Shame and Guilt Defined
Guilt in Western culture is about whether we have done the right or wrong thing. We have chosen our actions and we are responsible for those actions. The action or actions can be measured in an objective manner and it is either right or wrong. If it is wrong we are found guilty. The opposite of guilt is moral purity and innocence. We immediately search for innocence when the guilt is exposed, even if we have to lie to obtain it.
Shame is the effect of indignity and alienation. Shame strikes deeply into our hearts. It does not matter if we have been mocked by others or if we mock ourselves, we feel naked, defeated, alienated and as if we have no dignity or worth. Shame has been called a soul-eating emotion. The opposite of shame is honor and glory.
To understand guilt and shame we need to start at the beginning. Adam and Eve were living in the Garden of Eden in perfect transparent harmony with God and each other. They were naked, fully exposed, fully known, and full of glory.
They were given a moral choice to eat or not to eat from the tree God commanded them not to eat. A crafty and seductive one appeared and allured them to use that moral choice to pursue what appeared to be real, good, and desirable, but was in fact false, evil, and soul-damaging.
“Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths” (Genesis 3:7). Their immediate response was fear, shame, and hiding. They found themselves feeling stripped and deprived of all sense of honor. Their experience was to feel degraded, disgraced, and abandoned. They were guilty and exposed of their wrongdoing before God and one another. They thought making coverings would be a solution to save their esteem. It is as if they were saying, “We are defective, but honor us still.” As they ran from each other and God.
There is both guilt and shame in this Genesis account. There is guilt because Adam and Eve make an objective moral choice to defy God. They were no longer innocent and morally pure. They were guilty before God, and as a result they were fearful and they hid themselves. There is shame because they were exposed in their wrongdoing. They felt defective and not up to God’s standard. They felt dishonored, and a disgrace so they covered themselves, and hid because they did not want God to see them in their shameful state.
When we feel shame, we hate the thought of being seen. We do everything we can to cover up and prevent exposure.
How do we hide? We hide in pride and arrogance. We hide in performance, status, or power. We hide in drugs, alcohol, and rage. Shame is a sense of seeing self as defective, empty, and worthless. Shame causes us to curl in on ourselves to hide, and be unreachable, so that we don’t have to be seen. Shame believes we are weak, incompetent, and stupid. Shame says we are helpless ugly losers. These life-shaping beliefs about ourselves become deeply entrenched over time.
Results of Shame
Withdrawal: This is a place of alienation where we hide from others living in fear of exposure as a defective person.
Attack Self: We diminish ourselves in the presence of others to stay connected.
Avoidance: We attempt to hide feelings of shame entirely from ourselves and move toward some form of addiction. Or we can avoid by drawing attention to self through behaviors of clowning around and showing off.
Attack Others: We become the bully who preys on the vulnerable to dole out our own sense of shame onto others.
Solution to Shame
We read the Bible and see it says, “But you, O Lord, are a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head” (Psalm 3:3).
We who are shamed creatures, whether by our sin or the sin and torment of others against us, are called to look, to fix our eyes upon Jesus. Jesus the one who was utterly exposed and shamed in all ways. He did not hide when he was shamed. We walk with Him on the way to the cross and see Him endure the torture, the jeering, the pain, the insults, the nakedness, the spit running down His face. We must fix our gaze on the One from whom we naturally turn our eyes.
He calls us to watch with Him, to stare down His shame with Him. We then see the text tell us that He despised the shame (Isaiah 53:3-5). He did not fear it, He was not diminished by it or hiding from it. The very thing that leads us to feel worthless, He considered a worthless thing.
He despised shame and sat down at the right hand of the Father in glory. We are shamed and glory disappears. Jesus faced shame and transformed it into glory. We are there with Him, all of us bearing the shame of our own sin and the sin of others against us. Jesus does not avoid or hide from that shame, and rather than despising us, He despised the shame. When He did this He carried all of us shameful creatures back to glory.
“And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
We who hid our faces from the Lord and everyone else can now behold Him, see Him, and be seen by Him without shame, and as we do, we are changed into glory. Can we all do as Jesus calls us behold Him, be seen by Him, and be changed by the glory of His love? As we are changed may we go to the shamed of this world and bring them the taste of His glory.