Ever felt weighed down with guilt and shame? Ever decided it was all your fault because you’re just the worst? Ever decided it was all a lie because you’re just too awesome to be down on yourself like that?
It’s easy to respond to the weight on our conscience with either total self-condemnation or total self-justification. But neither tends to help us see clearly. Both tend to muddy our vision. Both tend to miss the bigger picture.
I’m working on a project that confronts our tendencies around sin, guilt, and shame. As I share some of those thoughts on this blog, I’d love to hear what you think. Here’s your first opportunity.
Self-condemnation and self-justification are two very natural responses to our experience of guilt and shame. And the guilt and shame that we feel may or may not be in response to sin. If we’re Christians, we know we’re to fight sin. But we may get wounded in the battle. The lines may get hard to see. The truth may be hard to feel.
Our battle with guilt and shame and the fight against sin are actually two sides of the same coin. It’s been well-said that “we must be killing sin or it will be killing us.” Sin brings consequences–to our selves, to our relationships, and especially our relationship with our Creator.
But perhaps an overlooked way sin kills is that it can heap guilt and shame on us without remedy. The enemy of our souls loves for Christians to be weighed down with sin…or with guilt over things that aren’t sin, so that we are tempted to despair and also so that we are paying attention to a decoy instead of the real enemy. Let’s explore this for a bit.
I hope I don’t have to convince you that feeling guilty over doing wrong is right. Feeling shame over unfaithfulness to God and others whom we may have betrayed makes sense.
But feeling guilty over not measuring up to a vague or non-moral standard isn’t necessarily right, and it may actually be wrong, weighing us down when we are meant to have joy and be free.
Feeling shame over merely personally embarrassing and non-moral situations, or as a habit developed under an abuser, is not right–or at least it isn’t right to hold on to it. There is a kind of shame that we don’t have to carry.
In any of these last two cases, if we are concerned with our perceived and misplaced guilt and shame, we may be blind to our actual sin, or we may launch headlong into some sinful response as a way of coping or grasping for control. By falling for the decoy, we can’t see our sin very well because we’re looking in the wrong direction. By falling for the decoy, we may use our misguided feelings as justification for actual sin in the future.
Again, Our battle with guilt and shame and the fight against sin are two sides of the same coin.
But if we have guilt and shame over non-sinful things, how do we deal with them? We know that we’re to go to the cross with our sin. But what do we do with our misguided feelings and merely human frailty?
In dying for our sin, Jesus didn’t leave us alone or unaided in our experience of guilt and shame. He was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. He bore not only our sin but our shame on the cross. Do you think this was only a transaction for sin? His death certainly was a sacrifice for sin, but consider what Jesus endured in that process:
The accusation of blasphemy by the Jews (false accusations of guilt)
The humiliation and mockery by the Romans (a shameful experience)
Being stripped naked in public (a shameful experience)
Becoming weak so that a man was asked to carry His cross for Him (physical weakness and inability)
The insults of the convicts (false accusations of likely both guilt and shame)
The disciples’ disappointment that Jesus, who they thought would become King, was now being crucified as a criminal (the shame of disappointing others, though Jesus knew exactly what He was doing)
Being abandoned by almost all of His followers…and then by God the Father (the shame of abandonment and loneliness)
Suffering crucifixion (brutal and lethal public shame meant to intimidate onlookers)
Jesus died for our actual sins. But He also identified with our weaknesses and experienced guilt and shame that was not rightly His own. To be sure, He experienced these things without being defiled or deterred by them, without giving in to them or being brought to despair. But He did experience agony in the garden in anticipation of all of these things. He sweat drops of blood. He knows anxiety, too.
Dear sisters, the cross calls us to deal with our sin. To lay it down. To turn from it. The kindness of God leads to repentance, and that kindness is most definitively shown in the love of God demonstrated at the cross. Repentance isn’t a word that ought to conjure up mental images of an angry preacher. It ought to bring to our mind the sweet wooing of a lover: “Turn from all those things that won’t satisfy you and come away with Me.”
