In Part 1, we looked at the difference between guilt and shame as well as their effects (click here to read). In this post, we examine how to respond to guilt and shame.
Even though I know in my head that Christ has forgiven me for my sins - and even for the guilt that I feel regarding what I have done - I still feel guilty. How do I let go of the guilt?
Let’s be real, “letting go” isn’t as easy as Elsa leads us to believe (that’s a Frozen reference for those of you who haven’t seen the Disney movie or have the lyrics of the song memorized). There’s things we know in our head, and there’s knowledge that we have internalized and allowed to change us. These are two different things. The issue we have is getting the truth we know in our head to be something that we believe in our hearts. As you probably know, this isn’t a quick process, nor is it easy.
And to clarify, we won’t always feel it. We cannot judge what’s true by what we feel because our feelings will mislead us. Our feelings are tainted by sin, which means we have to hold our feelings up to the plumbline of Scripture. 1 John 3:20 tells us that our own hearts will condemn us, and when it does, we can remember that God and His truth are greater than our hearts.
Along these lines, J.D. Greear offers the helpful illustration in his book Stop Asking Jesus Into Your Heart:
Imagine...three men walking a line along the top of a narrow city wall. The first in line is named “Fact”; the second, “Faith”; the third “Feeling.” Because the wall is narrow, they need to pay careful attention to where they step. As long as “Feeling’s’ eyes are on “Faith,” and “Faith’s” eyes are on “Fact,” they will all do fine. But the moment that “Faith” takes its eyes off of “Fact” and turns around to check on “Feeling,” but “Faith” and “Feeling” will fall off the wall…”Don’t feel your way into your beliefs; believe your way into your feelings.”
2 Truths We Need to Own
Hearing Matt Chandler preach through the Recovering Redemption series helped me to wrap my head around the issue of guilt and shame, and he gave two helpful handles that I want to repeat and unpack here: justification is the answer to our guilt, and adoption is the answer to our shame.
1. Justification & Our Guilt
Justification is the church word for God pardoning us and declaring us “not guilty,” although we have sinned and we are guilty. If we trust in Christ for salvation, God credits Jesus’ righteousness to us, and He credits Jesus with our guilt. So God really can look at you and see you as righteous and clean because He sees you through the blood of Jesus.
There’s an Old Testament illustration that I love that depicts this truth. Before Jesus’ death and resurrection, Jews worshiped God at the Temple, and in the inner part of the Temple (called the Holy of Holies) stood the Ark of the Covenant. This room was known as the place of God’s presence, and it could only be entered once a year (on the Day of Atonement) when the High Priest would come inside and take the blood of the sacrifice for the sins of the people and sprinkle it on the lid of the Ark (called the mercy seat). One of the items inside the Ark was the 10 Commandments that Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai, so when God looked down onto the Ark, He saw the Law. Looking at the Law was a visible reminder of all the ways His people didn’t measure up, for the Law exists to show us that we fall short of God’s standard of righteousness - that we’re guilty (Rom. 3:20).
But each year, the High Priest would sprinkle the blood of the sacrifice on the lid of the Ark. Think about what the mercy seat must have looked like after hundreds of years of sprinkled blood dried on the golden lid. Can you see the blood caked on top of the golden lid? Can you smell the scent of stale air mingled with dried blood?
So, yes, when God looked at the Ark, He saw the Law and remembered the sins of the people, but He also saw the blood of the sacrifice. This blood was the lens through which God viewed His people, and Jesus’ blood is the lens through which God looks when He looks at you! He knows what you’ve done, but He looks at you through the blood of Jesus. Because of this, it really is true that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1)!
2. ADOPTION & OUR SHAME
When you become a Christian, you join God’s family. You go from being His enemy to being His child (Jn. 1:12-13; Rom. 5:1-11; 8:16-17). Do you know how big of a deal this is?!
Think of any superhero movie you know (Superman, Batman, the Avengers, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter…). Would the hero sacrifice his life in order that his enemy might live? No! The point of the plot is for the hero to subdue the enemy, not die for him! But according to Romans 5, this is exactly what Jesus, the Hero, did for you, His enemy.
Shame involves our identity and how we see ourselves. If we wallow in guilt, we allow the guilt to become the filter through which we view ourselves. We allow the guilt and the reason(s) for the guilt to define us. But as people, we are image-bearers who reflect and represent God (Gen. 1:26-27), and as a Christian, our identity is God’s children. These are our labels. This should be how we see ourselves. If you are a Christian, then you are a full-fledged member of God’s family with all the benefits, an heir of God and co-heir with Christ (Rom. 8:17).
Furthermore, God delights in you (Zeph. 3:17). He knows you fully, and He loves you and cares about you. He’s the Father in Luke 15 who loves the Prodigal and who joyfully welcomes the Prodigal home.
Giving into shame is not just a reflection of how you see yourself, it is also a reflection of how you view God. So what does your shame-based labels tell you about how you perceive God? Is it an accurate, Word-based perception?
HOW DO I BRING THIS HOME?
1. If you feel guilty, examine why. What have you done wrong? Be specific, not general in identifying the reason for the guilt. If there is something you’ve done (or not done) that you need to confess, do so, and remind yourself of God’s forgiveness as you repent (1 Jn. 1:9).
2. If after self-examination you cannot identify an offense to support the feeling of guilt, then do not just passively receive what your heart is telling you! The enemy is our Accuser (Rev. 12:10), and he knows that it’s possible to paralyze us with guilt if we give into it.
As with a courtroom, it is not the prosecutor who can condemn you. Only the judge can do that, and we know what God the Judge has already determined with regards to our guilt. So we need to remind ourselves of this truth. Our hearts and our enemy do not present all the facts about us, and we need to arm ourselves with Scripture about these facts. So pull rank on your heart instead of letting your heart trump God and the truths of Scripture. Don’t act as though your heart and the accusations of the Enemy have greater authority over your life than God.
One of my favorite hymns is “Before the Throne of God Above,” and I especially love to sing and remember the verse that states:
“When Satan tempts me to despair, And tells me of the guilt within,
Upward I look, and see Him there Who made an end of all my sin.
Because the sinless Savior died, My sinful soul is counted free;
For God the just is satisfied To look on Him and pardon me.”
Look to Christ, the One Who made an end of all your sin and Who looks at you as holy and righteous, even when you don’t feel that way.
3. If you struggle with shame, begin by identifying how you see yourself. What names do you call yourself? What do you think about yourself when you look in the mirror? When you make a mistake? When you’re with other people? What labels have you received from others?
4. Next, hold these labels next to Scripture. If you don’t know what God thinks about you, this would make a great study, and you can start with Ephesians 1. How does God label you? What identity does He bestow upon you?
These are the truths we need to rehearse to ourselves whenever we feel shame. Replace the shame-based labels with the truths of God’s Word. Fall back on the grace of God, not on your shame and guilt.
- “Forgiven & Free” by Ben Stuart (Breakaway Ministries, Podcast, September 2012 – 1 John series)
- “From Condemnation to Confidence” by Ben Stuart (Breakaway Ministries, Podcast, October 2012 – 1 John series)
- “Overcome Guilt” by Ben Stuart (Breakaway Ministries, Podcast, September 2011)
- Recovering Redemption by Matt Chandler (book, small group study, and sermon series from 2013)