Well hello, guilt. We meet again.
It’s been a while since I wrote that semi-whiny post about wishing to know where all the guilt I feel comes from. I haven’t forgotten about that post. In fact, in the months between then and now, I’ve been reading up on guilt. I started reading with certain questions going through my mind. Is the feeling I feel my conscience, the Holy Spirit trying to get me to do what’s right? Is it my culture, pressing in on me and trying to force me into a mold? Is it just a sinful thought pattern, trying to pull my eyes off Jesus and on to myself? Is it a misunderstanding of the bible, an incorrect interpretation of the words of God?
As I said before, the feeling of guilt dogs me. Most days I get that nagging sense that I am failing, somehow failing. Usually it creeps up on me, like a nasty bug (or the spider that I’m SURE is somewhere on my person after I walk through a spider-web) that I just can’t seem to find and swat off. It’s not clear, never district. Just….something is wrong. And I want it to go away.
I’m pretty sure that this is not the way that God wants me to live. When Paul declared, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death” (Rom 8:1-2) it seems pretty clear that “set you free” includes “no longer chained to law-like set of rules.” In fact, just a few verses later, Paul emphatically describes a believer’s mind as peaceful because it has been unfettered from the law (Rom 8:6)! Peaceful!!
My mind is NOT peaceful most days. Why?
I should take a moment to define my topic, because this alone might clear up at least some of the confusion. I am not talking about the feeling of shame. I define shame using a section of Ed Welch’s book Shame Interrupted: How God Lifts the Pain of Worthlessness and Rejection.
“Shame is the deep sense that you are unacceptable because of something you did, something done to you, or something associated with you. You feel exposed and humiliated. Or, to strengthen the language, You are disgraced because you acted less than human, you were treated as if you were less than human, or you were associated with something less than human, and there are witnesses.”
The feeling of “guilt” that I feel is not the same as the visceral, dark and unending sense of dirtiness that shame creates inside a person. Shame is an important issue, but it is not one that I have experienced nor will I try to deal with it here. So it’s not that. Nor am I talking about the clear sense of wrong-doing that comes after committing an obvious sin. So, for instance, when I say something deliberately hurtful to Paul in a moment of calculated anger and my heart suddenly feels stung, that’s not the guilt I’m writing about. That feeling is the loving, persistent call of the Holy Spirit to “lay aside the sin that so easily entangles” and run to God’s acceptance and forgiveness (Heb 12:1). A call toward repentance for the flagrant sin I’ve just comitted is also not what I’m talking about (Psalm 38:18, Rev 3:19).
What I want to write about is the unending pressure to be the perfect woman. I want to know how I can think about and live with the dissonance between me and that seemingly unattainable figure.
So, guilt. Elyse Fitzpatrick writes
“My heart aches because I’ve personally spoken to countless women who are burdened and exhausted and on the verge of either giving up on what has been passed off as Christianity or are nearly killing themselves trying to keep up with impossible demands.”
I track with her on this. This is a type of exhaustion that comes from trying to do everything the right way. It’s soul-wearying exhaustion. It’s there in the morning when we wake up and find that we’ve overslept and won’t get to “do devotions” because the kids are dying from hunger (such drama) and it follows us through our day up until the night time when we decide to watch a TV program instead of folding the pile of laundry that is hiding behind closed doors. It’s there when we scroll through Facebook and see, in the background of a friend’s picture of her children eating breakfast, her clean kitchen counters and the made-from-scratch pancake batter sitting beside the stove. Guilt. It’s there when we hear that a family at church needs meals and we don’t sign up to take one. Guilt. It’s there when we walk through the mall and see clothes that would have fit us in college but would induce tears if taken to the changing room now. Guilt. It’s there when we growl at our son for dumping yogurt on the floor or for throwing away a spoon or for forgetting to close to bathroom door which means that the baby is happily splashing her hands in the pee-water (because he also forgot to flush). Guilt, guilt, guilt. I’m failing. I’m a failure. I’m just not good enough.
From the reading I’ve done (and I needed to do a lot for this one—I’ll include a list of books for you at the end of this series), it seems like we face guilt due to both the opinions of others and the opinion of God. Often these overlap (i.e. the opinions of my pastor, author, or professor regarding the opinions of God), but sometimes they are remarkably distinct (i.e. the opinion of my doctor, the opinion of my mother, and/or the opinion of my husband). These categories were described by many of the authors that I read. For example, Micha Boyett writes,
“In my head, I believe God is kind and gentle, even to me. I’ve stood before a room full of teenagers and preached that. But still my soul’s psyche has its own rule: I should suffer. I should work harder. My life should add up to enough.”
“Peer pressure doesn’t mean that people are threatening to never talk to you again if you refuse to do something. That rarely happens. Peer pressure comes from within you. You want to be accepted and liked. It’s more about what you want than what other people actually say, do, or think. …You could use the phrase “fear of other people” to describe the experience. When you fear something, you are controlled by it. It’s as if the opinions of other people are a threat to you. You are always looking for ways to ward off their life-threatening rejection.”
Can you see yourself in these descriptions? I can. I can even remember specific instances of each. That one Sunday morning when Paul was at the base and I woke up at an early hour (after a night of fitful sleep because the baby wouldn’t settle) in order to pump breastmilk, shower, get out clothes for myself and three children, wake said children and console the child who hates mornings and would rather sit and cry, clothe and feed said children, pack a diaper bag, wrangle a screaming infant into a car seat and head to church only to realize that I forgotten the bottle, race back home and finally, tearfully pull into the church’s parking . . . because I should be at church! God said it. So I should work hard to make it happen. Right?
Or when I race around my house on a Friday afternoon trying to clean up before our bible study group arrives because I would be so embarrassed for them to see the chaos in which I normally live. My mind is reeling before the imagined censor of my friends if they should see the dirty bathroom or the filthy kitchen floor (thanks to my daughter who enjoys throwing food more than eating food). I couldn’t let that happen. So I push myself to the point of fatigue in order to make my house look “hospitable.” Because that’s what godly women (my friends) expect other godly women (me, I think…I hope) to do. Right?
So this post is my description of the problem. Maybe you can identify with these thoughts. I hope to take everything I’ve read and learned and answer this problem with my next two posts; “What Does God Think of Me? What Does He Want Me to Do?” and “What do People Think of Me? Should I Even Care?”