Gut Guilt: Wisdom from First Grade


When is the last time you did something truly wrong? I’m not just talking about making a decision that you feared offended someone or upset them. I’m talking about when you 100% know you messed up big time. You told a lie. You cheated. You stabbed a friend in the back. You did something behind your spouse’s back you shouldn’t have. Shall I stop there?

Sunday presented an honesty theme for our family in a random, yet pointed way. Our boys learned about the theme of honesty in their class at church. The sermon my husband and I heard was about Ananias and Sapphira. If you aren’t familiar with the story, they were both struck dead…in church…because they sold property and gave only a portion of the proceeds to the church, claiming it was the whole thing. They had no obligation to give any of it, yet they chose to lie that it was the whole amount just to make themselves look more generous than they really were. Talk about an icky story!

At lunch the boys began discussing someone they know who told some lies recently. “He should feel gut guilt!” Austin insisted.

“What’s gut guilt?” I inquired. I couldn’t recall hearing that phrase before.

“It’s that awful feeling you get in your stomach when you know you’ve done something wrong. Like you want to throw up. That’s how you should feel when you lie, ” he replied most matter-of-factly.

I couldn’t come up with a better definition of guilt myself, and this brilliance came from my seven-year-old. “Did you learn that in church this morning?”

“No. My teacher told us that at school.” See, public school isn’t all bad!

Our family spent quite awhile talking about guilt. Austin was surprised that guilt can be a good thing. It let’s us know we need to seek forgiveness and apologize. He was especially surprised his daddy and I feel gut guilt sometimes. Even grown ups make mistakes. We talked about the dangers of not feeling any guilt and how bad that would be. Austin learned that the tears he sheds after making a wrong choice are a result of guilt, and help him know not to make that choice again. (He also insisted he doesn’t lie, and that could very well be true. He has always been a very honest little guy. It’s one of his best qualities.)

There is a huge difference between guilt and shame, though. Here is a quote from Brene Brown, author of Daring Greatly:

“Based on my research and the research of other shame researchers, I believe that there is a profound difference between shame and guilt. I believe that guilt is adaptive and helpful – it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort.

I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection. 

I don’t believe shame is helpful or productive. In fact, I think shame is much more likely to be the source of destructive, hurtful behavior than the solution or cure. I think the fear of disconnection can make us dangerous.”

Is there anything your gut is telling you to apologize for? There’s freedom in owning our mistakes and poor choices. And the good news is, we are all worthy of forgiveness. Whether others choose to grant that forgiveness is on them, not us.

“Negative emotions like loneliness, envy, and guilt have an important role to play in a happy life; they’re big, flashing signs that something needs to change.” Gretchen Rubin



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