By Brendan Slovacek
If God forgives me, why do I still feel this way? This question that I was asked through the tears of a young woman perfectly encapsulated one of our strongest negative emotions: Guilt is a punishment we give to ourselves, even after God has forgiven us.
Each person has been given a built-in meter of “Right or Wrong” known as our conscience. God didn’t give us free will without giving us a way to know what’s good! Our conscience is there to balance out our desires, inform our will, and help us follow the natural laws that are written on our hearts. But what about when we don’t choose what’s good?
Guilt is a pain inflicted by yourself, to yourself, and a lot of times to another person. I learned this the hard way after I met a woman who I fell into a deep romance with. However, it was a long distance situation and (to be blunt) I felt insecure in her ability to love me from afar. I didn’t see myself as worthy of her love. So even amidst all of my affection for her, I started to see someone else who was a “safe option” because there wasn’t a distance. When she told me “You hurt me,” it was like a knife had been stabbed into my heart, except I was the one holding the knife. It took almost a year before I was able to come to terms that I hurt someone I loved. Even though I reconciled with God, I still felt the weight of my guilt burying me every day. But I realized that if I truly wanted to be a better man, I couldn’t let guilt control me. I had to take control of my guilt and shame and let my future actions speak louder. I learned it was time to actually forgive myself.
I don’t believe bad people exist; just good people who make bad choices, and sometimes a lot of them. Sometimes our bad choices are momentary without thinking; sometimes they have been planned out and are intentional. Regardless of the circumstances, we still bear the pain of having fallen. Yet Jesus showed us there is redemption for each person, if we so choose it. But if you keep embracing your past mistakes, your hands will be too full to let Jesus take you into his arms. It doesn’t matter what your mistakes are. Maybe you slept with someone. Maybe you cheated. Maybe you said something hurtful to a close friend. Maybe you got too drunk. Maybe it was an accident. No matter what you did, it’s time to forgive yourself.
There’s no perfect solution to overcoming your guilt, but in my struggle to become a better man in the face of my past mistakes, these things have helped immensely:
1. Admit your guilt to yourself and to God.
The first step is admitting you have a problem. It can be hard to recognize this, especially if you feel you got something out of whatever bad choice you made. But eventually, you have to see the reason why what you did was wrong and admit it to yourself to God in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
2. Remember your bad choices don’t define you.
Your guilt is actually proof that there’s good inside of you! You wouldn’t be able to feel guilt if you were evil. Since God made us with a conscience, that means we need to know what good is in our own hearts in order to make choices! This goodness comes from being children of God, created in His own Image and Likeness. At times, we fail to be like God, but He still made us with the capacity to be like him. Thus, who you are is about God’s choices, not your own, and He chose to make you with goodness!
3. Even if someone can’t see past your bad choices, God can (and so can you).
Sometimes, the other person won’t forgive you – and that’s okay. You may have been the cause of their pain, but it doesn’t mean you will always be able to heal them. Sometimes, they need to heal on their own. However, don’t think for a moment that just because you couldn’t fix what you broke, God can’t fix you. God wants to forgive you, and you need to forgive yourself too. Likewise, if you feel ready to forgive someone for hurting you, don’t make them wait. Sometimes, the closure of your forgiveness can help them heal from their guilt too.
4. Reconciliation doesn’t always look the same for everyone.
It’s okay to heal in different ways. Don’t let others try to dictate to you what needs to happen for you to reconcile with God, others, or yourself. However, no matter how your journey goes, always remember to ask yourself, “Is this really helping me to grow as a child of God?” If the answer is no, it’s not a healthy method of trying to heal.
5. Remember all the good qualities about you, and make a list toward the good qualities you want to grow in.
If you want to truly move past your guilt, then it’s important to remember all the things you should be proud of. Then, in the areas where you have shortcomings, set goals of what you want to work on and make action steps to make it happen!
Finally, know that I’m praying for you. Whatever brought you to this article, burdens of the past can be heavy, but with God, you can lift them off and rise higher than ever. Jesus, Victor over Sin and Death, pray for us!