Guilt is dangerous. It is dangerous for the guilty, but it is even more dangerous for the forgiven.
Guilt is dangerous for the guilty because justice demands punishment. But when mercy and forbearance reign, and injustice is forgiven guilt is an unnecessary and dangerous burden. Where guilt is present there is no peace, there is no rest. Ultimately, there is no hope.
This evening a very small thing turned into a big thing because of my own feelings of guilt.
The example of Jesus calls me to be a servant to my wife1. I believe this, and take it very seriously, but like any person I am not perfect. I fail. I fail a lot, and I know it. Which is where the guilt comes in.
Lindsey loves to keep a clean house. She’s not obsessive about it, she’s not overbearing and she is nowhere close to a nag. She likes the house to be clean, and clearly shares what that entails. But, as documented elsewhere on this blog, I do not have the same natural desire. It’s not that I like or tolerate dirt, I just don’t have the same level of thoroughness and attention to detail My level of tolerance for disorganization and clutter is higher than hers. That’s not a bad thing, in and of itself. We’re simply wired different.
But here’s the problem, the disorganization that I do not mind causes Lindsey stress. The last thing she needs is added stress. The best thing I can do to serve my wife is to help her out, to clean up and keep the clutter down. I do this, sometimes. But not enough. She does not tell me that often, like I said my wife is certainly not a nag. But I still know that I fail her.
So tonight when I was emptying the overly full recycling bin I made a selfish comment to her about how full it was, and how hard it is to take out like that. “Don’t fill it too full,” I said in a not-too-nice tone of voice. “It’s too hard to take it out, and it’s not like I care about recycling anyway.”
I said it as I passed her in the kitchen, and I immediately knew how hurtful it was. But when she replied back I just dug my heels in and we argued for the next five minutes.
After Lindsey went upstairs (justifiably) upset, I started to think about my comment. I realized where it came from. It was rooted in the guilt I felt for letting her down, for not doing all of the things around the house that I wanted and committed to do. I knew I had failed, and I think that subconsciously I wanted to knock her down a peg.
How sick is that? Instead of dealing with the guilt that I legitimately felt, I tried to drag my wife down with me. I tried to accuse her of doing something wrong to assuage my guilt. Here when I should be confessing my own failings to her I turn it around on her instead.
In this and other ways I do not live up to my own expectations for being a husband, and I fear that I do not live up to Lindsey’s. ‘Don’t be too hard on yourself,’ you might offer, ‘after all you’ve been at this for less than a year.’ That’s true, but that does not change the standard, it only rationalizes the failure. The standard of Jesus, the perfect man, as my standard for leadership is a tall order. In fact, it is an impossible one for any of us to achieve.
In response to this, one might comment that the weight of that standard is crushing, that no man can live up to it. I agree with that point of view, it is a crushing weight to bear.
That is, it is crushing if we have to bear it.
But we do not have to bear it. If we trust God’s promises to us through Jesus, we will be forgiven. The burden will be lifted. If only trusting that was easy all the time. But it is not. Instead of trusting ourselves we must then rely only on God to help us see our sin, and to change our hearts. He is the only source of real change.
After a few minutes of collecting my thoughts, I walked up the stairs and sat down on the bed next to Lindsey. I told her exactly what was going on, almost exactly what I just told you. Then I confessed and apologized. She forgave me, as deep down I knew she would. We had a serious conversation then spent some time in prayer about some things going on these days. It was a sweet time together.
It was a small argument, but it made something clear to me. I cannot let the guilt I feel from my inevitable failings to rule my mind and emotions. To do so is a demonstration of a failing faith in Jesus’s promises. He died to remove my guilt, and he defeated death to bring me life. The only path for me is rest in that truth and trust in his forgiveness. And Lindsey’s.