Jay Blogs – Guilt and Shame

This year, our school theme is “Battle Tested,” and we’ve been looking at several of the many ways the devil attacks us, so that we will not be ignorant of his schemes, and so that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we will be able to resist him.  Of those weapons, guilt and shame are some of the most powerful.

Guilt and shame lead to depression, dysfunction and even death. Many of my friends who have been overwhelmed by these forces, and even taken their own lives as a result, have done so from a sense of guilt or shame. These weapons have a powerful appetite for destruction.

People sometimes use these terms interchangeably, but they are not the same thing. Guilt has to do with what you’ve done; shame goes to identity, who you are (or believe you are). Christian counselor and author Gerald May says that, “For every failure in my life, I feel either guilt or shame. Guilt says, ‘If only you had done better.’ Shame says, ‘If only you had been better.’” Even though they are separate, they are also interrelated, because shame is often at the base or root of feelings of guilt.

Guilt is also different from conviction of sin. Conviction is intended to be a grace from the Holy Spirit, meant to temporarily prick our conscience in such a way that it draws us to repentance. It’s the sting I feel when I told the lie that leads me to confess to the Lord and apologize to the friend I lied to, cleansing my heart, already justified by Christ. Guilt is the unwanted houseguest that hangs around my conscience long after I’ve confessed and repented, bringing the offense up again and again, telling me I’m never really free.

Shame tells me I’m a liar, that lying is who I am, that it’s my character. Shame is a lie the devil, someone else, or we tell about ourselves that we believe to our tremendous spiritual and emotional harm.

As God’s redeemed children, we are loved more than we can ever imagine. We are treasured, and we are forgiven by a God who doesn’t keep an account of past wrongs. We are beyond the spiritual reach of our enemy, the devil. He cannot ultimately have our hearts and souls. He knows this, and also knows that a child of God who knows who he or she is, fully loved and loving others through the Holy Spirit, is a very dangerous and threatening thing to his kingdom in the world. He knows that if he can lie to us, get us to believe lies about ourselves and what we’ve done, he can weigh us down so much with guilt and shame that we’ll be ineffective. If he’s very successful, he may just take us off the board altogether, the guilt and shame being too much for us to bear. The enemy of our souls is very good with these tools.

Sometimes, he’ll speak directly to us, the nagging inner voice reminding us again and again of that thing we’ve done, and how we can never really be forgiven for it, never be able to make it right. Sometimes, he uses other people, so that we tell ourselves that the horrible thing that person did to us all those years ago means we’re unworthy of anyone ever really loving us, or that thing someone said to us convinces us we’re not good enough, so much that we exhaust ourselves in vain attempts to prove this lie is not true.

That was my story. When I was very young, my father and mother were divorced. My father remarried only six months or so later. To my young mind, my father rejected me for his new family, feeling I wasn’t good enough, or second best. Years later, I realized that’s not what was happening at all; just a broken man trying to deal with his own pain (including no longer living with his kids who he loved). But shame doesn’t concern itself with truth; lies are its currency in trade.

So, I spent much of my life pushing myself beyond the healthy limits God had created for me in a futile attempt to prove to a ghost that I was worthy, that I was best and shouldn’t have been rejected. And, sometimes guilt or shame is fueled by the lies of the world, as well, like when obsession with body image is catalyzed by the reinforcement of a warped cultural aesthetic, or when an obsession with overworking is reinforced by cultural overvaluing of achievement and recognition. In these cases, we’re actually rewarded for our shame and guilt by the broken world around us, which feeds the toxicity and makes it particularly difficult to defeat.

In “The Soul of Shame,” Curt Thompson, a psychiatrist and a Christian, encourages us in battling the cloying effects of guilt and shame. He notes that Hebrews 12:1 and 2 encourages us to remember that we are surrounded by “a great cloud of witnesses” who exhort us to trust in Christ, the God-man “who endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at God’s right hand.”

Shame operates by isolating us, doing its work in secret. Therefore, the first step is to bring the lies into the light. This means surrounding ourselves with friends, family, and spiritual mentors who can guide us away from the lies that threaten to consume us. We have to speak our guilt and shame into the light, speak the lies to our friends, family, and those we trust, so they can encourage and pray for us, and speak truth and words of life back into us. They help reinforce our true identity, who we are in Christ. Guilt and shame lose a ton of their power when we bring them out of the darkness and into the light. That’s scary at first, and requires vulnerability, but the more we do it, the more freeing and enlightening it becomes.

We also have to “fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith.” Jesus resisted the temptations we face by remembering his Father’s pronouncement that Jesus was God’s beloved son, in whom he was well pleased. You are the beloved son or daughter of the mighty God. You please him, right now, who you are, no matter how you feel. You bring him joy. We have to focus on what is true, reinforce that truth again and again, and not be distracted by the lies the devil wants to tell about us.

When Jesus was tempted by the devil’s voice in the wilderness, he responded to his adversary each time with “it is written, “ which meant, “God says.” Jesus not only believed in what his Father said about him, but he steeped himself in God’s word. The remedy to lies is always the truth, and meditating on and abiding in God’s word empowers us to challenge the falsity of guilt and shame.

As I’ve said before, we are a people of story. The devil wants to twist and corrupt the true narrative of who God says we are and what he’s done in our lives, and make us believe his false story. It’s the ultimate “fake news.” But, God us wants to embrace the reality, the true story, and play it again and again in our hearts, reinforcing our minds and imaginations until we are able to put to death guilt and shame, and live free.

Jay Ferguson, Ph.D., Head of School at Grace Community School, writes regularly on his blog, JaysBlog.org.