7 Surprising Ways to Free Yourself from Guilt (And Discover God’s Plan for Your Ultimate Fulfillment)


The following is adapted from my upcoming book Broken Gods:  Hope, Healing, and the Seven Longings of the Human Heart.  It is a book that explores the seven divine longings that hide behind our deepest and even darkest desires and those longings point to God’s plan for our ultimate fulfillment.  Coming out in June, it’s available for pre-order this week!

It’s practically impossible to underestimate our capacity for making the same mistakes over and over again.  We commit the same sins.  Repeat the same patterns.  Fall down in the same place time and again.  And we often respond to this tendency with guilt, shame, and disappointment in ourselves.  But what if there was a way to not only leave this tendency for self-condemnation behind, but also to experience freedom from our own destructive patterns and habits?  Would you take it?

Understanding the Trap

Classically, the Seven Deadly Sins–pride, envy, wrath, sloth, greed, gluttony, and lust–represent the most common ways we disappoint ourselves and others.  Each is a habit we hate to love and whether or not we acknowledge it, every single one of us wrestles with one or more of them.  Whether we fight and fall or simply freely indulge in these destructive habits, few of us can deny either their attraction or our struggle to resist falling under their influence.  As Oscar Wilde famously put it, “I can resist everything but temptation.”   We think that the only way to free ourselves from the grip of these struggles is to make ourselves feel bad enough that we don’t want to go down that path ever again.  Ironically, it is just this strategy that tends to set us up.  The worse we make ourselves feel about indulging these sins, the more we tend to gravitate toward them to seek relief from the pain of our guilt.  We create an obsessive cycle where the things we do to comfort ourselves cause a wound that makes us want to wound ourselves further, which forces us to return to the thing that wounded us in the first place in a flawed effort to seek relief.  It is a cycle that is as depressing as it is familiar.

The Way Out.

The reason so many of us get stuck  in this obsessive cycle is that we try to address our problems in ways that entirely miss the engines that drive them.  In Broken Gods: Hope, Healing, and the Seven Longing of the Human Heart I argue that hidden behind the seven deadly sins are seven divine longings–desires given to us by God, himself, that have become twisted because of the Fall.  While our natural attempt to fight our brokenness involves trying to avoid our flaws and failings, the truth is that the only way we can be delivered from our pain is to discover the hidden longings behind the sins the trip us up.  When we discover these divine longings, we can not only identify ways to satisfy those deeper desires and set ourselves free from the obsessive cycle of sin and guilt, but we can also discover God’s plan for our ultimate fulfillment.

The Seven Longings

          Hiding behind the seven deadly sins of pride, envy, wrath, sloth, greed, gluttony and lust are seven longings that God has built-in to every human heart; longings for  abundance, dignity, justice, peace, trust, well-being, and communion respectively.

The Longing for Abundance is the divine longing hiding behind pride.  We all want to feel that our lives have meaning, purpose and significance. Pride tells us that the only way to fulfill this longing for abundance is by figuring things out for ourselves.  Pride tells us that other people are just a distraction or a threat and have nothing to teach us about living a more joyful, fulfilling or abundant life.  The only way to leave behind our prideful tendencies is to remind ourselves that our desire for fulfillment can only be achieved through humility, which is not a tendency to run ourselves down, but rather, a willingness to learn what others have to teach us and to commit ourselves to working for the good of others with what we have been given.   We can’t escape pride by criticizing ourselves for being prideful.  We can only escape pride by pursuing true abundance by opening our hearts to the things others can teach us about life and sharing what we have learned in returned.

The Longing for Dignity is hidden behind the sin of envy.  We call want to feel like we matter,  that we are unique and unrepeatable.  Of course, in God’s eyes, we are, but envy tells us that the only way we can be confirmed in our specialness is by having everything that those around us have and achieving everything that those around us have achieved.  Unfortunately, this never-ending quest leads to perpetual dissatisfaction.  The only way to satisfy our diving longing for dignity is to practice kindness.  Kindness is love’s little sister.  It is the virtue that allows others to flourish in our presence. It is our ability to make other people feel special when they are around us.  When we give that gift of kindness to others, they affirm our dignity through their gratitude and the joy they express when they see us. Kindness kills envy by showing us that we truly are God’s gift to the world and that our worth lies in who we are not what we have.

