I love Tim (not his real name). He has struggled with a serious drug addiction for many years. He is making some effort to change, to give up his drugs for good. He has made considerable progress in the last two years, but he has stalled more recently. His stagnation is, in part, I believe because of the sense of shame and guilt which overwhelm him. He no longer wants to talk with me because, he says, “I am just a big disappointment.” He’s caught in a cycle of failure right now, at least once a month he gives in and the feelings of guilt and shame will keep him from recovery and counseling. Change is hard for all of us, but unaddressed feelings of guilt and shame will keep us stuck.
Guilt and shame are related but not synonymous. Guilt has to do with what we’ve done, but shame seems more deeply related to who we are. We may incur guilt from what we do, but we are shameful. Often we may address our guilt through apologies and making amends, but because shame is more internal than external it can linger. Both emotions can be powerful, and yet of the two it seems that shame can be more debilitating. It requires an evaluation of ourselves that deems the self unworthy, unlovely, and unacceptable. Sometimes this shame flows from our guilt (what we’ve done), and other times it flows from our victimization (what has been done to us). To the degree that we believe our shame we will become resistant to the idea of change and progress. As Brene Brown has written:
Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change. (I Thought It Was Just Me)
Shame speaks loudly against notions of transformation, arguing that who we are is simply too broken to be fixed.
Shame also has a highly social aspect to it. If guilt lives in the courtroom, shame lives in the community center. It’s not just that we feel unworthy, rather it is that we are convinced we are unworthy and everybody else knows it too. As June Tangney and Ronda Dearing note:
Shamed people feel exposed. Although shame doesn’t necessarily involve an actual observing audience that is present to witness one’s shortcomings, there is often the imagery of how one’s destructive self would appear to others. (Shame and Guilt, 18)
In other words shame communicates rejection. It is isolating and quarantines the individual, creating a deeper sense of rejection since there is no one present to contradict those feelings. So, what we feel becomes fact in our own minds. Everyone knows how worthless we are and no one will want to help us, love us, or be with us. These are exceedingly strong emotions that will impair any sense of hope for the future.
The Psalmist knows something of this experience. In Psalm 69 he describes his experience of being hated, mocked, despised. We see phrases that may parallel our own senses of shame and disgrace. In verses 1-3 he introduces his plight with dramatic expression. He is a “deep mire” and flood waters sweep over him. His throat is sore from crying out to God for rescue, he has been doing it so long but to no avail. It feels as if even God has rejected him. In verse 4 he has many enemies who hate him and would seek to destroy him. He is alone, a “stranger” to his own brothers (v. 8). Even his attempts at godly sorrow have resulted in more isolation and derision. He says:
When I wept and humbled my soul with fasting, it became my reproach.When I made sackcloth my clothing, I became a byword to them. I am the talk of those who sit in the gate, and the drunkards make songs about me. (v. 10-12)
He continues, expounding on his isolation in verses 20 and 21:
Reproaches have broken my heart, so that I am in despair. I looked for pity, but there was none, and for comforters, but I found none. They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me sour wine to drink.
His “shame” and “dishonor” are known to God and to all (v. 19). In Psalm 44:15 his words are even more pointed:
All day long my disgrace is before me, and shame has covered my face.
He cannot escape this sense of unworthiness and exposure. It is all he feels all day long.
These powerful emotions will keep us from moving forward because we are convinced that they run to the very core of our being and cannot be altered. We accept them as essential to our identity; “it’s just who I am.” For those who live apart from Christ there is a sense in which these feelings are true of the self. Apart from Christ we do have real guilt that must be addressed. Apart from Him we are deeply broken and unable to change our situation (Jer. 13:23). But when we come to Christ in faith, seeking his forgiveness for our sins, and his righteousness for our lives, we become new creations (2 Cor. 5:17). The old is gone and the new has come. We are no longer the sinful, guilty messes that we once were. Rather, we are now adopted children of God (Eph. 1:5) and we are being transformed into the image of Christ (2 Cor. 3:18). Paul tell us that in Christ there is no condemnation (Rom. 8:1). Furthermore, Christ endured the shame of the cross on our behalf so that we would not experience shame for our sin (Heb. 12:2). Who we are in Christ has been fundamentally changed so that our shame is no longer real.
This is even revealed in the very nature of Psalm 69. For Jesus lives the elements of this Psalm when he goes to the cross. Not only does Jesus experience the abandonment of those who are closes to him, even his own “brothers,” but he drinks the poisonous wine in Matthew 7:34. Verse 9 in particular is fulfilled at the cross as Jesus pays the penalty for our sin. The text reads:
For zeal for your house has consumed me, and the reproaches of those who reproach you have fallen on me.
The reproach of those who reproach God has fallen on Jesus. Both our guilt and, as a result, our shame are done away with in Christ.
We must learn, then, to accept our new identity in Christ. We must believe His word about who we are over our own word. Paul tells the Corinthians that not only does he reject the judgment of others about himself, but he even rejects his own judgment of himself. He writes:
But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. 4 For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. (1 Cor. 4:3-4)
It is God’s opinion of Paul that matters most. It is his opinion that holds true. The apostle John follows this same line of reasoning when he urges the believers in his epistle to let God’s truth trump even their own hearts. He writes:
for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything. (1 John 3:20)
If you have put your faith in Christ for salvation then God speaks of you as beloved, as chose, as acceptable in His sight. He calls you child. Does God’s Word hold more authority about your self-identification than your word? Believe Him and seek to cultivate humility in your own self-awareness.
Do you struggle with guilt and shame? False shame, like a phantom limb, can sometimes linger even when it has been removed. Seek to preach God’s word to yourself. Your growth requires that you know the truth about who you are in Christ. Unaddressed shame and guilt will keep you stuck. My prayer for Tim is that he would see himself as God sees him in Christ. It’s my prayer for you too.