How To Overcome Feeling Guilty By Born To Win
Posted by Job on May 20, 2008
Patti Davis once said: “I felt so guilty about being white and privileged. I felt very guilty about it.” Her feelings were not uncommon for a young woman of her generation. Patti is the daughter of Ronald Reagan and Nancy Davis, and she was a teenager in the ‘60s. I was faced with the same information she had, but I had a totally different reaction. I felt grateful. Why should I feel guilty about something I can’t help?
But this made me think long and hard about why people feel guilty and how guilt affects our view of the world and people around us. Patti Davis’ reaction was that she wanted to turn herself and her whole family black. (She was just a kid when she said this).
Feeling guilty about being well off is easier to remedy. Jesus told a rich man who came to him to sell everything he had, give it to the poor and come follow him. Unburdening oneself of wealth is simple. Unburdening of being white is not so easy. But why should a person feel guilty about being white, black, Asian, tall, short, male, or female? For that matter, why feel guilty about being well off—unless you stole it?
I present, for your consideration, two sets of feelings: (1) Guilt. (2) Gratitude. Which of these emotions is the most influential in your life? I may be wrong, but I suspect the answer has a lot to do with your happiness.
Consider a story from the life of the Apostle Paul as an example. Paul and Silas had come to Philippi and had made some disciples there among the Jewish women who met for prayer. One day, as they were on their way to a prayer meeting, they encountered a girl whom Luke described as “possessed with a spirit of divination.” She was, in our terms, a fortuneteller, and she made a lot of money for her masters.
She began to follow Paul and Silas everywhere they went, crying out, “These men are the servants of the most high God, which show unto us the way of salvation” (Acts 16:17). Paul finally had enough. He turned around and addressed the spirit: “I command thee in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” The spirit immediately left, and the girl’s fortunetelling came to an end. When her masters realized what had happened, they grabbed Paul and Silas and dragged them before the authorities in the agora. The crowd rose up against them, and the governors had them stripped, flogged, and thrown into prison. Being given a severe charge, the jailor put them in the most secure part of the prison and locked their feet in the stocks (vv. 22-24).
It is hard to imagine a more miserable situation, their backs bleeding from a flogging and their feet in stocks, the men could find no way to be comfortable. Wounded and in pain, miserable in the dark, how should they feel about what happened to them? Was there any reason to feel guilty? After all, a real miracle had followed on Paul’s words, and they were where they were because they were carrying on a ministry for God. They had done nothing wrong, but that doesn’t keep a person from feeling guilty, does it? So how did they feel?
In the dark of night, Paul and Silas prayed and began to sing praises to God. Every prisoner in the place heard them. “And suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken: and immediately all the doors were opened, and every one’s bands were loosed” (v. 26). The earthquake woke the jailor and, when he saw the prison doors wide open, he drew out his sword to kill himself. He knew what would happen to him the next day if he lost all those prisoners, whether it was his fault or not.
“Do yourself no harm,” came Paul’s voice from the darkness. “We are all here.” The end result was the conversion and baptism of the jailor and his entire household.
yet singing praises
This incident is worthy of our attention. They had been whipped and had to be in a lot of pain. Bleeding, bruised, they were miserable, with their feet in stocks. What was their response? They sang praises to God in the middle of the night. I have an idea that there is something very encouraging and emboldening about being punished for having served God faithfully. They were grateful they had been accounted worthy to serve God in the first place. Not only worthy to serve, worthy to suffer.
This wasn’t the first time this had happened to the leaders of the early church. Earlier, Peter and the Apostles were arrested, beaten, and threatened. They went out, “rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for his name” (Acts 5:41).
A long time ago, when I was a very young minister, a series of remarkable things happened to me. I found myself deeply troubled by what I called at the time “wrong thoughts.” It was a very disturbing thing. I would be trying to pray and thoughts would enter my mind that had no business being there. Mind you, I had spent four years in the Navy and I had all the vocabulary that went with that. But it wasn’t just that. It was more. I fought that battle and won, but that didn’t end the story.
About two weeks after the end of the battle, I was out on a ministerial visit and a woman told me that she had been fighting a terrible battle with—you might have guessed it—what she called “wrong thoughts.” I was able to encourage her in several ways. One, she was not the only person who had to fight that battle. Two, I was able to tell her how to deal with it. Three, I was able to tell her that the battle could be won.
I went through this cycle with other problems about three or four times before I finally woke up and realized what was going on. How could I possibly understand people who were suffering when I had not suffered myself? How could I tell people how to overcome some-thing when I had not overcome it myself?
Then one day, I found myself in trouble again, and I had an epi-phany. I realized that this trouble I was in was necessary for something that lay in the future, and that it was important that I overcome it. I had to win for the sake of people I would yet come to know. Sure enough, it wasn’t all that far down the road that the same thing happened again. So, imperfectly, I have learned to be grateful for every scar on my body.