The Longing for Justice lies behind the deadly sin of wrath.  We ache to see that the wrongs in our life are righted, offenses addressed, and injuries healed.  Wrath tells us that the only way justice can be served is for us to hurt others as much as or more than they hurt us.  Of course, this simply feeds the cycle of injustice and increases our ache.  The only way out of wrath–the temptation to destructive anger–is by practicing patience.  Contrary to popular opinion, patience is not the virtue that tolerates offenses without ever saying anything.  Rather, Christianity teaches that patience is the willingness to let our good efforts to resolve injustices mature instead of trying to force hasty, half-baked “solutions” that hurt others and only serve to make things worse. Patience cures wrath by empowering us to seek real answers and allow those answers to take root in God’s time.

The Longing for Peace can become twisted into sloth.  Sloth is not mere laziness.  Rather, it tells us the best way to satisfy the longing for peace is to close our eyes to the problems around us, keep our heads down, and avoid any potential conflict–even conflict that involves working for justice, our good, and the good of those around us.  Of course, this just makes us feel oppressed as the problems pile up around us.  True peace only happens when our lives are in order and when we know that we’re doing what we can to address the problems around us. The only way to defeat sloth is to practice the virtue of diligence.  Diligence defeats sloth by helping us ask what small things we can do each day to set things right so true peace can reign in our hearts.

The Longing for Trust hides behind our tendency toward greed.  We all want to feel safe, to trust that “everything is going to be OK.”  Greed tells us that the only way to achieve this feeling is by accumulating enough stuff that a catastrophe could never harm us.  Of course, all we have to do is turn on the news to know we could never acquire enough to makes us truly safe.  The only way to defeat greed is by practicing charity.  When we are generous to others despite our fears, we acknowledge that God is the only true source of our security.  We cannot protect ourselves. Only God can protect us.  This knowledge frees us from our tendency to grasp and to hoard and allows us to share our gifts with others as we defy our fears of want and rest in God’s ability to provide for us instead of trying to trust in our own.

The Longing for Well-Being is obscured by gluttony.  True well-being, that sense of inner-satisfaction we all seek, comes from living a life in balance.  Gluttony tells us that the best way to feel fulfilled is through an obsessive relationship with food.  Although for most people, this means eating too much (stress eating, especially), for some, it can mean developing orthorexia that is, an obsessive relationship with eating right.  Nutrition is important, but we cannot save ourselves either by how much we eat or how correctly we eat.  Only by practicing temperance can we defeat gluttony.  Temperance, helps us achieve true balance between our physical, psychological, emotional, relational and spiritual selves. Temperance allows us to make the small adjustments we need to make in our lives to achieve and maintain the harmony that allows us to experience authentic well-being.

The Divine Longing for Communion hides behind lust.  We were made to be intimately united to God and others.  We crave union.  We long to belong. But real relationship is hard work.  It is so much easier to settle for the illusion of connection that physical hook-ups can give.  But we know that this feeling doesn’t last.  Lust can only be defeated, and the divine longing for communion fulfilled, by practicing chastity.  Contrary to what most people believe, chastity is not about repressing our sexuality.  It is actually the virtue that governs all of our relationships and gives us the ability to determine what it means to be fully and appropriately loving to every person we meet.  Sex may be the ultimate connection, but it is not the only connection and it is often not the most meaningful connection we can make with others.  Chastity allows us to ask ourselves “what kind of connection would it be best to make with this particular person in this particular context” and then make that connection fully and meaningfully.  Without chastity, it is too easy to be too generous or too stingy with our love and to treat others as objects instead of persons made in the image and likeness of God.

God’s Plan for Ultimate Fulfillment

            When we stop beating ourselves up for our failings and instead recommit ourselves to satisfying the divine longings behind our bad habits and sins, God not only sets us free from the obsessive cycle of guilt, but he sees to the fulfillment of our deepest desires–the seven divine longings of every human heart.  More importantly, he draws us more deeply into union with him.  This process of embracing the grace that flows into our lives when we work to satisfy the seven divine longings is known by theologians as theosis,  the means by which we mere humans become “partakers in the divine nature” (2 Ptr 1:4).  When we allow God to set us free from the chains of guilt and sin, he does more than make us good, he makes us godly. He fills us with his own divine light that enables us to fulfill both our earthly and our ultimate destinies, achieving authentic happiness in this life and eternal life in the next.

Dr. Greg Popcak is the author of many books including Broken Gods: Hope, Healing, and the Seven Longings of the Human Heart.

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