How to Handle False Guilt in Relationships

By Bill White

When she was a young adolescent Sophia would always be eager to hear what her mother thought of her dance recitals, but her mother was usually sparing of words of encouragement, instead pointing out Sophia’s flaws one after another. When she was in college Sophia would make regular visits home to spend time with her mother.  But on the rare occasions Sophia would go visit a friend on the weekend, her mother would sulk and tell her it was selfish for her to not also come see her on the way.  Even now Sophia calls her mother each day to see how she’s doing, and regularly takes the kids over to visit, but her mother usually expresses dissatisfaction with Sophia for not spending enough time with her and giving her more time with her grandchildren.   Sophia suggested to her mother they go and see a counselor together to see if they could improve things, but her mother refused to go.  Jonah would tell Sophia that her mother was discontent about everything, and that she was wasting her time trying to please her.  But inwardly Sophia longed to experience a good relationship with her mother and told herself she needed to try harder so they could have a better interaction.  Sophia was also determined that her kids would have a good relationship with their grandmother.


All of us disappoint others in our relationships from time to time.  Often a person’s disappointment or frustration toward us can be a “wake-up” call to make a needed change in an area of neglect, like consistently forgetting reasonable requests. It can also be a prompt to stop a harmful pattern, like defensive or sarcastic responses.  It’s rare that another person’s disappointment toward us feels positive in any way.  But if we’re attuned and responsive it can be a catalyst for us to make the needed repairs to keep our relationships healthy.

Yet sometimes we find ourselves in relationships where we experience another’s disappointment consistently no matter what we do. And like Sophia, regardless of how we try to fix things no repair attempt we make ever satisfies the other person.

Certainly, we should go the extra mile to try to make things right with another person when we’ve offended them.  Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount, “if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matt. 5:23-24).  

But what happens when the person on the receiving end consistently rejects our “gifts” of trying to address the issues? As a counselor I often hear people express feelings of guilt when they disappoint others.  To be sure, we sometimes feel guilty because we are guilty of hurting another person in some way.  

But If we are believers in Christ who are growing and being rooted in what Jesus has done for us in the gospel, even when we’re guilty we can more and more partake of the freedom we have to eagerly go and try to be reconciled with others. Jesus has paid for our sin, removing any condemnation completely away (Rom. 8:1), and has given us His Holy Spirit who guides us in loving truth that can restore relationships (John 16:12).

But I often hear stories of people who consistently put forth selfless sacrifice towards another, only to have their offers be consistently ignored, rejected or deemed lacking.

Jesus Himself experienced this very same thing.  Consider His words in Luke 13:34-35  

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, just as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not have it! Behold, your house is left to you desolate and I say to you, you will not see Me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!”

As Jesus prepares to go to the city of Jerusalem, he reflects over His relationship with His chosen people over the generations.  God set apart His people and made a covenant with them.  But they wandered away from Him and His love, choosing to serve idols instead.  And yet here now Jesus is reflecting how the Triune God still continued to pursue them for centuries, calling them to return to Him through various prophets and messengers. However, they consistently killed or stoned those who brought God’s appeal.  

And now, God sends the Messiah Son to deliver them, but they still reject God, even when He comes personally in the flesh. Yet in spite of centuries of rejection, He STILL longs to gather them in. He even uses the loving and kind image of a mother hen gathering helpless chicks to the tender love He has in His heart for them in spite of their centuries of hard-hearted rejection!

Certainly, this passage is primarily teaching specifics about God’s plan of redemption for a rebellious people.  But we also learn something astoundingly significant about relationships through these words of Jesus, particularly the phrase “and you would not have it. Behold your house is left to you desolate.”  Here Jesus is demonstrating that it is possible for all of this to be true at the same time:

  1. To regularly and selflessly reach out to another, only to be consistently rejected
  2. To still maintain a strong longing for better things in a relationship even though one’s efforts are consistently disregarded.
  3. And yet still not feel responsible for the fracture.
  4. And thus recognize that they are the desolate ones, (bearing the guilt and responsibility for the problem because) which can free us from a false guilt and feelings of inadequacy.

Sophia feels emotionally crippled trying to figure out what would make her Mom happy. This is because false guilt makes her feel responsible to make this happen. Sometimes she feels paralyzed in indecision for fear of being rejected by her mother again. Sometimes she churns from one anxious thought to the next trying to figure out what will work.  Sometimes she feels the futility of her efforts, much like Sisyphus, the King in Greek Mythology who was eternally punished to push an enormous boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down to the hill as he neared the top. She feels unable to break through no matter what she says or does

That’s not to say Sophia should abandon her mother, or verbally or emotionally punish her in retaliation.   Jesus has not rejected the chosen nation - “From the standpoint of the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but from the standpoint of God’s choice they are beloved for the sake of the fathers; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. (Rom 11:28-29).  Sophia’s mom is still her mom, and she’s commanded to honor her. 

But Jesus demonstrates a paradoxical combination of experiencing deep sadness, yet an accompanying confidence and relational strength to move ahead and commune with others who want what he has to offer.

Many refer to this passage as the “Lament over Jerusalem.”  Lament is not a word we use much today.  But it is a valuable one. A lamenter feels sadness, but without hopeless despair.  A lamenter knows the sacrifices she makes are ultimately unto the Lord, not unto another person.    

A person can reject a selfless sacrifice, but God never does (Rom. 12:1). And a true lamenter knows that because of this, her actions are not futile because she has a Father in heaven who takes note and delights in her offering, even if the person on the other end treats it with disregard.

Sophia begins reminds herself of these truths, praying and meditating over them and asking God to help free her from feeling responsible for her mother’s disappointment.  One afternoon after visiting for several hours, Sophia invites her mother to go clothes shopping with her for the kids.  Her mother exclaims nothing could get her out in those crowds, and then complains to Sophia that she is leaving so early.  “Okay,” her mother says. “I guess I’ll just go back to being by myself.”  Sophia feels the familiar sense of guilt rising within her and almost decides to forego the shopping and stay.  But she takes a risk that goes against her inward feelings and replies, “Well I’m sorry you don’t want to go with us because we’d love to have you along.  But we really need to go.  I’ll call you later in the week,” and gathers the kids to leave.  As she drives away, she feels sad and wonders why her mother wouldn’t come.  

As she begins to think of how lonely her mother must be, she has a thought, “I invited her, but she chose not to come. I didn’t make that choice. I’m not responsible for it.” Inwardly she begins to feel a little bit of relief. And for the first time in a while, she feels freed up to enjoy shopping and spending focused time with her children. Similarly, we can begin seeing the Lord break some of the cycles of false guilt we experience in these types of relationships. As we identify our sadness as lament, but also with the Lord’s guidance sort through and separate what we’re responsible for, and what we’re not. In this way we can begin moving toward the inward freedom Jesus modeled and desires for us.

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