if he ever expresses any of his frustrations in return. As a result, Frank tries to deal with the immense burden that everyone has shifted onto him all by himself. When he finds this too hard to do, he turns to drugs to get relief. Then he turns to self-abuse. Then he gets utterly despaired of life and kills himself just to escape the suffocation. This is what guilt does to us when we just lay down in the dirt and agree to be everyone’s whipping boy.
So what’s going on in Frank’s situation? He’s surrounded by humans who are all casting judgment on him. They are blaming him for his younger brother’s crippled state. Here is where Frank has a choice to make. He can’t control the way other humans think, but he does have some control over how he responds to their judgments of him. When his father says, “It’s all your fault that your brother’s life is ruined,” Frank can internally respond by saying “Yes, it is. I’m such a creep.” Or he can say, “No, it’s not my fault. My father’s judgment of me is garbage.” It’s the same with you. You are also living in a cloud of judges, and every time they communicate their assessment of you through words or glares or body language, you are deciding to either agree or disagree with those assessments. Overwhelming guilt is a result of constantly agreeing with third party negative assessments of you.
EXERCISE: IDENTIFYING YOUR HUMAN JUDGES
It’s time for an exercise. Get out a piece of paper and something to write with. On the top of the paper, write the words “My human judges.” Then identify the specific event that your guilt focuses on and summarize that event in a few words at the top of your paper. For example, you might write, “Sally’s death,” or “What happened to Joe.” Focus on the initial crisis event, not the fallout. For example, after your buddy Troy got blown apart by that landmine that you steered him into, he became an alcoholic and now he and Trisha have gotten a divorce. Once you accept the blame for Troy stepping on the bomb, you’ll naturally accept the blame for everything that happens afterwards. But right now we’re focusing on how people responded to the initial crisis event, because those responses were a huge factor in what happened next. So in the Troy scenario, the event you’d write on the top of your paper would be “Troy stepping on the mine,” not “Troy’s family falling apart.”
Now once you’ve summarized the crisis event, draw a line down the middle of the paper to form two columns. Label the first column as “Blames Me” and the second column as “Does Not Blame Me.” Now take some time to picture the faces of the various people who know about what happened, and write their names down in the column that best reflects their assessment of you. It’s important to really think about what those individuals have actually expressed. For example, maybe you think your wife should be blaming you, but you know that she’s repeatedly said, “It’s not your fault.” Put her name down in the “Does Not Blame Me” column because that’s the judgment your wife is casting. It doesn’t matter that you can’t receive it, it’s still her judgment, and the point of this exercise is to identify how the panel of human judges in your personal life are responding to you. Maybe your father is blaming you but your mother isn’t: put their names in the appropriate columns. Maybe your sister blames you, but the pastor you went to for advice said it wasn’t your fault. Add those names as well. Keep adding the names of everyone you can think of who has weighed in on this situation—even people who are virtual strangers. The doctor at the hospital. The police officer who came to the scene. Your supervisor. Your neighbor. Your coworker. That random guy on the bus who you spilled your guts to in a stressful moment. Jot down everyone who has expressed an opinion about this situation because all those opinions matter. We humans are responsive creatures and we are very affected by what other humans say about us.
Now once you’ve got your panel of judges listed out, look it over. Which column has the most names in it? A list like this is very informative. For starters, anyone in the “Does Not Blame Me” column is a potential source of support when you start trying to get out from under this brick load of guilt. Are there any names there of people who are close to you? Perhaps there is a spouse or a child or a parent or a friend who you have a lot of history with? Think about how you’ve been responding to those who have passed a “Not Guilty” judgment over you. You aren’t being very nice to those people, are you?
Here’s how it works with intense guilt. A crisis happens and judges spring up all around you to weigh in on how you handled the situation. Some blame you, some don’t. You then personally choose to side with those who blame you. Once you align yourself with one team, you get hostile towards the members of the other team. This is when you start biting your daughter’s head off whenever she tries to encourage you. Or you physically leave the room whenever your wife says you need to stop persecuting yourself. You keep abusing your allies until they either burn out and back off or they change their judgments just to stop getting attacked by you. After years of trying to support you through your foul moods, your wife finally does start blaming you because she’s sick to death of your pity parties and sniping remarks. Think about how you’re currently treating the people who are not blaming you for what happened. Reducing your hostility towards these people is going to be an important step in the healing process.
Now maybe your list doesn’t have any names on it because you’ve never talked to anyone about what happened. If there are no human judges blaming you, then the condemnation must be originating from you, right? Wrong. You’re a responsive creature. In guilt situations, you never initiate. Even if there are no names on your list, you are still aligning with a panel of judges, only they aren’t ones you can see with your eyes because they aren’t human.
