False guilt can be debilitating. By “false guilt,” I mean those feelings of condemnation and responsibility for sins and failures that are not yours for which to take ownership. These feelings can be particularly debilitating because you cannot repent for someone else’s sins, nor can you change what they refuse to address. It’s not uncommon for those who are caring for loved ones struggling with addiction to feel a sense of responsibility for their choices. In order to care well for the addict we love we must learn to distinguish between our and their responsibilities.
There are many things for which we bear responsibility. God calls us to take account of our actions, repent of sin, seek reconciliation where appropriate, and resist temptation. We have a call to deal with sins and failure that are our own. Even in our relationship with an addict we must take responsibility for any and every sin we contribute to our relationship. You do not cause someone else to become an addict, but you may have hurt them. It is particularly important for parents to consider what, if any, emotional or physical pain they may have caused their child. Is there a history of abuse in the family? Was there a lack of affection and care? Was distrust bred in the home, cynicism, judgmentalism? Take responsibility for what is yours, communicate an understanding of what you’ve done, express a desire to change, and ask for forgiveness. The Bible calls us to take responsibility for our own actions (Rom. 14:10-12), and warns us to not cause another offense (Rom. 14:15-16; 2 Cor. 6:3).
The point is not to put the burden of a person’s addiction onto someone else, but to recognize how we may have contributed to the life context of this person in a negative way. To take full responsibility for what we can and to seek to repent before God and to the individual we have wronged. This is right and godly, and may be just what a person needs to begin motivating them towards their own responsibility.
Yet, caretakers must recognize that they did not cause someone to become an addict. James tells us that “each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (James 1:14). Our sins against someone, however great or small, do not determine their response. They are responsible for what they do, just as we are responsible for what we do. At the moment they may be in bondage to their addiction, struggling to change or make right choices, but they have made choices all along the way that brought them to this stage. You cannot bear responsibility for the path that they have walked. Attempting to take responsibility for their sin will actually cause more damage.
First, false guilt will wear caretakers out. Caretakers who make every effort to change a situation that is beyond their control, or repent on behalf of another, will find themselves exhausted. They will persistently run into roadblocks and impediments, setbacks and failures. Instead of finding meaningful ways to care for the addict as they strive to change, you will expend all your energy on the impossible.
Secondly, false guilt will tempt caretakers with bitterness and resentment. Because you have a greater sense of responsibility for their sin than the addict does you will find yourself constantly disappointed, frustrated, and angry with them. They aren’t living up to your expectations, aren’t fulfilling your plan, and aren’t making the changes you’ve determined need to happen. As a result you will begin to put yourself at increasing odds with them in the process of trying to be helpful. In fact, in some cases, the desire to be rid of the guilt will outweigh what is in the best interest of the addict.
There are many ways in which false guilt impacts us and our relationships. Remind yourself consistently that you cannot take responsibility for what is not yours to bear. God promises us grace for the trials we face, but he does not give us grace for what we He does not want us to do.