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Unnecessary Guilt

Updated: May 20

A young mother confided in me recently. "My son was born 3 weeks premature. I think that's why he is showing some emotional disability."


Holding back her tears, she went on to say, "I was very stressed preparing for a master's level exam 3 months prior to the delivery date. Do you think that was the cause of the premature birth?"


I wonder what was behind those questions? What was in her mind? What was pricking her heart? As I probed and queried what was behind those questions, she teared and broke down with a deep sigh, "It's my fault!"


Life often throws curveballs at us. We thought we made the right decisions only to realise later that we have to frantically make our decision right. Things don't always turn out the way I envision them. "It's my fault", I often hear myself screaming silently. Worst still, if my decisions hurt those around me, especially my loved ones.


I often felt that I was short-changing my daughter when the family moved to Hanoi twenty years ago. "Am I depriving her of an affordable first-class education in Singapore?" I agonized over the fact that Grace had to breathe in thick black smoke expelled from old trucks as we rode around town in our Honda Dream. What impact is this going to have on Grace's health? Behind these questions is the nagging thought "It's my fault!"


I have felt guilty for many things that happened in life. When I started a social enterprise called Tea Talk, one of my business partner's wife had a miscarriage. The other partner in our team of 3 had to deal with the sudden loss of her mother who was killed in a tragic motorbike accident. My lecturing position at a university came to an abrupt stop due to some misunderstandings. My marriage suffered due to the heavy financial burden I had to bear to sustain the social enterprise. "Me or Tea Talk?" my wife confronted me.


It's my fault. The guilt I felt was so heavy and painful. I wanted to end my life. This was 2014.


On 2017 November 3rd, I had this entry in my sabbatical journal:


It snowed today and the garden turned into a white patch. It was beautiful. I feel that God is marking a new season in my life. What will it be? How will it be like? I am excited to see how God will unfold the future but this time, I am not anxiously seeking for God to reveal it. Strangely, I am happy to wait. I feel at peace.


That evening, I watched a Korean drama with Jacq. That is her form of rest and alone time. I would prefer a book but I have told myself that I want to be able to enjoy what Jacq enjoys. I have always thought that watching Korean drama is a waste of time and emotional energy. But that evening, something surreal happened when we were watching the drama Dangshini Jamdeun Saie.


The drama Dangshini Jamdeun Saie or translated as “While You Were Sleeping” is about a lady Hong-Joo who lives with her mother who runs a restaurant. Hong-Joo is haunted by seeing the future deaths of others in her dreams. What's worse is that she does not know when the deaths will happen. So the drama is about her attempts to stop her dreams from becoming reality. As a teenager, Hong-Joo dreamt of her father’s death but was not able to prevent it. 10 years later, she was still haunted by the thought that she killed her dad. Meanwhile, Jae-Chan, a rookie prosecutor and his younger brother move to a new house and they become neighbors with Hong-Joo. It turns out that Jae-Chan has vivid dreams too. In one of the episode, Hong-Joo came to the realization that her inability to intervene and save her dad as the dream enfolded did not mean that she caused her dad's death. She was able to articulate that her dad’s death was caused by the runaway soldier. This realization brought healing to Hong-Joo and released her to love again.


God used the drama to tell me that it is not my fault that my colleague's mother died in a freak motorbike accident. I teared and felt the inner healing that God was initiating as I let go of the unnecessary guilt and walk away from the lies that have been haunting me. Subsequently, God revealed to me several other unnecessary guilt that I must let go of. That is to re-experience the gospel again. I may regret certain decisions. It's even ok to be sad about it. But unnecessary guilt? Let it go.

How radically new my life would be if I were willing to move beyond blaming to proclaiming the works of God in our midst. I don’t think it has much to do with the exterior of life. All human beings have their tragedies - death, depression, betrayal, rejection, poverty, separation, loss and so on. We seldom have control over them. But do we choose to live them as occasions to blame, or as occasions to see God at work?

Henri Nouwen. Sabbatical Journey, pg. 129


What's your unnecessary guilt? An autistic child? A rebellious teenager? A child you failed to protect? A husband gone astray? An unhealthy relationship you should have left sooner? A failed business venture? A partnership turned sour? A depression you are fighting off? A funeral you missed? Words that shouldn't have been spoken? Whatever your unnecessary guilt is, it's time to let it go.


Who is God? Acrylic on canvas by Michael Ong, 80 by 80 cm.

Let us then approach God's throne of grace with confidence,

so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.

Hebrew 4:16