Demons are always involved when the guilt is mounting up. Demons are sadistic creatures who will do anything they can to block you from thriving in your walk with God. Since they can’t take God on directly, going after the creatures He cares about seems like the next best thing in their foolish minds, and getting you to endlessly wallow in guilt over the past is a fabulous way to keep you spiritually stagnating.
Yahweh, Jesus and the magnificent Holy Spirit are the other non-human Judges who are weighing in on your situation. As your Creators, Their priority with you is to encourage you down roads that will help your soul thrive in the long term.
Now demons can do a fabulous job of imitating God’s Voice in your mind, and falling for their act results in all kinds of problems. So how do you tell the difference? After all, isn’t conviction a form of guilt?
GOOD GUILT VS. BAD GUILT
There are two kinds of guilt. Good guilt is a guilt that inspires us to repent out of rebellion and get back into alignment with God (see What it Means to be Aligned with God). Bad guilt is the kind that drives us away from God by encouraging us to embrace lies about who He is, what He wants, and how He views us.
God convicts us for different reasons, and not all convictions result in feelings of guilt (see Conviction Q&A). When God is heaping on the guilt, it is always because He wants us to change an attitude or action that we’re currently engaging in. This is not the kind of guilt you’re currently dealing with, and to help you see the difference, it’s time for another exercise.
EXERCISE: CLASSIFYING YOUR GUILT
Get out another sheet of paper (or turn over the one you used before). Now think about the initial crisis and pay attention to the specific thoughts that rise up in your own mind. We already know that you’ve chosen to side with those who are blaming you for what happened, but now let’s build a case for why that judgment is fair. Take some time to write down some of those thoughts that are always swirling around in your brain about what you should have or could have done differently. For example:
“I shouldn’t have listened to music when I was being paid to watch someone else’s kid.”
“I should have led my men in through a different entrance.”
“I should have realized that that roof wasn’t solid before I sent my partner out onto it.”
“I should have reacted faster and maybe I could have taken those thugs by surprise.”
“If I hadn’t looked at my phone, I would have seen my brother run out into the street.”
“If I had kept my kid in the shopping cart, he wouldn’t have gotten kidnapped.”
Take your time to list out all of the thoughts that surface over and over again for you when you think about that crisis event. When you’re done, look over your list and see what all of those statements have in common. They’re all describing things that you did in the past, aren’t they? Wrong actions, wrong judgments, wrong thoughts, wrong motivations. No doubt some of the things on your list weren’t wrong at all, but you’ve come to view them as such in your current merciless state of mind. But now consider this: since you’re not a time traveler, can you do anything to fix any of the things you’ve listed out? No, because what’s done is done. And this is what makes bad guilt so soul crushing: it demands the impossible before mercy or forgiveness will be granted.
Take your husband Dan. He says that if you hadn’t been so self-absorbed in your shoe shopping that day, your daughter Melody wouldn’t have felt frustrated with no ride home at the end of her ballgame, she wouldn’t have gotten into the stranger’s car, and she wouldn’t have ended up ravaged and killed. Dan exudes hatred every time you run into him, as do Dan’s parents and your parents. All of these people are blaming you and refusing to forgive you unless you find a way to bring Melody back from the grave. Even then, some of them still wouldn’t forgive you.
This is how it works with bad guilt. Bad guilt is merciless. It demands the impossible, and no matter how many drugs you take or how much drinking you do, it will never voluntarily let you go. To get free from the clutches of bad guilt, you have to be the proactive one. You have to realize that you are choosing to side against yourself. You are choosing to accept the blame people are heaping onto you and you are agreeing that you don’t deserve forgiveness unless you do the impossible. You can’t make other people change their assessment of you, but you can certainly change your own assessment. Right now your own name belongs in the “Blames Me” column, because you are condemning yourself for the past. But you can choose to erase your name from the “Blames Me” column and write it under the “Does Not Blame Me” column instead. Then you could start to live again.
CHANGING YOUR OWN VERDICT
So why is it so hard to stop beating ourselves up over the past? Because the case that others have built against us feels like the most logical one and because we feel like we don’t have permission to defend ourselves. Well, remember, you are a responsive creature. Getting out from under guilt isn’t a matter of you throwing some kind of coup to overthrow the negative judges in your life. It’s a matter of you changing sides. You don’t have to scrape up the courage to hold a position all by yourself because there are already members on both sides. Let’s get out your list of human judges again. In the “Blame Me” column, add the word “demons.” In the “Does Not Blame Me” column, add the Names Yahweh, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Now you can see that even if you didn’t have any human names in those columns, there are still third parties in each of those two camps. So you’re not going to go venturing out by yourself when you change teams—you’re going to be aligning yourself with your Creators.
PERMISSION TO CHANGE SIDES
So how do you know for sure that your Creators are in the “Does Not Blame Me” camp? Well, here is where we need to understand how Divine judgment works.
