I used to babysit a certain little boy, and I never had to wonder if he had done something wrong because he would confess it. In fact, he had such a guilty conscience that if he even thought he had done something potentially wrong he would tell on himself. You could see the guilt weighing on him and how that self-inflicted pressure would alleviate upon confession.
A college girl who had previously engaged in sexual sin told me on multiple occasions how she struggled to open the Bible, pray to God, or to walk into church because of feeling so overcome with guilt and shame for what she had done (and that the sinful desires were still present in her).
Another girl in her 20s felt guilt and shame for a variety of reasons: ashamed because of how a physical ailment would often affect her appearance, survivor’s guilt because of a family member who was raped, guilty for having had sex before marriage, and even guilty for little things like not being grateful about a particular Christmas present she received as a child.
For each of these three people, guilt and shame served as a burden that they carried, and it’s a burden that many of us lug around, even after becoming a Christian.
The Difference Between Guilt & Shame
Although guilt and shame travel together, they are not the same thing. Guilt acknowledges “I have done wrong.” It carries a legal connotation, a sense of right and wrong and an understanding that I have disobeyed or fallen short of a rule or standard.
In contrast, shame believes “I am wrong.” Shame involves our identity, how we see ourselves and what we believe to be true about ourselves. It relates to guilt because what we have done or haven’t done affects how we view ourselves. We associate our value and our worth with our identity, so when our identity is shaken by shame, it’s not surprise that our self-perceived value and worth fly out the window.
For the college girl who struggled to approach God because of her past sexual sin, I once asked her how she saw herself. Do you know what she said? She said “unclean, sexually immoral, and worthless.” With this being the way that she viewed herself, it’s no wonder that she struggled to spend time with God or to be around other Christians! This is why it is crucial for us to know what God thinks about us, to see ourselves as He sees us, and to understand that our value and worth come from Him - not from what we do, what we look like, who we know, or what others think about us.
The Guilt & Shame Cycle
In a healthy way, guilt and shame highlight sin in our hearts. Before we can confess our sin to God, we do have to acknowledge that we have done wrong, and shame recognizes that, when I sin, I am not being the person God designed me to be. So think of guilt and shame as a spiritual MRI.
The problem is that, instead of turning to God with our guilt and shame, we wallow in it. Think of a pig in a pig pen here. We roll around in the guilt and shame and let them wash over us and define us.
In Recovering Redemption, Matt Chandler explains the byproducts of guilt and shame: anger, abuse, and lust. Because of wallowing in our guilt and shame, we become angry. Often, this manifests as self-hate, but it also will involve anger towards God: “Why did you allow this to happen to me, God? You’re not good. If you loved me, you would have intervened.”
With one girl, I had a front row seat to her God-directed fury. She seethed with anger, and her behavior spiraled downward as she acted to spite Him. She began intentionally sinning against Him. Her behavior was fueled by guilt and shame, and as she self-destructed, she only increased the guilt and the shame she felt. While she wanted to “hurt” God with her actions, the main person she was hurting was herself.
If we do not turn to God with our guilt and shame, we will become angry at God, ourselves, and others, and as we act on that anger, we will become abusive - verbally, emotionally, physically, and even sexually. Angry people do not want others to be happy, so they will tear others down. Think of it like a wounded animal who attacks others, even those who try to help them. But doing this only increases the guilt and shame they feel, yet on their own, they can’t get off the guilt and shame merry-go-round.
Because of their anger and abuse, they have quit seeing people as people. Instead, they have begun to objectify people, not caring for their soul or emotions, only seeing them for what they can do for them, which leads to using other people to bring them pleasure (lust). It’s seeking personal satisfaction at another person’s expense, but the satisfaction does not last. And at the end, they are left feeling more guilty and shameful than before.
Is this you? Does any of this describe you?
If so, know that there is hope. You don’t have to carry the guilt and shame that Christ came to set you free from. You can be free of this heavy burden. I love the scene in Pilgrim’s Progress where the main character, Christian, comes to Christ’s open tomb and the cross, and at that point, the heavy burden that he has been carrying throughout the story falls to the ground and rolls down the hill into the open tomb, never to be seen again.
This can be you.
In Part 2, we will talk more about how this is possible, but for now, read these encouraging words from Colossians 2:13-14: “And you who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.”
Click here to read Part 2.