Guilt, Shame, Regret…and Grace Part Two
“The Benediction Project”
Many people, whether religious or not, struggle with guilt, shame or regret. Or they struggle with two or possibly all three. These are closely related and intertwined, and are such major issues that, if not dealt with properly, will hinder and maybe even destroy one’s stability and success in life as well as one’s peace of mind and will to live. In the previous posting we considered guilt. In this article we focus on shame.
Shame is generally understood as an unpleasant emotional reaction by a person to an actual or presumed negative judgment of him or her by others, resulting in self-depreciation in relation to the group. (This definition and certain other insights in the first part of this essay are from the article, “Shame,” by R. L. Timpe, in Baker Encyclopedea of Psychology, edited by David G. Benner, 1985.
Shame involves an objective act and a subjective feeling of the person. The objective act violates some social convention (which may or may not include a violation of God’s law in the thinking of the person) and, as a consequence, leads to the subjective feeling of condemnation and derogation. When we feel shame we experience it as a wound to our self-esteem, a painful feeling or sense of degradation aroused in us by the consciousness of having done something unworthy of our previous idea of our own excellence.
Some examples may be helpful. If a piece of our clothing becomes loose and exposes part of our body inappropriately, or if we begin to eat our meal too soon among high society, where everyone is expected to wait until the ringing of a certain bell, we experience shame. We have committed a sort of “social transgression.”
Guilt and shame are related but not the same. Some maintain that guilt follows transgression of prohibitions, whereas shame follows one’s failure to reach his or her goals or ideals. A similar view is that guilt arises out of wrongdoing, whereas shame comes from inferiority. I find these distinctions helpful in thinking about the two concepts.
If I break God’s law of neighbor-love by shouting angrily at an innocent person in the company of others, I will feel (I hope) both true guilt, because I will know I did wrong in the eyes of God, and shame, because I will be aware that I offended not only God and the one I wrongly accused, but also because I violated societal expectations and (perhaps most painful of all) I violated my own ideals and expectations of myself.
Shame may be either beneficial or harmful. Just as guilt feelings may help us or hurt us, so feelings of shame may benefit us (leading us to apologize, for example, in front of a group) or damage us (as in the case of parents shaming their children for spilling their milk or getting their clothes dirty).
In the Bible we read about Adam and Eve, who, as created, “were both naked, and they felt no shame” (Genesis 2:25, NIV 2011). Immediately after they sinned they obviously felt some kind of shame because they made clothes for themselves (Genesis 3:7-11). This kind of shame, while not something God originated at creation is, in itself, not a bad thing. It is actually good to have an inner sense of modesty and propriety. It is also good to have a sense of shame over our sins.
If we experience a feeling of shame it is important to consider whether the shame is due to a violation of God’s will or of social customs or of our own expectations of ourselves, or all three. In the first case we also have (or should have) feelings of guilt, and thus need to confess our sin to God and ask him to take away our sin and our shame. In the second case we need to apologize to others if and when that is necessary and then try to learn from the situation.
The third case is often the most difficult to deal with. And it is here where Satan and his forces may work very hard to destroy us, or at least ruin our effectiveness as servants of Jesus Christ.
In this case we feel that we have let ourselves down and failed to live up to our own expectations of ourselves. It is very painful to admit to ourselves that we are not as good as we thought we were, especially when others come to know this about us (or we assume they know this about us).
Another huge aspect of this third source of shame is when there are ongoing—perhaps permanent—negative consequences, particularly in the lives of others, due to something we may have done. A person who killed a pedestrian while driving, or a parent who tried to train properly his or her now-adult child, who now lives a life of crime, is a prime candidate for Satan’s assaults.
Whether it be guilt feelings or shame feelings that rob us of joy, peace of mind and the ability to do our daily work well, we need to know that, if we have trusted Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, we may experience true and lasting liberation from the heartsick condition and downward spiral of guilt and shame.
If we have sincerely confessed (literally, “said the same thing about” as God) all known wrongdoing, from long ago or more recent times, and have accepted God’s complete forgiveness (1 John 1:5-2:2), then we now stand before God clothed in clean garments. Any feelings of guilt and shame we may still experience are from the evil one.
Satan is said to be “the accuser of our brothers and sisters, who accuses them before our God day and night” (Revelation 12:10). In the book of Zechariah we read of “Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the LORD, and Satan standing at his right side to accuse him.” The very next words, from God himself, are, “The Lord rebuke you, Satan!” And then God said to Joshua, “See, I have taken away your sin, and I will put fine garments on you” (3:1-5). We also may say, “The Lord rebuke you, Satan. You are a defeated foe through the blood of the Lamb!” (Colossians 2:13-15). And then we can hear and cling to the words of our Lord to us:
“Do not be afraid; you will not be put to shame. Do not fear disgrace; you will not be humiliated. You will forget the shame of your youth.… In a surge of anger I hid my face from you for a moment, but with everlasting kindness I will have compassion on you, says the LORD your Redeemer” (Isaiah 54:4, 8).