Humans delight in things like grudge holding, blame, and condemnation. Your Creators delight in things like compassion, mercy, and forgiveness. This isn’t to say that Their wrath is nonexistent. Fail to give Them sufficient submission in this life, and you’ll experience Hell: a place where intense hatred is eternally expressed. Certainly your Creators have the capacity to hold grudges. But this isn’t something They rush into as readily as we do. Instead, They much prefer to see you enjoy the benefits of Their abundant mercy, and that means giving you countless fresh starts. Your Creators understand that you can’t go back and change the past. Since They want you to be able to succeed with Them, They make Their approval readily available to you by only requiring things of you which you actually have some hope of giving Them. Pleasing God comes down to a simple matter of soul attitude. Your soul attitude is revealed in your honest answer to the question, “How much do I care about pleasing God?” Some of us just don’t give a hoot about pleasing God. Others of us want to please Him more than anything, and others fall somewhere between those two extremes. So where are you at today?
Since you can’t change the past and you can’t skip ahead to the future, God will always focus on the present when He is talking to you about how to please Him. It is your response to Him right now which determines whether or not He is pleased with you right now. What you did or didn’t do in the past is simply not a factor when we’re talking about God’s current opinion of you.
Since pleasing God right now is a simple matter of sincerely wanting Him to be pleased with you right now, succeeding with God becomes a very accessible thing. And once you are giving God what He wants—which is an invitation to have His total way in your life—then God is not going to be harping on you about the past. God has no interest in creating unresolvable problems between you and Him, and bad guilt is an unresolvable problem. Bad guilt offers no hope of a solution, which is why God never uses it. When God points out a problem to you, He always points out a solution as well—and that solution is one that tells you how to stay in alignment with God.
DIFFERENT KINDS OF PROBLEMS
Now when humans think of problems, they think of earthly circumstances. And when they think of solving those problems, they think of external actions that will bring about changes to those circumstances. But when God talks about problems, He’s talking about spiritual issues, and His solutions to those problems always come down to spiritual choices. Understanding this major difference in focus helps you understand why God views your past failings so much differently than you do. When you think of what you did wrong, you’re thinking of actions. But before God will even concede that you did anything wrong, He has to see a spiritual problem.
After two muggers in an alley pull a gun on John and force him to stay on the ground while they assault his wife, John concludes that he failed to protect his wife. Perhaps his wife concludes the same thing, and now everyone is blaming John. But why are people blaming John? Because he did wrong actions. Well, God doesn’t focus on actions, He focuses on spiritual issues. So when God sees John go down in the alley, He is watching John’s soul attitude. There’s only one way that John will get into trouble with God in this scenario, and that’s if he intentionally refuses to do something that God is telling him to do. But perhaps God didn’t tell John to do anything and all John did was melt into a puddle of fear. Or perhaps God intentionally sabotaged John’s efforts to do something by blocking him from being able to locate any courage or making him unable to form a coherent thought. Whatever the case, unless John took an internal attitude of “Shove it, God, I’m not listening to You right now,” then God is going to say that John did not do anything wrong. John and his wife will condemn John for failing to protect, but God will say that John is not to blame because John did not willfully defy God.
So what about you? What was your spiritual attitude in the midst of your crisis? Because the only way you’re going to get God on your case about what happened is if you received clear conviction before or during the crisis that you should take a different course of action and you intentionally refused to do it because you did not respect God’s Authority. Receiving a bunch of conviction after the fact doesn’t count for anything. God doesn’t blame you for not being able to see into the future. Failing to act because you were paralyzed with fear or hopelessly outmanned doesn’t count for anything in God’s court of law, either, because these reasons have nothing to do with you defying God’s Authority. To get in trouble with God you have to be willfully defying God, and you can’t defy God until He gives you some kind of directive. The reality is that God often does not give any directives in the midst of crises, because He wants those crises to happen.
Why do women get assaulted in this world? Why do kids die? Why do bad guys get away while good guys get shot? Are these signs that God keeps falling asleep on the job? Are these signs that demons keep overpowering the same Gods who are sustaining their very existence? Not hardly. Bad things happen in this world because God wants them to happen. And because God is good in Character, He always has good reasons for the bad things that He does.
You’re bored stiff on your babysitting job so you turn on some tunes. Your kid is taking a nap—what can happen? Does God expect you to anticipate every possible circumstance ahead of time? No, the brain He gave you can’t handle those kinds of calculations. How hard would it be for God to speak up and say, “Don’t listen to music right now?” Not hard. And when the kid starts choking, how hard would it be for God to strike you with the feeling that something is wrong and propel you down that hallway to intervene? This is God we’re talking about, not some limited creature. No one chokes by accident in God’s world. Your kid started choking because God wanted him to. You kept rocking out because God intentionally kept you oblivious until it was too late. He sends you down the hallway after all is lost because He didn’t want you to try and save anyone. It was your kid’s time to die, and he died. When you then turn around and blame yourself for this event, it’s like your blaming yourself for a choice that God made. As the Creator of all things, God gets to take lives whenever He wants to. He doesn’t have to run it past you. He doesn’t have to give you the option of trying to interfere with His plans, and He doesn’t owe you advanced notice for what He’s about to do.
