Abusive relationships breed confusion: shame, anger, pity, love, guilt, frustration, fear. If that’s your bag, it’s time to ask questions and get help.
One of those feelings and filters that affects all of life is shame. It eats away at us in quiet moments, in the dark of night, in between this and that. If only one could erase shame, life would be bearable. Truly, living with someone who immerses and bathes one in shame makes it hard, if not impossible, to escape. What is shame? Where does it come from? And what do you do with it?
The first time shame is mentioned, God draws attention to its absence: And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed. (Genesis 2:25) At some point after that Eve and Adam eat forbidden fruit. They sinned and broke God’s law. They are guilty. Their response? Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loin coverings. (Genesis 3:7) Shame resulted from guilt–and it should. But in our broken world and broken state of being, that’s not always the way it works. It’s possible to feel shame without guilt. It’s also possible to be guilty without feeling shame.
Shame results in wanting to cover ourselves; to hide, become invisible. It is often, but not always, the result of guilt. There is a difference. The word, “shame” or “ashamed,” has to do with embarrassment or dishonor (chaphar– Hebrew, aischune– Greek)*. The root word means, “to dig, search out, explore.” It is the idea of being exposed and afraid. Many eastern cultures use shame as a motivator for expected behavior: i.e. Samurai suicide, Muslim “honor killing.” When I was a child, we would slide one index finger over the other saying, “On ver…” to the person who did something shameful. We all know what it feels like to be ashamed.
Guilt, on the other hand, means “liable” (asham– Hebrew, enochos– Greek).* This is a forensic term that connects an individual with committing a crime. I am responsible. I sinned against God. It’s possible to be guilty without experiencing shame. Our media is full of examples. If you have been, or are, a survivor of domestic abuse, you see it regularly.
In a broken, twisted relationship the two can be confused and misused. One may feel shame as a result of embarrassment, false accusations, belittling, wicked, evil words and actions. Like blood that pours from a wound, shame defiles everyone and everything it touches. Guilt, on the other hand, is the would. Guilt is the source of the problem. Shame can be cleaned and removed with the truth of God’s Word. Guilt requires faith and confession for healing.
How do you know if what you’re feeling is shame or guilt? Make a list of things you feel ashamed and guilty for. What words circle in your head like vultures? Write them down in black and white. Then, either by yourself or with a trusted friend, look to the Word of God. Ask these questions:
- Is this true? Does God’s Word agree with this statement? Some words and actions heaped on you are blatant lies. They are not real or true in any sense of the word. Cross those items off your list.
- Consider those that are left. Am I embarrassed? Is this about what people think (myself included) or did I actually do something wrong?
- If I am concerned more about what people think, it’s shame. I feel exposed, dirty, unwanted, violated. That does not make me guilty. What does God say? If I am His child, He says Jesus took my shame (Hebrews 12:2). God doesn’t care what people think. God loves me; He sent Jesus to die for me and make me His own. I am loved, chosen, adopted, blessed, forgiven, redeemed (Ephesians 1:3-12)
- If I am guilty of breaking God’s law, He extends hope and forgiveness in Christ. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9) I do not have to bear the guilt of my sin. Jesus did that for me. I do not have to “pay” for it or earn His favor. In fact, no one ever can. I can come to Him in faith and humility, asking for His help and forgiveness.
Accusations do not equal guilt. Only God can assign guilt–and His Word is clear. If you are not sure what the Bible says, it is very possible it is being misused to trap, oppress, and harm you. As frightening as it may be, pray and ask God for the courage to ask someone you can trust to help you sort through shame and guilt.
I will bless the Lord at all times;
His praise shall continually be in my mouth.
My soul will make its boast in the Lord;
The humble will hear it and rejoice.
O magnify the Lord with me,
And let us exalt His name together.
I sought the Lord, and He answered me,
And delivered me from all my fears.
They looked to Him and were radiant,
And their faces will never be ashamed.
This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him
And saved him out of all his troubles.
The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear Him,
And rescues them.
O taste and see that the Lord is good;
How blessed is the man who takes refuge in Him!
O fear the Lord, you His saints;
For to those who fear Him there is no want.
The young lions do lack and suffer hunger;
But they who seek the Lord shall not be in want of any good thing.
Come, you children, listen to me;
I will teach you the fear of the Lord.
Who is the man who desires life
And loves length of days that he may see good?
Keep your tongue from evil
And your lips from speaking deceit.
Depart from evil and do good;
Seek peace and pursue it.
The eyes of the Lord are toward the righteous
And His ears are open to their cry.
The face of the Lord is against evildoers,
To cut off the memory of them from the earth.
The righteous cry, and the Lord hears
And delivers them out of all their troubles.
The Lord is near to the brokenhearted
And saves those who are crushed in spirit.
Many are the afflictions of the righteous,
But the Lord delivers him out of them all.
He keeps all his bones,
Not one of them is broken.
Evil shall slay the wicked,
And those who hate the righteous will be condemned.
The Lord redeems the soul of His servants,
And none of those who take refuge in Him will be condemned. (Psalm 34)
One thought on “Shame vs. Guilt”
Ed Welch’s book “Shame Interrupted” is hugely insightful and healing on this topic. The naked and the outcast were the ones Jesus touched. Not only are we washed and clothed with beautiful garments- honored- but we are given a commission to go out and touch others as Jesus’ representatives.
He writes gently and pastorally to those who are shamed. The downcast are lifted up.
It’s not a short read – Scripture has so much to say about shame – but it’s profound.
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