As a minister, I have dealt with people struggling with guilt from three sources. Some have fought in war and felt guilt over killing people, even if it was justified. Women who have had abortions feel guilty. And third, parents whose children have become unfaithful sometimes feel guilty.
Guilt is a feeling that results from doing wrong or from you thinking you have done wrong. In an objective sense, guilt is justified when we have sinned against God. But guilt also has a subjective sense in that it is the feeling we experience when we have violated our own standard of ethics. That suggests that sometimes our feelings of guilt are not justified.
Listen to Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 7:8-13: “For though I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it; though I did regret it—for I see that that letter caused you sorrow, though only for a while— I now rejoice, not that you were made sorrowful, but that you were made sorrowful to the point of repentance; for you were made sorrowful according to the will of God, so that you might not suffer loss in anything through us. For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation, but the sorrow of the world produces death. For behold what earnestness this very thing, this godly sorrow, has produced in you: what vindication of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what avenging of wrong! In everything you demonstrated yourselves to be innocent in the matter. So although I wrote to you, it was not for the sake of the offender nor for the sake of the one offended, but that your earnestness on our behalf might be made known to you in the sight of God. For this reason we have been comforted. And besides our comfort, we rejoiced even much more for the joy of Titus, because his spirit has been refreshed by you all.”
Sin causes feelings of guilt. Sometimes we have been taught things are wrong that, in reality, are not wrong so that we have feelings of guilt that are not justified. Frequently, we will punish ourselves, making ourselves feel guilty, when that is not reasonable. Too, we are made to feel guilty by others, whether that is justified or not.
So, how do you handle feelings of guilt? First, you have to examine your feelings and understand whether those feelings are reasonable and justified or not. Are your feelings not justified? Then talk to yourself and reassure yourself that your feelings are not reasonable. How important it is for us to learn when to trust our feelings and when not to. They are so temporary.
You may also have to change your expectations of yourself. For those who feel guilty for not being perfect (like parents whose children might leave the faith or for those whose marriage ends in divorce), you may have to remind yourself that you are only human.
If your feelings of guilt are justified, then you might need to make restitution, as Zacchaeus desired to do (Luke 19:1-9). You might need to be forgiven through Christ by obeying the gospel (Acts 2:38) or by confessing your sin to Christ and receiving His forgiveness (1 John 1:7-9).
To deal with deep and recurring feelings of guilt, you have to have discipline, persistence, and faith.