Combating a Guilt and Shame Culture

In both guilt and shame we fall short of some standard. Guilt always has to do with not measuring up to a clear moral code, but shame doesn’t operate like that. Shame has more to do with falling short of how we see ourselves. We all have this ideal-self in our heads, this hero-of-sorts, often shaped by the culture around us. When we fall short we begin to feel shame. 

Guilt and shame are complex. When they work together, the combination is always healthy. Shame can be sort of like a spiritual MRI. It reveals that something has gone wrong our hearts.

Guilt and shame can also function independently. Sometimes we are guilty of doing things that are clearly wrong, yet feel no shame at all. If you've driven a car, you know what I mean. We can also feel shame independently of guilt for all sorts of things. We tend to feel shame about where we live, the vehicle we drive, the clothes we wear, the color of our skin, the way our bodies look, the college we went to or didn’t go to. The lists goes on... yet all of them are morally neutral. No laws, no moral code were ever broken in the process. Yet we still feel our stomachs wrench. We still feel unlovely, unworthy, dirty, and less then.

It all goes back to the ideal-self we have in our minds. And how far that ideal-self is from God’s ideal self for us sometimes. In our airbrushed, instagram culture. We've set up the wrong heroes. We have an unhealthy picture of what is beautiful and good. The effects are devastating.

Finally, guilt and shame can butt heads. What I mean by this is we can feel shame for doing the right thing, and we can have a sense of glory (the opposite of shame) when doing the wrong things. In the New Testament we see Paul repeatedly encourage the church to not be ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Man, isn’t this so true. I know there’s absolutely nothing more morally right than loving and serving and having my life shaped by Jesus, yet at times I feel embarrassed and ashamed that I actually do love him. Sometimes I just don’t want to be seen as “that guy”. 

The thing is when our morals are in Jerusalem and our ideal-self is in Hollywood we'll never be able to escape the cycle of guilt and shame. It wrings us dry and what’s left is anger, anxiety and fear.

These emotions do their damage first against ourselves. Anger, anxiety, and fear lead to self-hate, and the first thing we do is abuse ourselves, everything from harming to medicating. We say, “Since I am guilty… since I am dirty…since there is no honor in me... since there is nothing good in me...” We give ourselves over to shame. 

We handle ourselves cheaply as though there’s nothing intrinsically valuable about us, which is the opposite of what God tells about us! And what’s worse,  because of this we allow others to handles us cheaply and eventually we start to handle others cheaply. It’s no surprise research has shown that those who end up abusers were once victims of abuse early on in life. It’s a vicious cycle, the worst hurricane our souls have ever seen.

But praise God that the same Jesus who quieted that storm on the sea of Galilee can quiet this storm inside our souls. 

How does it work? Let’s take guilt and shame separately. How does God handle guilt in our lives? It’s this idea of justification, that the just judge of the universe brings down his gavel and by the blood of Christ declares us innocent.  On this we believe that all our sins past, present and future are nailed to the cross with Jesus. When we feel guilt that creates feelings of unworthiness. God responds, “I’ve canceled your debt. It’s already been paid in full. Yes, all of it.”

What then do we do with shame, that feeling of dirtiness that may or may not be attached to a moral code? This world gives us several suggestions about what to do with it. They say change the moral standard, start loving yourself more, get vulnerable with others. Some suggestions are clearly better than others. But what does the gospel say?

Well, there’s nothing that drives shame away more than being fully known, yet absolutely delighted in. Remember the prodigal son? The man who squanders his inheritance with prostitutes and alcohol. And when everything goes awry he ends up in a pigsty and tells himself he’s better off being a servant in his fathers house… And while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and he ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the father says, "Bring the best robe and put it on him, but the ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet, Bring the fattened calf and kill it, let us eat and celebrate!" To be fully known, yet delighted in. Now that drives out shame.

It doesn't happen immediately though. It takes a while. I say this to be real with you.

Have you ever thought how awkward the prodigal son must feel in that moment? Here he comes, the man who betrayed everyone in the room, and now there’s this huge party, and apparently it’s for him!  You think he’s even the slightest bit self-conscious? You bet. Our God picks up our heads and says “My child, let’s celebrate you are home!” But it doesn’t feel right for us. It feels awkward. It feels undeserved. This is why grace is so scandalous. So scandalous that we have to ask the Holy Spirit everyday to help us believe it. Yes, we are children of God, not forsaken. This is who the God of universe says we are. He cuts through every ounce of misplaced shame. Trust me, He’s the only one who can get through the whole darn thing. 

It’s this justification through Christ by the grace of God that anchors our hearts in a place where guilt and shame don’t lead to anger, anxiety and fear, but rather an increasing joy in our Father who delights in us, despite all of our shortcomings. And we will have shortcomings! Following Christ is willing to be confronted a million times between here and glory, knowing that God is for us and not against us. It's having him expose in us where we've truly fallen short. It's being in a place where we're met by grace, met by steadfast love, met by kindness over and over and over again. Living under grace stirs our affections for him, which leads us to recognize more of his grace, which stirs us even more. Trust me, these are calm waters for our soul to rest in.