Choosing Gratitude Over Guilt

Anyone who knows me well can tell you that my default emotion for most of my life has been guilt. I feel guilty for not keeping my house clean enough. I feel guilty for being stressed out and grouchy on the days when I decide keeping the house clean is the most important thing. I feel guilty if my husband comes in after his work day and starts picking up toys because that means I didn’t do “my job.” I feel guilty for being able to go on regular dates with my husband because I know other couples who aren’t able to have that luxury. I still sometimes struggle with guilt for the way that I felt while dealing with mild postpartum depression after the birth of my first child — feelings I had no control over. I feel guilty that so many have experienced tragedy and loss, and that I have honestly led a privileged life. The list of things that I’ve allowed myself to feel guilty about could go on and on. But I am starting to see how unhealthy and fruitless this response is.

It feels strange to say I was convicted about feeling guilty, but three years ago I experienced a particular and needed grace that opened my eyes.

When I was pregnant with my third child, I was not excited. We had wanted more children, but the timing was difficult. My husband and I had just decided that he would quit his job to pursue music full time, we moved and put our house on the market, and as part of his pursuit of music my husband was gone on tour for two months of my pregnancy. My oldest was not yet three when my third was born, and my daughter was only eighteen months old. I was short-tempered and tired, and feeling like I couldn’t handle the two children I already had. I knew that I would love my baby, but I was not excited about him. Of course, I felt a lot of guilt for these thoughts and feelings. No mother wants to admit that she isn’t feeling positively about her baby’s arrival. But when he was born all of that blew away. I had the instant, overwhelming love for this little boy that I had been so anxious about bringing into the world. I couldn’t wait to get to know him and see who this unexpected gift would turn out to be. Normally, I would have felt guilty for the way I had felt during his pregnancy, and I would have allowed that to color his newborn stage. I could also very easily have gotten trapped in regret about my first two children’s newborn stages — one clouded by postpartum depression, the other by a very fussy baby dealing with an undiagnosed dairy sensitivity. I could have let those regrets steal the joy I was experiencing with my sweet, squishy, easy third baby. But somehow I was able to escape the guilt and just feel grateful. I can’t explain this freedom from guilt except to say that it was a special grace from the God who knew what I needed to feel and what I needed to learn.

Guilt feels productive, but it is actually paralyzing. When I sit in my guilt I somehow believe that I am being virtuous. I know I’m not doing things right. I know that others have much, much more difficult lives than I have. Aren’t I so aware and in tune? Beating myself up can be cathartic, but it is never fruitful. Guilt keeps the focus on ourselves, which is where most of us like our focus to be. When I am looking in at myself — at all the things I think I’m not doing well enough or think I shouldn’t have — I can’t see the God who is blessing me, or the people I could be serving. Feeling guilty about not experiencing the pain or loss that someone else is dealing with doesn’t usually translate into any active compassion. Guilt says, “I shouldn’t have what I have” instead of saying, “what can I give to those in need?”

Gratitude is not self-focused. I cannot say “thank you” without looking outside of myself. Gratitude puts the focus on God, and gives the freedom to look to the needs of others. If I respond with gratitude when someone helps me, I am saying, “You are a blessing to me. You have given something of value.” If I see that a friend is struggling in an area in which I have abundance, I can thank God for blessing me so that I can be free to be a blessing to others. I can also enter into my friend’s grief in a way that would be hindered if I was stuck feeling bad for not grieving. We cannot “weep with those who weep” if we are constantly saying, “I’m sorry for not experiencing what you are.” Gratitude lifts our eyes up to the One who gives, and out to those who need. It inspires action. It bears fruit.

I am not saying that we shouldn’t feel conviction over actual sin in our lives. We ought to be listening to the Holy Spirit and allowing Him to reveal to us sinful and destructive behaviors, attitudes, and habits. Of course. What I am talking about is this general, vague sense of “feeling bad” about things that are either completely outside of our control, or are actually blessings. And I’m certainly not saying that if you’re finding yourself in a constant stage of discouragement and depression that includes overwhelming feelings of guilt that you should just “get over it” and be grateful. Please know that I fully acknowledge the reality of depression and other forms of mental illness, and I never want to give flippant advice about a medical condition. I’m talking to myself here, and people like me. People who have gotten into a habit of looking into ourselves with negative thoughts instead of looking up and out with gratitude.

So this is a challenge to myself, and anyone else who needs it, to choose gratitude when we might usually feel guilty. I often have to decide whether I’m going to say “I’m sorry” or “thank you.” I want to say “thank you” more.