But the cross and kindness of God calls us to turn away not just from obvious sin, but from all the weight we carry, whether for sin or not. Repentance means primarily “a change of mind” or a “turning”. If we are carrying false guilt and misguided shame, we can bring those to the Savior as well.
Turn from being your own judge on these things. Recognize that Jesus knows what it means to bear guilt and shame that doesn’t belong to you. All your feelings of failure, whether they are based on sin or not, or some mixed up experience of sin-and-not-sin that you can’t pick apart–bring all of it to Jesus. He’s a great high priest who can sympathize with our weaknesses. Not just our moral failures–our weaknesses, our humanness. He knows. He understands. And He calls us to come.
This whole big, beautiful Creation was subjected to futility after the fall in the garden of Eden. No wonder we may feel like we fail even in instances where there isn’t an obvious sin to point to (or at least when one’s not on our radar).
I think it’s important to recognize that some of our feelings of failure are just part of the fall in general.
He has set eternity in our hearts, but death cuts our lives short. And we feel it. We feel that we won’t have time to accomplish all that we desire. And so on a given day, especially in a modern world that so preaches and values productivity, we feel the pain of not getting things done. Interruptions and weakness and distraction rob us of our ability to be “awesome” and do what we set out to do. And we feel that failure in much the same way as we feel moral shame. And so, interestingly, women report on surveys that they see their biggest struggles with sin are in their lack of productivity or organization. (More on this in a later post.)
We often have a lot on our plates, and yes, we ought to manage things well. But let’s be clear about what is sin and what isn’t. Is it a sin to be lazy? Yes. But is it a sin to not get everything done that we imagined we would? No. Emphatic: NO.
Not getting all-the-things done or being as organized as a magazine cover may result from several things: maybe life is just hectic right now—you’re caring for a baby or aging parent or juggling some combination of work, school, or family that makes it inherently hard to keep up; maybe your expectations are unrealistic and you need to reevaluate what you’re capable of in this season; maybe your schedule is unrealistic and you need to cut some commitments and activities from your calendar; or maybe you have actually been lazy, binge watching shows and socializing with friends instead of doing the dishes, your homework, or your taxes; maybe you’ve been scrolling social media instead of changing that nasty diaper that you first smelled an hour ago.
Sin may be (and likely is) a part of the equation. But our feelings tend to lump it all together into one big heap of guilt and shame over the result: “I’m so lazy/unproductive. Look at the mess! I can’t keep up with the house, I can’t figure out how to calm the baby. I’m a failure at everything.” This is what it looks like to heap on guilt and shame without biblical discernment and without remedy.
Instead, what if we recognize the situation for what it is: “Sigh…I really shouldn’t have zoned out on social media while the baby was crying. Lord Jesus, forgive me. That was wrong. And it didn’t help me get the house picked up either. Lord, please give me the strength to get up and make the best of this. The baby may not calm down quickly, and I can’t get the house perfect today, but I can decide to do the right thing right now and do what I can. Help me to be faithful.”
Part of my goal in this long-term project is to help us sort out the difference between actual sin and false guilt and shame, to help us respond to the nitty-gritty struggle within us in a biblically appropriate way so that we live lives consistent with God’s truth, empowered by His Spirit.
That’s a big goal far beyond the reach of this first article, but here’s a takeaway for today: the remedy for our consciences, weighed down with guilt and shame, whether real or imaginary, is the same in either case. “Cast all your cares on Jesus, because He cares for you.”
I’m not all-knowing. I may not ever figure out where exactly the line is between my every actual sin and my mere failings and not-awesome shortcomings. And that’s ok. Jesus knows and He has dealt with it. Come to Him.
As noted above, this article is the tip of the iceberg. It’s nowhere near a comprehensive treatment of this subject! I hope you’ll follow along as I seek to define terms, develop ideas, and dig into the scriptures in future articles.
Please comment with your thoughts, questions, challenges, and suggestions. 🙂 Your feedback will help as I develop this project going forward. I’d really love to hear from you! How do you grapple with guilt and shame? When it’s justified? When it isn’t? When you can’t tell the difference?
Other posts in this series: