Grappling with guilt

The gift of God's GPS

PHOTO: Cookie Studio/ Shutterstock

by John J. Boucher

I confess, I am directionally challenged! When driving to meetings or workshops, I tend to get lost. So, one Christmas, a friend gave me a GPS. This device does not hesitate to tell me that I missed a street and must make a U-turn. In a sense, guilt is God’s GPS within us. It is one of several feelings that indicate we are lost and probably need to make a U-turn of some kind. But understanding what is wrong is another matter



Our Catholic faith points out two kinds of guilt — healthy and unhealthy (true and false guilt, or real and ego guilt). Healthy guilt is an invitation to stop, to review our lives, and to change. In Gospel terms it is an invitation to repent and be converted through the mercy of the Holy Spirit.

We see this kind of guilt in St. Peter when he and his fishermen friends have caught nothing after fishing all night. After Jesus tells them to fish again in “deep water,” St. Peter defiantly objects. But when they finally go deep, their nets are filled to the break-ing point. “When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at the knees of Jesus and said, ‘Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man’” (Luke 5:8).

For Peter, guilt was a gift.

Guilt is not a curse; it is a blessing. Guilt means that a person knows the difference between right and wrong, and feels badly after doing something wrong. … Good Christians are highly offended by their own sins, and work vigorously to eliminate all wrongful actions in their lives. (Fr. Michael Van Sloun, “Examine your conscience for sacrament of reconciliation,” The Catholic Spirit, April 30, 2009)


Unhealthy guilt reveals “wounds” that need healing. This happened in my relationship with my mother. She almost died when I was born because of deep vein thrombosis and blood clots that traveled from her legs to her lungs. She was in and out of the hospital much of my childhood due to this condition. I felt guilty about her sickness. Was my very existence and bad behavior causing her illness and hospitalizations? I wondered.

Unhealthy guilt is unreasonable, beyond our control, and usually self-centered. Once immersed in unhealthy guilt, it is easy to fall into an endless cycle: We feel guilty. We commit a sinful act out of our distress. We wallow in self-hatred. We feel guilty.

Unhealthy guilt can drive a wedge between ourselves and others. We come to “hate others as we hate our-selves” — the very opposite of what Jesus teaches us.


Healthy guilt occurs as a result of one’s faith in God, however small it is. It is an invitation to make course corrections along life’s journey, much like the experience of using a GPS to travel. We are called to measure ourselves accord-ing to a personal, dynamic relationship with Jesus Christ lived through the loving presence of the Holy Spirit. “Faith is first and foremost a personal, intimate encounter with Jesus, it is having an experience of his closeness, his friend-ship and his love” (Pope Benedict XVI,General Audience, Oct. 21, 2009).

Breaking or neglecting this relation-ship with God usually causes healthy guilt: “I am very near to falling; my wounds are with me always. I acknowledge my guilt and grieve over my sin” (Psalm 38:18-19).

Healthy guilt brings awareness of betraying who we are in God’s sight— beloved children of God the Father (as taught in the Beatitudes, the Ten Commandments, the teaching of the Church, and the lives of the saints). Healthy guilt leads to embracing the unfolding nature of the Holy Spirit who is poured out through Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist within us. It is a chance to see ourselves realistically. The Holy Spirit nudges us toward spiritual lessons and points out our need for the healing forgiveness of the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. Healthy guilt highlights at least one of three things:

  • We have abandoned God’s call to love ourselves and others as Jesus loves us.
  • Our immediate priorities do not reflect a life lived around Christ and his teaching.
  • Our actions and thoughts violate God’s covenant and/or society’s just laws.


When we find ourselves in such circumstances, the first step is to ask the HolySpirit for the strength to stop and make a U-turn. We might pray, “Come HolySpirit. I choose this sanctified struggle.I surrender to your light.” St. Paul describes this decision this way:

It is not that I have already taken hold of [God’s grace] or have already attained perfect maturity, but I continue my pursuit in hope that I may possess it, since I have indeed been taken possession of by Christ [Jesus]. ( Philippians 3:12)

This process means taking lifelong responsibility to form (and reform) our consciences. It means prayerful study of Scripture, Catholic tradition, and the teaching of the Church so that Jesus might take more complete possession of our lives.

In the formation of conscience, theWord of God is the light for our path; we must assimilate it in faith and prayer and put it into practice. We must also ex-amine our conscience before the Lord’s cross (see CCC, 1785).


When I approached a confessor with guilt about my mother’s ongoing illness, he encouraged me to both repent of bad behavior at home (such as ignoring her when she spoke) and to realize that I was not responsible for my mother’s medical situation. He taught me five concrete ways to deal with unhealthy guilt:

1. Focus on present and future actions, not on my past failures.

2. Find Christ-centered support through:

    • Regular reception of the Sacrament ofPenance and Reconciliation
    • Meeting with a Catholic counselor
    • Speaking with a spiritual director
    • Becoming part of a small faith-sharing group or Bible study

3. Accept God’s unconditional love, especially through praying daily with Scripture.

4. Pray for “healing of memories,” which means revisiting a painful moment in my imagination, inviting Jesus to be there, and watching what Jesus says or does.

5. Face the dangers of both never feeling guilty and of the opposite, which is scrupulosity, or free-floating guilt about almost everything. St. Alphonsus Liguori and many other saints struggled with scrupulosity.Today, the religious order founded by St. Alphonsus offers help for those who struggle with this. Find out more at



Here is another approach for dealing with healthy guilt: repent, renounce, reconcile, repair, and make restitution. It’s outlined here:

Repent of wrong doing. Accept personal responsibility with honesty and humility. “Then I declared my sin to you; my guilt I did not hide. I said, ‘I confess my transgression to the LORD,’ and you took away the guilt of my sin” (Psalm32:5). This flies in the face of what many celebrities, politicians, and big business moguls refuse to admit: There are evil consequences to bad behavior.

Renounce the wrong that was done. State clearly the wrong action, attitude, or omission involved and express “godly sorrow” for it (see 2 Corinthians 7:9-11). For example: “I am sorry that I screamed at you. I know that I hurt you, and I don’t want to do that again.”

Reconcile. Let Jesus heal you through the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. Like many people, I’d rather have a root canal than go to confession. WhenI sin, I often develop amnesia about the merciful love of Jesus Christ. I run away from his mercy like someone fleeing an active volcano. I am still a work in progress, and most likely always will be.

Repair the wrong done. Admit a specific wrong and ask for forgiveness (when possible). Here is a good reminder: “Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).

Make restitution. Find a concrete action for repairing the specific wrong. Take responsibility for the wrong doing, although it may not be accepted or understood by the person who has been wronged (see the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19:8-19). You are not “earning” forgiveness, just trying to make amends. If that person is not avail-able, help someone else in need.

Grappling with guilt is important.Whether it is healthy or unhealthy guilt, we need the merciful wisdom of the HolySpirit to deal with it effectively. Healthy guilt is a call from Jesus Christ to turnaround, repent, and be reconciled with him and others. Unhealthy guilt is an invitation to turn and embrace deeper healing in our lives through the sameSpirit. As St. Thérèse of Lisieux reminds us, “How happy I am to see myself imperfect and be in need of God’s mercy.”

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