The Guilt/Shame Problem

–Daniel S. Ferguson

It is impossible to discuss Christianity without sin. It just can’t be done. You can talk all you want about the love of Christ and how we should show that to others, but Christ’s love is irretrievably wrapped around His forgiveness. Jesus demonstrates His love first by forgiving. Without his grace, His love isn’t really knowable. Perhaps not even real.

But for forgiveness to happen, there has to have been a fault. You can’t forgive someone who hasn’t hurt you. Jesus calls hurts against Him ‘sin.’ He doesn’t beat around the bush with it: He calls sin out.

Jesus demonstrates how destructive it is and how much it hurts the heart of God. And then He forgives it. (Click to Tweet)

That’s what the Bible means when it says that Jesus was “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14, NKJV).

Jesus talks about sins a lot, so naturally the church talks about sins a lot. That only makes sense (#punintended #sorrynotsorry). I can’t even imagine a church that didn’t talk about sin as a very real issue. Sin is the essential problem that Christianity proposes to resolve. We wouldn’t exist without the problem of sin any more than PETA would exist without the problem of animal abuse. There’s no sense in a cure for a disease that doesn’t exist.

But we Christians have got a messaging issue. And it’s done a lot of harm, both for the church and for those who go to it.

The natural result of sin is guilt. Jesus forgives the sin and thus absolves the guilt. That’s an essential Gospel equation. (Click to Tweet)

The Gospel absolutely falls apart without any piece of that. Christians can lay no claim to freedom on earth or eternity in Heaven without it. Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is meaningless without both the guilt of human sin and Christ’s complete forgiveness of it.

That’s a really attractive equation, actually. Who doesn’t want to be free of guilt of sin? If that’s the church’s central message, though, why are people leaving churches because of it?

And they ARE.

Interview after interview after interview has used the exact same word to describe church: burden. (Click to Tweet)

I’ve talked to dozens of post-Christians now, and that has come up every single time. Not almost every time. Every. Single. Time.

Of course, I’m left to wonder why. It actually makes me kind of angry. Not at the post-Christians, but at the churches that somehow have, rather ubiquitously, brought burdens when they are charged with the Gospel of freedom in Jesus.

I mean, come on. Our Jesus says THIS:

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly” (Matthew 11:2-30, The Message).

Who doesn’t want THAT? Why aren’t people finding that in Jesus’ church? Why are they finding the opposite? And why so many?

I know that Jesus evokes guilt when He talks about sin; that’s what we’re supposed to feel about sin.

But Jesus doesn’t give us shame about guilt. He doesn’t leave us to rot in our guilt. He gives us freedom. (Click to Tweet)

And there’s the problem. Churches have talked about guilt, which is part of the Gospel, but somehow confused it with shame, which absolutely isn’t. (Click to Tweet) The people I talked to weren’t feeling guilt in church about their sin. They were feeling shame. They were left in their guilt to rot, being offered little or no chance at freedom in the grace of Jesus. They were being force-fed shame instead.

Shame is a completely different emotion from guilt, one that has NOTHING to do with the Gospel. (Click to Tweet)

So many people–SO MANY–are taught, either explicitly, implicitly, or both, that their sin is still a barrier between them and God. I was taught that. It isn’t true.

Don’t get me wrong. Sin is a problem. But Jesus has fixed that problem. He continually fixes that problem. Forever. Or at least so the Bible advocates. I mean, isn’t that kind of the whole Christian message? That Christ is a living sacrifice to pay for our sin-guilt? And if not, can I get a receipt for my soul, please?

Yes, I should still feel guilt when I sin, guilt that leads me to change because I love God. But I must not stay in guilt. Guilt should last until the moment I remember that Jesus has forgiven that sin and decide to change because I love Jesus back. Then guilt should go away and be replaced by joy in the grace of Jesus. That’s the healthy kind of guilt.

But the Bible says that “anyone who believes in Him [Jesus] shall not be put to shame” (Isaiah 28:16 and Romans 10:11). Shame is not supposed to even be available to Christians. Jesus is about undoing shame, not causing it.

I’m sure people’s journeys are all different, but I can point to when it first occurred to me.

It had to do with suicide. I was taught in Sunday School, like so many others, that those who killed themselves went to Hell. I remember distinctly being 7 years old and hearing that. I don’t know who thought it was a good idea to teach that idiotic and thoroughly unBiblical notion to second graders, but it stuck in my head.

I asked an obvious question: “Why?”

From what little I knew, what I was being taught didn’t make sense. I don’t recall the exact words the teacher answered with, but it was something along the lines of “Suicide is murder. Murder is a sin. But this sin can’t be confessed to Jesus because the sinner is dead. Therefore it can’t be forgiven.”

I had no idea that what I was being taught was utter nonsense, even from the most Biblically conservative point of view. Pure malarkey.

What I remember taking away from that, though, was not that if I committed suicide I would go to Hell, but that if I committed ANY sin that wasn’t confessed, I would go to Hell. I went home and made a list of every sin I could think of that I had ever committed. I kept doing this for weeks.

I didn’t show my parents. They probably would have set me straight (they’re good like that), but I didn’t because of a new emotion I hadn’t yet known: shame. I wasn’t feeling guilt about having sinned. Guilt, when given to Jesus, would have led to freedom. No, I was feeling shame. And shame stands opposed to freedom. (Click to Tweet)

I eventually stopped journaling my sins, but my brain silently kept tally for decades by itself. I was trained right then and there to hate myself. Not hate my sin, hate myself. I was trained to shame from the age of seven. I was trained to despise an image-bearer of God, a holy and adopted son, a co-heir of Christ, because of sins that were already paid for.

I can’t even come close to expressing the amount of damage that did to me psychologically and spiritually. It still affects me to this day, even though I know better and have tried to change how my soul processes guilt.

Later on, I learned shame from church about other things, too. The most common one for people I’ve met is shame around sex.

What can churches do differently? There’s no easy solution. For many people, the damage is old and the pathways to shame are well paved already. You can certainly help, though. My best suggestion is to never mention sin without emphasizing grace more. (Click to Tweet) Just cut it out entirely.

My next piece of advice, is to emphasize people’s positive values far more than their negative behaviors. (Click to Tweet) Focus on how people are image-bearers of God. Talk about how much God intrinsically loves them. This will not “let them off the hook for sin,” as many fear, but rather as a person comes to understand how much God loves them, they will naturally recognize the actions they commit that are incongruous with that and change accordingly.

Such changes happen best if they happen organically in a loving community that picks people up when they fall down. So do it often, do it a lot, and preach on it constantly.

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