Years ago, while I was in the Navy, I had major surgery and I have a huge scar across my left rib cage. I am grateful for that scar because I know what it is like to lie in a hospital bed in total misery and pain, with tubes coming out of my body, yearning for my next pain pill. I have come to realize that if I am going to be a minister, I have to be trained, and only a part of the training is in the Bible; a lot of the training is in life.
I learned some of this from Paul. In his second letter to the Corinthians, he recounted his own experience and the lesson he learned from it. It seems that many years before, Paul had been caught up in a vision. In his vision, he had entered paradise and had heard words he had been forbidden to utter (much like John, in part of his vision in Revelation). We should have no problem in understanding how such an experience might affect a man. The temptation to self exaltation would have been significant. To forestall that, Paul was given what he called, “A thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7). He never explains what it was, but calls it “a messenger of Satan to buffet me.”
Paul naturally prayed a great deal about this, and asked to be rid of it. He doesn’t explain how God sent the answer, but tells us in clear terms what the answer was: “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.”
It took a while for this to all come together for me, but it did. Complaining about our problems may seem to give some temporary relief, but accepting them as the cross we have to bear gives lasting relief. Paul’s conclusion: “Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.”
I won’t bore you with more examples. Suffice it to say, I learned painfully that what Paul said is true. When I am weak, then I am strong. And I think all this comes back to the difference between guilt and gratitude. There is a segment of our society who are white and privileged and they feel guilty about it. This is one thing for a 12 year old girl, and another thing altogether for a mature adult. This segment of our society is extremely influential. The reason this is a problem is, these people don’t know God and therefore can’t be grateful for who they are and what they have.
They blame themselves for the intractable social problems they see because they are unable to blame sin. None of this would be a very big deal if they didn’t project their own guilt feelings onto the rest of us. They see us as a guilty society, and then set out to solve man’s problems without any help from God. And they want to drag the rest of us along with them.
Guilt ridden and
This is the secular, privileged class in America, what some people mistakenly call liberal. They aren’t really liberal. They are merely guilt ridden. They are guilt ridden because they are unable to feel grateful.
Don’t let yourself be caught up in that way of thinking. Consider what James learned about facing trials: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2-4 NIV).
What a novel idea. Don’t feel guilty. Be grateful that God is shaping you into a tool he can use. James goes on to explain that we should ask God for the things we lack—wisdom, insight, understanding—and then he warns that we should not waver in our requests. He that wavers, James says, is like a wave of the sea, driven with the wind. The man who wavers probably thinks he doesn’t deserve what he is asking for. He is not grateful for the experience he is getting. He feels guilty.
“Let the brother of low degree,” James continued, “rejoice that he is exalted: But the rich, in that he is made low: because as the flower of the grass he shall pass away” (vv. 9-10). Why should anyone feel guilty about being privileged? It is just a flower of the grass and will soon be gone anyway. It is nothing to be proud of or guilty for.
Learn to be grateful
James concludes his observations by telling us we should be grateful. We shouldn’t just sit around feeling guilty, we should go to work.
The going won’t be easy. Jesus said, “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you” (Matthew 5:10-12).
It is one thing to be grateful for a trial when it is over, and when you can see with your own eyes the blessings wrought by it. It is another thing altogether to be grateful for it while it is going on. Jesus said elsewhere: “Blessed are ye, when men shall hate you, and when they shall separate you from their company, and shall reproach you, and cast out your name as evil, for the Son of man’s sake. Rejoice ye in that day, and leap for joy: for, behold, your reward is great in heaven: for in the like manner did their fathers unto the prophets” (Luke 6:22-23).
Winners will be
This is not just for then. This is for now. Again and again in the early chapters of Revelation, Jesus said that it was the overcomers, the winners, who would be rewarded—and the rewards are mind boggling. But without obstacles, there is nothing to overcome.
All those who receive these great rewards are winners. They are not necessarily privileged. They are people who were tried in the fire and won. You want to know what it means to overcome? Then you need to read the stories of the people who did. Read the stories of Gideon and Barak, of Samson and Jephtha. Don’t forget to read the stories of Samuel, David, and the prophets (Hebrews 11:32).
Tried in the fire—
These people were not necessarily privileged. They were people who were tried in the fire and won. You want to know what it means to overcome? Read the stories of men and women:
Who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, Quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens. Women received their dead raised to life again: and others were tortured, not accepting deliverance; that they might obtain a better resurrection: And others had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment: They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented; (Of whom the world was not worthy:) they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise: God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect (vv. 33-40).
These people were not losers. They were not whiners. They were winners all. And they were not guilty. They were grateful.