It is a theme I have been thinking about quite a lot. It is a theme I have known in my own life at various times and in certain circumstances. I have pondered guilt and shame, and today I want to return to some reflections on them.
So many Christians live their lives racked with guilt and shame. They think back to the things they did, the sins they committed, whether two days ago or two decades, and they live under a cloud of shame. This shame hurts, it burns, it incapacitates. It raises this question: What is the place of guilt, what is the place of shame, in the life of the Christian?
We need to begin by distinguishing between guilt and shame. Here is how I differentiate between them: Guilt is the objective reality that I have committed an offense or a crime; shame is the subjective experience of feeling humiliation or distress because of what I have done. God has made us in such a way that sin incurs guilt and guilt generates shame. But there is a catch and a caution: Guilt and shame come in helpful forms and in paralyzingly unhelpful forms. Guilt and shame can be a good gift of God or a curse of Satan.
When I sin against God I may find that my conscience accuses me, that it convicts me that I have done wrong. My guilt, the realization that I have sinned, brings a feeling of shame. This guilt and shame is a good gift of God when it motivates me to repent of my sin, to look again to the cross of Christ.
When I repent of sin, I am assured by God that Christ himself has already dealt with the guilt of it. At the cross the guilt of that offense was transferred to Christ. He took that sin—the full, objective, legal guilt of it—upon himself to such an extent that my sin became his sin. Jesus Christ took every hateful thought and adulterous glance and spiteful word and every other sin upon himself. He took that sin to the cross and suffered God’s wrath against it to the point that justice was satisfied. This means that the offense has been truly and fully paid for. It is gone. I am no longer guilty before God!
But Christ did more than that. Not only did he take away my guilt, but he also gave me his righteousness. This is the great exchange of the gospel, that my sin was transferred to him and his righteousness was transferred to me. I am not only not sinful, but I am actually righteous. Because the guilt of the offense is gone, the shame is gone as well. Because that sin is no longer my own, the shame is no longer my own.
Think about this. The sin is no longer my own, which means the guilt is no longer my own, which means the shame is no longer my own. The guilt and the shame of that sin now belong to Christ. If anyone ought to be feeling shame for that sin, it is not me but Christ! Do you think Christ is at the Father’s side today racked with shame because of the adultery and murder and envy that he took upon himself? Of course not! Christ knows that those sins have been dealt with, that they have been forgiven, that they have been removed as far as east is from west. There is no shame left for him to feel.
So why, then, do I feel shame for sins I committed so long ago? Why do I get all wrapped up in guilt and shame? Because Satan wants me to be incapacitated by that shame, to doubt that it has been dealt with, to convince me that I still need to carry the weight of it. He wants to destroy my joy, to cripple my usefulness to the church, and he can do this by wrapping me up in guilt and shame.
The hymn “Before the Throne of God Above” speaks powerfully about forgiveness for guilt and shame.
When Satan tempts me to despair
And tells me of the guilt within,
Here is Satan, actively drawing old sins to mind, and convincing me that I still bear the guilt and shame of each one of them. But…
Upward I look and see Him there
Who made an end of all my sin.
Because the sinless Savior died
My sinful soul is counted free.
For God the just is satisfied
To look on Him and pardon me.
The guilt of my sin, the shame of it, cannot withstand just that one glance at the cross, for there I see the death of Christ and with it, the death of sin, guilt, and shame.
Christian, when you commit sin and feel shame, embrace it as an opportunity to turn again to the Lord, to repent of that sin, to preach the gospel to yourself, to assure yourself once more of the Lord’s grace for those who put their faith in Christ. And then embrace the freedom of forgiveness and let Jesus feel the shame.