You kick down the door of what is supposed to be an abandoned building and you and your team get blasted with gunfire. Do you really think an all-knowing God didn’t see you walking into that set up? Was God bound and gagged in a closet somewhere at the critical moment so that He couldn’t give you a warning? Of course not. God could have stopped you a billion different ways, but He didn’t want to. He wanted you to go through that door, He wanted you to be outgunned, and He wanted your guys to go down just as they did. When you blame yourself for this, you’re assuming authority that God never gave you. You weren’t in control of that situation—He was, and He didn’t invite you to be His co-commander.
God is running every detail of this universe in a very strategic and purposeful way. Every decision has multiple agendas behind it, and creating tragedies in human lives is often one of the most efficient ways to accomplish those agendas. God is aggressively calling us to wake up and get serious about submitting to His Authority before it is too late. He uses tragedies to throw up walls between us and things that would endlessly distract us. He rips loved ones out of our lives to force us to turn down roads that we would otherwise choose to avoid. Forming a strong bond with the Creator of both good and evil requires a lot of painful lessons. You can’t get close to God while you’re living and dying for the approval of mere mortals, and getting humans to turn against you for events that were beyond your control is a very effective way of forcing you to reevaluate how much weight you’re assigning to the various judges in your life.
THE SUPREME JUDGES
As the Creators and Sustainers of all things, Yahweh, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit hold a position of Supreme Authority over everything in existence. This is why Their opinion so completely trumps the opinions of all of these angry humans in your life. And it is out of respect for Their Authority that you need to ask Them to help you embrace Their assessment of you as the only one that matters. They do not condemn humans for crimes that those humans did not commit. While Christians commonly teach that people go to Hell merely for being sinful in nature, this is total rubbish. People only end up in Hell for willfully defying their Makers, and no one can defy the real Gods until those Gods start making demands. Spiritual rebellion is always an informed choice—it isn’t some whoops that we stumble into.
When God blames you for something, it’s going to be because you’re defying Him on a core level. Should such a situation arise, God will also give you the option to repent and choose to drop your snarky attitude. When you do, God will say that all is well between you and Him and He will tell you to leave the past in the past.
The bad guilt you are currently being oppressed by is not coming from God. It is coming from judges who are elevating themselves as being higher authorities than God. If God says you are in good standing with Him, but your wife says you deserve to be forever punished for ruining her life, guess who wins that contest? God always trumps humans, and at some point He will start convicting your wife that she needs to align with His judgment of you and stop holding her assessment up as the superior one. Maybe she’ll listen to God, maybe she’ll choose to rebel against Him. Either way, she’ll have to deal with the consequences of her own choices. In the meantime, you need to stop aligning yourself with judges who are opposing God’s assessment of you.
God says that succeeding with Him is a simple matter of soul attitude. Pleasing God doesn’t have anything to do with making perfect field calls, anticipating danger, or pacifying angry people. If you want to be approved of by God, He puts His approval well within your grasp. And once you have His approval, what does it really matter what mere created beings think?
You assume that you were supposed to protect someone. Well, given that your person got nailed, clearly God feels differently. When God wants someone to be shielded from harm, He makes sure that they are. He doesn’t rely on some wimp of a human to be His muscle. It’s time to stop blaming yourself for something that God wanted to be. Do you really think that God cares so little about other people that He will trash them just because of some wrong call that you made? This is not at all how it works. Every life is precious to God, and He is taking care of each one of us in a highly personal, very purposeful way. Understanding God’s sovereignty is a critical aspect of getting a more accurate perspective of how this world works and how little control you have over what happens in it.
You did not fail to protect someone. You were set up by God to undergo a traumatic experience which would result in you being challenged to take a hard look at whose approval you’re living for in life. Experiences like this drive us to gain deeper understandings of Divine judgment, the limits of human choice, and God’s involvement in our lives—all of which are critical subjects for the maturing Christian to understand. There are two ways you can go from here. You can keep wallowing in “if onlys” and let your panel of hateful judges suck all the joy out of your life, or you can turn to your Creators and ask Them to help you learn everything that They want to teach you through this experience. There is only one wise course of action.
Help For Murderers: Finding Peace With A God Who Loves You
Understanding Divine Judgment: Illumination, Empowerment & A God Who Delights In Mercy
What To Do When People Won’t Forgive You
Overcoming Survivor Guilt
God’s Will vs. Human Choice Q&A
Identifying False Conviction: Three Easy Tests