Arming Yourself Against Depression: Repentance

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False guilt is a common cause of depression: but then, so is legitimate guilt. As David put it in Psalm 32:3-5: “When I refused to confess my sin, my body wasted away, and I groaned all day long. Day and night your hand of discipline was heavy on me. My strength evaporated like water in the summer heat. Finally, I confessed all my sins to you and stopped trying to hide my guilt. I said to myself, ‘I will confess my rebellion to the Lord.’ And you forgave me! All my guilt is gone.”

Whether we’ve sinned on the level of committing a crime, or on the level of indulging hot and hurtful thoughts, ignoring “repent and confess” proddings from our consciences and the Holy Spirit is the spiritual equivalent of dragging around a ball and chain. We go about business as usual, pretending the weight doesn’t exist and the chain isn’t tripping us up, blaming our chronic stressed-and-tired feelings on everything but that weight. All along, the key is hanging within easy reach–all we have to do is ask for it–but we’re afraid. Afraid of looking weak or stupid. Afraid that having the chain removed will take too long and upset our schedules. Afraid of finding a skin abscess under the shackle and requiring additional, painful treatment.

There are alternatives–but they aren’t pleasant.

  1. We can make ourselves chronically miserable with fear someone else will notice the weight. This means we don’t dare let anyone get close enough for a good look at us, so we become afraid of others,  and withdraw further and further into our shells of depression.
  2. We can succeed in convincing ourselves that the weight doesn’t exist, or isn’t so heavy after all. This is worse than the first alternative, for it usually means we turn our backs on God and on anyone else who might tweak an old nerve by implying, “Like it or not, what you did was wrong.” It also usually means that we get comfortable with doing the same thing–and worse–again and again, adding to our weight of guilt without even noticing. Eventually, the weight grows so heavy that, seemingly out of the blue, it drags us down in a spectacular fall, leaving our lives in shambles and no supporters in sight.

Does coming clean and facing the consequences seem that bad by comparison?

Of course, repentance is still an option after a major fall, or after years of chronic fear of being “found out.” But the longer we wait, the longer full recovery will take, and the greater our chances of sustaining a permanent disability. If you know you’ve made a mistake, the best time to apologize and make amends, to God and others, is today.

Then (Psalm 32:1), “Oh, what joy for those whose disobedience is forgiven, whose sin is put out of sight!”

I Have Sinned–Or Have I?

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You cannot keep birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair.       -Martin Luther

A person’s conscience ain’t got no sense.       -Huckleberry Finn

When we read, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure” (Jeremiah 17:9, NIV), we tend to assume the prophet was speaking of those who justify their sin because “something that feels so good can’t be bad.” But heart and conscience can deceive in the other direction as well, convincing us God will be angry if we can’t keep every “bird” of impure thought from “flying” over the “head” of our consciousness (and occasionally dropping something less firmly constructed than a nest but still pretty messy).

Those of us with sensitive scruples run up against false guilt regularly:

  • “What’s wrong with me that I let myself think about things like that?”
  • “I haven’t had a drink in months. Why can’t I stop feeling the urge every time I pass a beer ad?”
  • “I’m supposed to love everybody. I must be a terrible person to be annoyed that my boss keeps nagging me to work Sundays.”

And, sadly, there are thoughtless and selfish people (not to mention that master of discouragement we call the devil) who are always ready to take advantage of false guilt with such comments as, “I thought you cared,” “But we were counting on you,” or even, “I thought you Christians were supposed to be so generous/understanding/pure.” Even well-meaning friends can unwittingly lay false guilt on us when their priorities don’t coincide with ours–and perhaps not with God’s will for our lives.

It’s not a minor concern. The quicker we are to blame ourselves for what goes wrong, the more likely we are to avoid seeking God because we fear He’s disgusted with us anyway.

Of course, it’s vital to pray continually whether we’ve done anything wrong or not. (Please, don’t read that and scold yourself for every time you let your consciousness turn from God in the past week.) But instead of immediately crying, “God, forgive me!” at every fleeting temptation, we’d do well to evaluate the situations that trigger our feelings of guilt. Then, we can decide whether we truly need to confess a sin, or whether what we really need to ask God for is discernment, confidence, or comfort.

Try evaluating guilty impulses by these criteria:

  • Did I actively seek this out, and willfully continue in it? If you feel an impulse of self-pity on not getting your own way, that’s not sin in itself. But if you spend the next hour mentally rehearsing how badly life and God always treat you, you’re turning temptation into willful rebellion.
  • Am I expecting myself to be perfect? Being human means you will always do careless things in this life. Mistakes, even thoughtless ones, aren’t necessarily sin, and God is ready to treat our slip-ups with tender understanding:  “As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed; he remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:13-14).

And remember that much sin comes down to our heart attitudes. The person who says, “God will forgive; that’s His job,” is already in trouble–and so is the person who takes personal credit for every temptation avoided. But those who trust God to keep them humble are justified in His sight. And regularly asking God for His strength and wisdom is the best way to escape false guilt.

COMING SOON! My new e-book, 100 Ways to Live as an Optimist in a Pessimistic World, will be available this spring. Join the 100 Ways email list for up-to-date news, special offers, and teaser optimism tips!

  • A blog for naturally melancholy Christians tired of being told to "snap out of it"; for Christians who struggle with mental-health issues and long for assurance God delights in them nonetheless; and for naturally optimistic Christians who want to understand their "gloomy" loved ones.

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    I am the go-to writer for people with tough stress issues and special emotional needs—and for those who love them, organizations that serve them, and anyone who just wants to better understand the world of mental/emotional struggles. Or who just wants to pick up some good stress-management tips! Visit my main website at

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    Bible quotes used in this blog are from the New Living Translation or the New International Version (1984). See for copyright details.
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