Guilt and Shame Are Good for Me
“Christian” Beliefs that Can Drive You Crazy – Part 4
False Assumption — Guilt and Shame Are Good for Me
This crazymaker states that guilt and shame are good for us and helpful to our spiritual growth. Guilt and shame assist us by revealing our past sin to us—and they also prevent us from sinning again.
This false assumption is especially potent in those who respect the Bible, because the Scriptures can be subtly twisted to teach guilt and shame messages.The theology of guilt and shame plays out in our lives like this:
- “How can you be so selfish as to not lend me the money?”
- “After all I’ve done for you, you can’t even come home for Christmas.”
- “Shame on you for saying that to her!”
- “You really should visit them. They are your parents, you know.”
- “There’s plenty of people out there who need your help, and you’re going on vacation?”
- “What am I supposed to do with myself if you can’t go?”
- “You should have licked that eating disorder by now.”
The teacher of this type of theology usually wants something from you and is angry that you aren’t providing it. The guilt message is simply a way to get you to change your mind.
The problem is that we feel guilty without actually being guilty. And 1 John 1:9 is not a bath for guilty feelings. It’s a sin bath. We don’t confess to get rid of guilt, but to have sin forgiven by God and to be reconnected in fellowship to him. There is much confusion about what the Scriptures actually teach about guilt and shame.
The Internal Condemnation of Guilt and Shame
First, let’s explore the concepts of guilt and shame, then, clear up the confusion surrounding them.
Guilt has two common meanings. One is the state of having done a wrong (e.g. he is guilty of stealing the stereo). Another is a painful feeling of self-reproach resulting from the belief that we have done a wrong (e.g. he felt guilty for not coming home for Christmas).
On one hand, the Bible refers to guilt as a state, not a feeling. Rather than describing a feeling of guilt, the Bible describes a legal condition of guilt: “You have become guilty because of the blood you have shed” (Ezekiel 22:4).
As a judge pronounces a defendant guilty, God has declared us legally guilty. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). By official pronouncement we are guilty for having broken the law. We have missed the mark of righteousness and need his solution, the Cross.
One the other hand, feelings of guilt—as opposed to the state of guilt—are basically our consciences condemning us, telling us we’re bad. Guilt feelings are painful, often causing us to criticize and condemn ourselves even more. They usually result from a sense that our actions have hurt someone. We may feel guilty for disappointing someone or setting a limit with them.
Shame is a painful feeling of having lost the respect of others because of our own improper behavior.
Though similar to guilt, shame has a broader definition in the Bible: It is both a state and a feeling. Shame is a sense of being bad, a state of internal condemnation
Some people distinguish between the two words by saying that guilt describes our self-condemnation for what we do, while shame shames us for who we are. You feel guilty for yelling at your child; you feel shame for being a bad parent.
The guilt and shame that I am discussing here are derived from early socialization processes. The conscience serves as an internal parent to monitor and evaluate the goodness or badness of our behavior. When the conscience approves, we feel relief. When it doesn’t, we feel guilt and shame. The conscience-driven, environment-derived dynamic is what becomes a problem in spiritual growth.
Deifying the Conscience
You may hear someone preach that feeling guilty is a sign that you are guilty. Someone may say, “Guilt feelings are an emotional red light telling you that you have sinned. God speaks through guilt and shame. So listen to them.”
Teaching like this can cause many Christians to feel enslaved to a shameful conscience. But we don’t have to. Let’s look at a biblical view of the conscience.
The first thing we notice is that our conscience is a product of the Fall. Human beings didn’t always have a conscience. Adam and Eve didn’t have one, because they didn’t need one. They had a direct, uninterrupted connection with God.
In addition, Adam and Eve were never intended to deal with issues of morality. Questions of good and evil weren’t meant for humans, but only for God. God knew that if we had knowledge of good and evil, we would turn our focus from relationship to rules, from love to legalism. Being good would become more important than being connected.
That’s why the only tree whose fruit whose fruit Adam and Eve were prohibited from eating was the Tree of Knowledge of God and Evil (Genesis 2:9, 17). And when they ate, God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:22). Adam and Eve now had knowledge of good and bad, but without the character strength of God to deal with it. They were banished from the Garden.
The banishment was actually an act of mercy. God ejected the first couple so that he could later work out the problem of sin through his Son. Otherwise, they would have remained eternally hidden from God, in the Garden. So humankind was stuck—out of the Garden, out of perfect connection with God.
At this point the conscience began. It developed out of our loss of relationship with God, as we began responding to the internal law of sin and death (Romans 8:2). It was an adaptation to learning how to sort out good and evil. The conscience became an “evaluator,” refereeing the goodness and badness of our thoughts, actions, and feelings.
Our conscience isn’t God. It’s part of living in a fallen world, and in a judged state. This internal referee combines the law written on our hearts by God (Romans 2:15) with our early socialization processes. But it isn’t perfect.
As a product of the image of God as well as part of the Fall, our consciences change and grow with us. As we help the conscience mature, we can trust it more. But it is certainly fallible. Equating the conscience with God makes as much sense as equating a cult leader with Jesus Christ.
Confusing Guilt Feeling with Godly Sorrow
Guilt feelings focus on our badness. They focus on our feeling of worthlessness and our deserved punishment. They are essentially self-absorbed, not other-centered. Guilt moves us away from relationship and into hiding.
Godly sorrow is a better response to our sinfulness:
… I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done. (2 Corinthians 7:9-11, italics mine)
Here Paul teaches the difference between godly sorrow (remorse) and worldly sorrow (guilt). God sorrow is empathic, centering on the hurt we cause to someone we love. We feel bad because we feel the pain of the person we’ve injured.
Godly remorse seeks to heal, to make restitution to those we’ve hurt. Reconciliation and relationship are its goals. To the contrary, guilt seeks self-justification. It attempts to get rid of the bad feelings.
What Can You Do?
The next time you miss the mark, search your emotional response. If it centers on how bad you are, your emotions are “worldly sorrow”—or guilt. But if your response centers on loving your neighbor as yourself, it is likely to be “Godly sorrow”—or repentance.
If you’re motivated by guilt or shame, you cannot also be motivated by love. A strict guilt-inducing conscience is not from God. Ask him for help in finding people who can move you from guilt and shame to love.
It can be helpful to remember these things:
- Own the guilt. It may have been built into you by too-strict relationships, but it’s now your problem, and you can do something about it.
- Get into a support system that is more concerned with relationships than “sin-busting,” a group that understands that “God’s kindness leads you toward repentance” (Romans 2:14).
- Investigate where you learned the guilt messages.
- Become aware of your anger.
- Forgive whoever controlled you.
- Learn new information to reeducate your conscience, from the Scriptures and from teaching that combines grace and truth.
- Internalize new voices from your support group. Guilt isn’t resolved by simply retraining your mind. You need to replace critical voices with accepting ones.
- Don’t resist grief. Let others comfort and love you through the process.
Taken from 12 “Christian” Beliefs That Can Drive You Crazy, © Drs. Henry Cloud & John Townsend, Zondervan 1995
12 “Christian” Beliefs That Can Drive You Crazy helps you find relief from 12 false assumptions that are commonly believed. Drs. Cloud & Townsend explain the origin of these false principles, show where they go wrong, and pressent a biblical path for resolving emotional and spiritual problems.
This article is Part 4 in a series of Feature Articles adapted from 12 “Christian” Beliefs That Can Drive You Crazy.
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