In January 2015, the HuffPost ran an article by Carolyn Gregoire, “Feelings Of Guilt During Childhood Linked To Mental Illness.” To quote: “Excess guilt is a known symptom of adult depression, but a new study finds that such feelings in childhood can predict future mental illness, including depression, anxiety, obsessive- compulsive disorder and bipolar disorder. The link seems to center around the anterior insula – a brain region involved in the regulation of perception, emotion and self-awareness that has also been linked to mood disorders, anxiety disorders and schizophrenia According to the researchers, children who displayed signs of pathological guilt had anterior insula of less volume, which is associated with depression.”
Could there be a correlation between the amount of guilt in a person’s life and mental illness? This is not to say all mental illness is caused by guilt. But perhaps a large amount of mental illness could be eliminated by teaching people how to properly remove guilt from their life.
A case study – King Saul
An ancient king of the nation of Israel, King Saul, would serve as a classic example of just such a problem. He was given an assignment by God to totally wipe out the Amalekite nation and their king in 1 Samuel 15 and 16. He only partially obeyed the assignment. This was not the first time he manipulated things to exalt his will above God’s. God had enough of the games and sent the prophet Samuel to confront Saul. He was to tell Saul the kingdom had been stripped from him and given to another and why. Samuel delivered the message.
Saul’s response is an illustration of a common response to guilt when people don’t want to own their wrongs. He blamed others and tried spiritualizing his answer. None of it flew with God. God told him point blank, “To obey is better than sacrifice” – an iconic line. When all the manipulation failed, Saul even tried saying the right words, “I have sinned, for I have transgressed the commandment of the Lord.” This sounded like a correct response, but Saul’s later actions would prove his heart was not sincere.
In thinking we can manipulate God or others, we only hurt ourselves. Once Samuel departed from Saul to never see or speak to him again, the guilt set in. The Bible says it this way: “Now the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and a harmful spirit from the Lord tormented him.” Studying the words harmful and tormented reveal the idea of a person tormented by sadness, grief, anger, depression, fear and anxiety. This mental condition stayed with him throughout his life and only got worse. It made him paranoid and irrational in his thinking and decision making. The only thing that seemed to help him at all was music therapy played by David, the future king who would replace him. The failure of Saul to properly deal with the guilt in his life not only ended in the loss of his kingdom but also in the death of his son Jonathan and his own suicide.
A Cure For Guilt
We are not designed by God to live with guilt. It can be very destructive when it takes the form of shame, false guilt or just not properly dealt with as seen in Saul’s life. True guilt has a designed purpose to pinpoint attitudes or actions where we depart from God’s life principles. This is referred to as sin or transgressing God’s commands. These phrases, sin and transgressing, do not sound very politically correct. Using them in today’s age of relativism opens one to the charge of being intolerant, prejudiced or even bigoted. However, to not use them is to leave people trapped in their guilt in all its forms and consequences. This would be as criminal as a doctor who refused to diagnose anyone with a disease for fear of offending them. No diagnosis would result in no treatment. They would just be left to die. How caring is that? God loves us too much to do that to us.
God’s cure for guilt is relatively simply and comprehensive. He tells us in Colossians 2:13, “You who were dead in your trespasses… God made alive together with him (Christ), having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.”
God declares us guilt free because Christ has paid the debt we owe. Guilt is not the only cause of mental illness, but it is a big cause of much of it. Unlike King Saul, if we acknowledge our guilt, repent, believe in and accept Christ’s payment for our sin debt, we can experience the guilt-free life and mental health. Sometimes, the solution to a mood disorder is not spending a lot of money on counseling. Rather it could be as simple as receiving God’s free gift of forgiveness.
Dr. John Hawkins, Sr. runs Gateway Counseling Center in Boynton Beach along with his son John Jr. He can be reached by visiting gatewaycounseling.com.