God calls us to an abundant life in him, but many of us seem to get tripped up on our past and the deep heart wounds that hide there.
A lot of people are at least passingly familiar with Charles Dickens’s classic A Christmas Carol. Very few have probably read the book, though, which is unfortunate since many of the finer nuances were cut out in translation to film.
In one such lost scene, the jolly and bountiful Ghost of Christmas Present and Ebenezer Scrooge are talking when the ghost reveals two malnourished and miserable children grasping his ankles. “Spirit. Are they yours?” Scrooge asks.
“They are Man’s,” the spirit replies. “Beware them both, but most of all beware the boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom unless the writing be erased.”
When Scrooge asks why the children have not been helped, the ghost echoes Scrooge’s own earlier words: “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?”
In his book Life in the Wild, Dan DeWitt points out that the children are the emblematic results of Scrooge’s selfishness, “They glare at him with condemning eyes. Though their names in the story are Ignorance and Want, I think they can accurately be renamed Guilt and Shame.”
Guilt Versus Shame in High Definition
In modern culture, guilt and shame are often used interchangeably. Self-esteem coaches cry, “Don’t feel guilty about your choices. Don’t let shame drag you down!”
This misunderstanding about what separates the two is problematic because the Bible has quite a bit to say about both, and it addresses them very differently. Of the pair, though, shame is far more insidious.
Dan DeWitt differentiates them this way: “Though Guilt and Shame are twins, born in the garden, only moments apart, they aren’t identical. Guilt is usually tied to an event: I did something bad. Shame is tied to a person: I am bad. Guilt is the wound. Shame is the scar….
“Guilt is connected to events that can be defined in objective journalistic categories: who, what, where, when, and why. But shame is far less concerned with details.”
Case in point, the Holy Spirit uses guilt to get our attention and correct sinful behavior. “Man, I feel really bad about losing my temper. I should go clear that up with my friend.” If guilt goes unaddressed with God, it can lead to unhealthy behavior, but it’s first and foremost a useful sign of the broken relationship with our creator.
Guilt is a poignant reminder that we need God to make us right.
Shame, on the other hand, can afflict people about situations or aspects of themselves that they cannot change. Often victims of abuse feel shame, in most cases far more than their assailants.
Worse yet, shame is the barrier between us and others’ love because terrible lies snake around our minds and hearts: “Maybe this pain is what love looks like. That kind person must be lying. They wouldn’t stick around if they knew the ‘true’ me. God doesn’t mean these promises for someone in my case. I deserve what happened to me.”
Guilt helps us course correct as we weave down life’s road. Shame keeps us from ever leaving the parking lot.
Finding Freedom From Shame
The Bible talks a lot about taking away our shame.
“I sought the Lord, and he answered me and delivered me from all my fears. Those who look to him are radiant, and their faces shall never be ashamed” (Psalm 34:4-5 ESV).
“But the Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame” (Isaiah 50:7).
“For the Scripture says, ‘Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame’” (Romans 10:11).
“Behold, at that time I will deal with all your oppressors. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth” (Zephaniah 3:19).
God is in the business of mending heart-wounds and freeing us from the shackles of the past: what we’ve done, what has been done to us. The scars of sin can hold us back from running all out in that good race Paul describes. Inevitably, we will mess things up. We’re broken people living in a broken world, and we’ll make mistakes and hurt others.
However, the Bible’s promise, “as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:12) means that guilt should never be left to ferment into shame.
In a podcast episode on shame, Gary Wilkerson points out, “There's a need for two types of faith there. One is the faith that God believes in me, that he loves me, that he accepts me. The second hand of faith is…’I believe there's dignity and worth and value in my own life.’
“You have a double blessing of not only being valuable because God created you in your mother's womb—he put you together; he knitted you together; you have that intrinsic value—but now you even have a greater grace in your life.”
You have been redeemed by Jesus Christ, beloved and rescued son or daughter of God.
Opening Up and Speaking Out
Once we’re secure in God’s sacrifice and purpose for us, then we’ll be okay with acknowledging our sins and mistakes. Even if our pasts seem impossibly racked by brokenness, we can rejoice in the knowledge that God has great plans for us.
“Oddly, God loves to choose the most unlikely, untrained, and imperfect folks to accomplish amazing things,” points out Jim Cymbala, pastor and World Challenge boardmember.
“When God’s Spirit moves, his purposes are revealed and accomplished in ways that no committee, personality test, or computer program could ever figure out.”
The rewards of accepting Christ’s work and shedding our shame are deeper relationships and more success navigating community. Genuine creativity is also often the fruit of freedom from shame. It requires taking risks, offering up imperfections and accepting critique.
The Holy Spirit has freed us to be able to open up, speak out against problems and move forward with courage and not shame.