A Ministry of Care by Dr. Daniel G. Bagby

Pastoral Care Guidance for Deacons, Stephen Ministers, and the Congregation of River Road Church, Baptist

Caring for the Guilt-Ridden

Realization that one has done wrong by violating an ethical, moral, or religious principle held by the community to which we are linked. Usually associated with an act or behavior, but not always with feelings (we can “be” guilty without “feeling” guilty).

Theologically interpreted as a sign that one is alienated either from God, others, or self (or all three). Developmentally appears after shame, around the third to sixth year of life, and in response to an awareness (“consciousness”) of right and wrong.

Forms of Guilt:

  1. Arrested guilt: an intense preoccupation with behaviors or thoughts that prevent progress, resolution and healing in guilt.
  2. Existential guilt: Awareness of a moral order, and our own fallibility.
  3. Responsible Guilt: The capacity to realize error/fault, accept responsibility for it, and express remorse for its occurrence.
  4. Unresolved Guilt: An inability to manage guilt in a responsible way as a member of a community:
    • Dysfunctional/Pathological Guilt: Internalizing guilt so that one is debilitated (neurotic or psychotic): “unforgivable”
    • Absence of Guilt: antisocial or dys-social (psychopathic).

Can guilt provide healing?

  1. The church over the centuries has provided some avenues for the resolution of guilt: Contrition, Confession, Restoration, Declaration of forgiveness, etc.
    • We often struggle with whether we feel “sorry enough.”
    • We frequently want someone to whom we may confess.
    • We are often seeking ways to “atone” or pay back the wrong.
    • Sometimes we fail to receive the confirmation that we have been forgiven.
  2. We need a community of caring people who remind us regularly that we are accepted and loved regardless of our frailty—that all of us are fallible.

Considerations regarding doubt/faith issues:

  1. Believers who doubt are often struggling with doubt as an enemy of faith. Help them understand doubt as “foyer to faith.”
  2. Believers who grow in their spiritual journey are often shedding “second hand beliefs” while searching for “first hand beliefs”—help them find patience “in between.”
  3. Persons who struggle with doubt often believe they have quit believing in God—when they have actually quit believing in themselves (Elijah).
  4. People who struggle with doubt often believe that they no longer believe—and may need to be reminded that the absence of belief is a form of belief….
  5. Doubters wrestling with faith are often dealing with an unidentified barrier behind the presenting issue.
  6. Sincere doubters may need to be reassured that God and Christ have shown patience and grace to struggling humans throughout history.
  7. Discouraged people often describe themselves as without faith, identifying mood changes and disillusionment with absence of faith.
  8. Some doubt issues relate to genuine struggles with inconsistent or literal interpretations of God’s action in the world.

A few suggested responses:

When someone wonders if they can be forgiven: Try reading Romans 8: 1, 35-39. “The Scripture reminds us that NOTHING can separate us from the love of Christ—if we ask for forgiveness.” All of us have sinned at some point and fall short of who we could and should be—but the power and beauty of God’s promise is that we can be forgiven—and are forgiven. John 3:17 also reminds that “God sent his son into the world NOT to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

When someone wonders about a person who took their own life—and their relationship with God, I usually say—We have no idea what private communication anyone has with God in troubled times; and I also know that God understands the heart and the pain of anyone whose struggle is so intense that they want relief from its power. Only God knows what transpires between a troubled believer and God—and I trust God’s nature of grace and mercy to preside over and embrace any of His wounded children. Isaiah 53— He is acquainted with grief and suffering…and by his stripes we are healed….

When someone wonders if they can forgive themselves, I ask them to consider whether they have a deeper insight than God—as to how much God will forgive—and who has already forgiven them…

When someone has said that they don’t believe in God, I usually ask them what kind of God they don’t believe in—and after they’ve described that “God”—I usually tell them that I don’t believe in “that” God either. Then wait let them ask me more….