We will all make mistakes, and at times feel guilty about what we’ve done, and the choices we’ve made. When we cross over from feeling regret and remorse for something we did into shame then we have a deeper issue; the feelings can make us sick emotionally and even physically.
Guilt is appropriate and urges us to confess and/or ask for forgiveness. Shame makes us hide.
A simple way to understand the difference between the two is that guilt says, ‘I did something wrong’ while shame says, ‘I amsomething wrong’. Do you see the difference? One is the action that is wrong the other is the belief that something is inherently and deeply wrong with you.
Some of us have made some terrible decisions that have caused deep pain in those we love, or maybe deep pain in someone we don’t even know. While God helps us to acknowledge the wrong things we have done and feel guilt for them (again, to spur us into action) – I don’t believe He wants us to stay in that place. And I don’t believe it’s ever His will for us to feel shame.
Let’s look at what David penned in Psalm 32:3-5, referencing his own sin:
“3For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
4For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah
5I acknowledged my sin to you,
and I did not cover my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,’
and you forgave the iniquity of my sin. Selah”
In verses 3-4, David gives a vivid physical description here of struggling with his sin and guilt. He says that his bones “wasted away” when he kept silent – when he did not confess his sins, what he had done. He describes carrying the weight of his guilt as God’s hand being “heavy upon me”.
Can you relate to feeling like this? Have you carried guilt around for too long, are you carrying guilt around now? Something you know you need to confess, or ask forgiveness for, but maybe it’s felt like too much to face.
Or maybe the guilt has been there so long it has turned into shame, which is destructive and like poison to our hearts.
I think it’s possible that God does keep his hand heavy upon us when we have something we need to confess, or come clean about, to prevent the guilt from turning into shame and harming us.
But David gives us the solution here to being burdened and weighed down by guilt – confession. Not covering it up, running away, denying, avoiding, rationalizing, overcompensating – but, confessing.
We can be so creative in our avoidance of confessing guilt. Confession is uncomfortable and sometimes even anxiety producing – but on the other side of it is not only found relief, but a promise from God that He will forgive the iniquity of our sins, just as David describes in verse 5 above.
What a beautiful promise this is.
So what about shame?
We can experience shame for many different reasons. I am not talking here about the shame that many people feel after experiencing sexual abuse. This is a different subject and it’s not tied with guilt. Sexual abuse is not something you did, it was something wrong someone did to you.
The shame I’m talking about here is tied to something we did wrong. It’s the feeling of being ugly, dirty, fundamentally broken, worse than anyone else – alone. Shame makes us hide out – for fear of light, or exposure. We’re afraid we’ll be found to be all the terrible things we believe we are.
Sometimes when someone has been sitting in unconfessed sin and guilt for so long, they’ve built a whole life around it – overcompensating for what they’ve done, in order to avoid the shame they have deep in their hearts about themselves.
It’s become so terrifying to look inward, it’s as if they’re involved in a perpetual juggling act to make sure no one really sees them for who they are, including themselves.
There is hope. There is a way out. Let’s look at Isaiah 1:18:
“Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD:
though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool.”
This verse starts with an invitation. God invites us to reason with him, to talk with Him about what He’s going to say. Then he goes onto the promise – whatever we have done, will be washed away, fully, completely. He will make it as if what we did never happened.
Matthew Henry (1708-1710), in his commentary describes the verse this way:
“Though our sins have been as scarlet and crimson, a deep dye, a double dye, first in the wool of original corruption, and afterwards in the many threads of actual transgression; though we have often dipped into sin, by many backslidings; yet pardoning mercy will take out the stain”.
So if our sins have had the deepest cleanse possible – done by God himself, through the sacrifice of Jesus – who are we to hold on to them; to allow the mistakes we have made to define us?
Christian, if you relate with feeling shame, with hiding, with feeling alone, like you are the worst person in the world and without hope… the feelings are real but they are not based on your true standing in Jesus. They are based on lies. God promises forgiveness to us and complete cleansing – what you have done no longer defines you. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they will be as white as snow.”
Accepting our identity as forgiven people can be challenging, particularly if you’ve felt guilty and full of shame for a long time. But it is possible to have this truth become your reality – your identity.
One of the simplest and most powerful ways is by writing on paper the lies you have been believing and next to them replacing them with Scripture, which is the truth. Each time you struggle with shame – when the lies come back – you go back to the verse that speaks the truth. Eventually these words will become your default, your identity.
If you are struggling today, if you’ve tried all you can, and you’re still bound up in guilt and shame, please reach out to a trusted pastor or therapist. As I’ve said before, we’re here to help. You are not alone. Checkout John 10:10 to be reminded of this.