Guilt, Shame, and Grace
The late Presbyterian minister and seminary professor, Jack Miller, was often fond of saying, “Cheer up. You’re a lot worse off than you think you are.” Such a less-than-flattering statement fundamentally deviates from the common understanding of people. A recent poll indicated that most American and British adults believe human nature to be basically good, with older people being the most likely to have a positive view of humanity.
Scripture, however, takes a different view. The depravity of our hearts is exponentially greater than we could ever understand. We can never peal back enough layers of our soul to fully reveal the specifics of what God already knows; that our “hearts are deceitful above all things and desperately sick” (Jeremiah 17:9).
This is an indictment on all of us. From cover to cover, the Bible declares us to be guilty. But as our culture becomes increasingly post-Christian, people are becoming less concerned with their conscience than they are with their reputation. In fact, shame is what most Americans personally fear the most; that they have somehow been rendered unworthy of love and belonging.
Both shame and guilt are spoken of extensively in Scripture. Guilt is when you objectively fail to meet an established standard. Before God, it’s something you've done or failed to do that misses the mark that he has instituted for his glory and for human flourishing.
Shame, on the other hand, is the heart-response of being exposed or having failed in the eyes of someone else. And there are times in Scripture where God wants us to feel shame for sin. For instance, when Paul admonishes the Corinthian church for bringing lawsuits against one another instead of taking their complaints before a court of the church (Session or Council of Elders), he says this to their “shame” (1 Corinthians 6:5). And Peter calls followers of Christ to be prepared to give a reason for the hope they have, “so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame” (1 Peter 3:16). The humiliation and embarrassment we feel when we have failed to love our neighbor or dishonored God’s name is intended to bring about repentance; to draw us away from sin and back to Christ.
However, we often feel shame for the wrong things. When we more concerned that our reputation of being a strong parent, a good spouse, successful in our career, spiritually mature, or physically astute has come crashing down, then the shame we feel is exposing a misplaced hope; something or someone who has replaced God as the source of our self-definition. The shame we feel for false guilt – for falling short of our own expectations or those of others – is often more intense than that we feel for the authentic guilt of violating God’s law for no other reason than that we routinely live for human approval more than for the glory of God.
The only antidote to our shame is the gospel. Jack Miller not only taught us that we are worse off than we think, but also that “in Jesus you're far more loved than you could have ever imagined.” In Christ, you are no longer ultimately defined by you sin, or by your pride, or by the expectations of others, but by the grace and righteousness of Christ credited to you through faith in him. So when you fail, you can own it, remembering that you don’t have to pay for your sin because Christ has already paid it all for you. When someone accuses you – perhaps even falsely – you can respond by saying, “I’m actually far worse than you say, but I’m more loved and forgiven than you could ever know.” When your spouse, your children, your career, and your finances fail, you can remember that Jesus does not measure you by your success, but by the success of Christ for you in the gospel.
May we all endeavor to more deeply know our faithful and loving Savior in this way and may that personal knowledge of him lead us to pursue his glory in all things.