Updated: Apr 7, 2021
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Romans 12:2 (ESV)
A woman walked into to my friend Sarah’s counseling office, took off her shoes, and sat on the couch. This was unusual that a client would make herself that comfortable on the first visit. She proceeded to tell Sarah about an event that happened when she was in her twenties. She was planning a birthday party for her mother, which happened to be the same day that her father was scheduled to run a leg of the city’s marathon with a team of co-workers. At his daughter’s request, the father switched his section of the relay to earlier in the day so that he could make the party scheduled for later that afternoon.
Her father had just completed a half-mile hill, and as he approached his daughter, who was waiting for him at the relay point, he dropped dead from a heart attack. This woman conveyed to Sarah that she believed her father would still be alive if she hadn’t asked him to change the leg of his relay. Now, over thirty years later, this woman was still holding on to guilt over her father’s death.
Unwarranted guilt can be a very destructive force in our lives because it steals our joy and diverts our attention from what is most important. If not properly understood and processed, guilt can render us helpless.
God designed our emotions—including guilt—to serve a specific purpose in the human experience. The pain that we experience when we “feel guilty” is a warning signal that something is off balance. In the same way that physical pain is an indication of a problem in our body, guilt can be an indication of a threat to our physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being.
Guilt occurs when our actions don’t align with our belief system. This can work in both directions: we can believe that our actions are justified when they are not, or we can believe that because of our insatiable desire to be perfect, our actions are inexcusable when they are considered acceptable.
God gave us a built-in sensor to alert us to trouble…also known as our conscience. Even when we should know better, if we intentionally ignore our conscience repeatedly, we will no longer feel guilty when we violate our moral values. This happens often in extramarital affairs. Even though the cheating party initially feels guilty, he or she eventually rejects or denies the feelings of guilt so often that his or her conscience “breaks,” similar to how our car breaks down if we repeatedly ignore the “check engine” warning signal.
There are other times, however, when our behavior is within acceptable limits, but our belief system is out of whack. We have this nagging sense that there was more that we could have done, should have done, could have anticipated, must have known, and on and on. There can be a lot of different causes for this but the most common one is our deep-seated need to be perfect, all of the time.
This very common but very faulty belief that we should act, think, talk, walk, eat, sleep, work, play, perform, parent, etc. perfectly all the time is the primary culprit to many of our anxiety-related issues. The more we identify ourselves as high achievers, the more we struggle with this. We all know intellectually that perfection is impossible, and yet we think we need to hold ourselves to that standard anyway.
The solution? Change your behavior or change your beliefs.
Back to the story at the beginning of the chapter…
My friend Sarah was able to wisely assess the situation. After taking some time to listen to her client’s story, Sarah stopped her to ask what share of the responsibility in his death belonged to her father. Wow, the woman was stunned because she had never considered that. Sarah pointed out that he must have run past half a dozen emergency responders on his way to the hand-off point. He had to have been in very serious pain—possibly even for days—leading up to a heart event of that magnitude. It’s possible that her father made a conscious decision to run the marathon anyway. His daughter’s request to change his schedule didn’t cause the heart attack—a blockage in his artery did.
The guilt that this poor woman had experienced for the last three decades (!) was the result of a faulty belief system that concluded that her event planning was somehow 100 percent responsible for her father’s death.
Is your desire to be perfect robbing your peace? God doesn’t expect perfection from us; instead, he promised to "fix" our broken thinking when we focus on His Will and His Word and let go of the expectations placed on us by society. Let yourself off the hook… He already has.