After I had prepared to write this article I went on the internet and did a search on ‘guilt and shame’. As I scanned through the articles listed, amazingly there was only one religious entry in the top twenty, and that one made no mention of Christ’s Gospel; it was an analysis of how people who participate in riots may be driven by guilt and shame. Other than that one article who, according to Google, was interested in the topic of guilt and shame? Psychology journals, Success and Leadership studies, even parenting articles concerned how parents might not be able to raise their children properly because of guilt and shame in their life. All the articles were trying to help people succeed in life, and were concerned about how guilt and shame hold people back.
Obviously the secular world realizes how important this topic is. They acknowledge that guilt and shame could impede a person’s prosperity, success, and ability to interact with others. Yet the real answer to guilt and shame is not in human self-help, but in the Gospel of God’s grace.
What is guilt and shame?
Guilt is a negative feeling because of something we have done, or that we think we have done. Shame is more profound. It is about who we think we are at the core. Shame is a question of our very nature. When people are dominated by guilt and shame there are all kinds of negative effects and behaviors that result:
1. Tearing others down in order to subliminally lift ourselves up.
2. Becoming a perfectionist in order to avoid doing anything that will create more negative feelings about ourself.
3. Seeking positions and lofty titles and experiencing approval when people acknowledge our outer accomplishments.
4. Blaming others to avoid adding to our own list of inadequacies.
5. Becoming a ‘doormat’, allowing abuse from others, in order to make ourself more valuable to others
6. The ultimate behavior caused by shame is that we simply withdraw, pull away from others, hide, unable to cope.
These mechanisms are at best temporary, and in the end they all perpetuate only more guilt and shame.
Jesus told a story about two men, each one profoundly laden down with guilt and shame: “ Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other” [Luke 18:9-14]
It is as ancient as the Garden of Eden; two humans going to a holy place to get right with God. This goes on in the Christian world, the Hindu world, and in the Muslim world; people have an innate feeling of not being right with God, and so they go somewhere to ‘make things right with God’. Evangelical Christians know all about ‘getting right with God”, and yet after all the attempts insecurity still persists.
Both of the men were believers, or they wouldn’t have gone to the temple, they were sincere in their own way, but they were also both insufficient; unable to make themselves righteous and justified.
The Pharisee approaches God on the basis of three criteria; what he does and does not do, and what others do. He assesses himself in terms his spiritual activities and by comparing himself to the sins of others. This is the way many people think, including many Christians. Of course when you discover God’s grace this whole concept is turned on its head. That’s what happened to the apostle Paul, who wrote that which was a ‘gain’ became a ‘loss’, that which was precious he now counted as ‘dung’ (Phil 3:8).
Many have the idea that as long as they are sincere, that’s enough, but Paul tells us that in spite of his sincerity and zeal, all of that counted against him. His perceived pluses didn’t just go to zero; they brought him into a minus. The sincere religion he was involved with actually deceived him, because it made him think he was something, which he in reality was not. The most dangerous enemy to the gospel is sincere religious practices that suggest to people that God accepts them on the basis of their spiritual activities. The Pharisee in Jesus’ story fails completely in his attempt to ‘get right with God’. He returns home just as ashamed and guilty as he was before. Look for a moment at this man’s recital of his own accomplishments.
Can we fault a man that is not an extortioner?
Does not commit adultery?
How can a man who fasts, prays, tithes and goes to the synagogue be a warning and an example of failure? Shouldn’t such a man be an example of godliness that we all should emulate? Not according to Jesus.
There was one hint of something desperately wrong. The Pharisee started by saying “I am not like other people”. The Scriptures lists seven abominations, and number one is “a proud look” or “an arrogant look” (Prov 6:17). Condescension—thinking you are better than other people – shows that something is desperately wrong.
The moment the Pharisee said “I am not like other people” he’s in essence guilty of breaking all Ten Commandments, because ultimately the Ten Commandments were an expression of God’s love, describing a loving relationship between people – no condescension. If we love others we don’t covet their possessions and we don’t speak evil against them. The law was holy and just, but the mistake of the Pharisees was that they made the commandments into the way of salvation. That was never the intention, because true salvation comes only by the grace and mercy of the Lord, Jesus Christ. While the Hebrew people were justified before by making sacrifices that looked forward to the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, we receive the gift of righteousness by looking back at the cross.
The dilemma of the Pharisee in Jesus’ story, and the dilemma of all religion is ‘when is it enough? ‘When am I good enough? Have I fasted enough? Have I prayed enough? Have I read the holy book enough?
When is enough, enough?
If we rely on outward observances, there is always ‘one thing you lack’, and as with the Pharisee, we continue laden down with guilt and shame. Here is the contrast. While the Pharisee’s method of ‘getting right with God’ was looking at himself and at the tax collector, the tax-collector looked only to God and His mercy.
Who was the tax collector? He was a professional swindler, a Mafioso type who lived in the biggest house in the city, and made his money by being an extortioner.
Can you see the contrast? On one side, in Jesus’ story, you have a Pharisee, who seems very religious, and on the other side you have the worst crook in town. The truth of this story is that, in as much as this Pharisee was boasting, the one who actually could have boasted was the tax collector. Because at least he knew his only hope is God. He knew he was nothing and that he was in trouble, and in that sense he was much better off than the Pharisee.
The Pharisee said, “Oh me”, while the tax collector said, “Oh God”. The Pharisee said, “God, act towards me according to what I have done”, while the tax collector said, “God, act towards me according to who You are.” The Pharisee stands in the temple with a list of accomplishments, while the tax collectors stands there naked before God. It is as if he said, “ Oh God, you know everything, I can’t possibly list all my faults, I appeal to your mercy”.
After Adam separated from God in the garden, he felt shame when he discovered he was naked. Just as people don’t feel ashamed naked in the shower, it wasn’t actually being naked that brought shame to Adam, it was that somebody – God – could see him. So he put on the fig leaf to cover who he really was, to hide his guilt for what he’d done and shame about who he was. Just as what happened to the Pharisee, the cover didn’t work, and Adam’s guilt and shame continued.
Many today try to cover shame with a list of his accomplishments and self-righteousness, and the results are just as dismal. People go to church to get a temporary feeling of relief from condemnation, but like the Pharisee, they go home still just as guilty and uncertain as they arrived. In contrast the tax collector represents those who don’t have anything to cover themselves with – no means to justify themselves. He asks that God would act towards him on the basis of a loving sacrifice. He knew he needed God’s mercy. And he went home justified.
How could God justify the wicked and still be righteous?
Because there is a law that precedes and supersedes the Law of Moses and every other law found within religion. This law from before time began says that God can be righteous and loving at the same time. How? If God chooses to come and take the punishment, shame and guilt of the entire human race upon Himself, then sin will have been paid and love will have been demonstrated. That’s the gospel, that Jesus is the Lamb of God slain before the foundation of the world for the sins of the world.
This law of love is now enacted in Jesus Christ. As the last Adam he has created a new race in which every sin has been remitted, every guilt atoned, and every debt settled forever.
This truth is depicted in the story of David and Goliath. Goliath said he would stand for all the Philistines, and the Israelites could pick their man to stand for them. David became that man. What they’re really saying is all the Philistines are in Goliath, and all the Israelites are in David. And whatever happens to Goliath is going to happen to the Philistines. If Goliath wins the Philistines win. If he gets his head cut off, it is as if all the Philistines have their heads cut off. And if David wins, all of Israel wins. So this idea that one man could stand for all the people is there. The Gospel is that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself [2 Cor 5:19]. Jesus took the whole world with him to the cross, so that his victory can be every person’s victory. No religion in the world ever would have invented that.
Especially evangelical fundamentalists have problems with this. ‘I wonder if I’m right with God?” Get over it. It is settled. There is nothing more harmful to the gospel than whining whimpering Pharisees who walk around wondering where they stand with God. That has been settled in Jesus Christ – you are righteous.
The bible says we all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23). What is the glory of God? According the book of Exodus, three words describe God’s glory; His goodness, His kindness, and His compassion. Love, that’s God’s glory! So all have sinned and fallen short of God’s goodness, kindness, and love. Salvation is to be restored into a place of assurance of God’s unfailing love.
Take the fig leaf off. There is no shame before God. The real issue is not what you do or do not do. It is Love.
Have you fallen short of the goodness, kindness, love, and compassion of God? Have you fallen short of the fact that God loves you?
The matter of your righteous standing before God is settled. Jesus took all guilt, shame, and all those inward feelings of unworthiness. Remove the fig leaf of religion! If you stand before God with your fig leaf of everything you have done, you will never be free from the guilt and shame of your inadequacies.
Two people go to pray to relieve guilt and shame. One goes home still guilty and ashamed. One, who relies simply on God’s mercy, goes home justified. Which one are you?