Finding Freedom From Both
Guilt is a feeling familiar to us all. Even though we may describe it in different ways — a bothered conscience, feeling culpable for an offense, or a sense of responsibility for a regretful action — guilt is a disconcerting emotion and one often hard to shake. It can feel like a dark shadow following us around, demanding we give it our attention and making it difficult to fully focus on anything or anyone else. Guilt disturbs our peace and pleasure; it calls, it frustrates and it bothers us. Try as we may in many different ways; it can be difficult to push out of our thoughts and feelings.
While guilt at its core is an emotional and a moral term full of meaning and purpose, it often is grouped together with another word: shame. Guilt and shame are so often used together in thought and conversation, in fact, that we may easily mistake these terms as synonymous, but that actually dilutes their meaning. Until guilt and shame are properly named, set apart and defined in our minds, our souls will continue to feel stuck.
Not the Same
There is a difference between GUILT and SHAME; a big difference. Understanding this can rid us of unneeded confusion and help us find a way to living free in our hearts and souls; to experiencing real peace and rest.
At Emerge Counseling Ministries in Akron, Ohio, we counsel people of all ages and from a wide variety of life experiences every week. One of the most common soul challenges people face is overcoming feelings of guilt and shame. One of our counselors, Mark Loomis, says that “individuals often don’t understand what ‘guilt’ truly is. Guilt comes when we make a mistake and we feel bad about that mistake (ex. – ‘I was really rude to that person.’)” In this way, guilt is actually a gift; a soul signal that alerts us when we need to deal with something we have done that hurt someone else. According to 1 John 1:9 in the New Testament, the appropriate response when we feel guilt is clear: we need to confess our sin, possibly apologize to the offended person, and then move on with life, leaving the guilt behind.
While healthy guilt can lead to our healing and open us up in our relationship with God and others, shame can shut us down. In her popular TedTalk, author Brené Brown, says, “Shame is a focus on self”, while “guilt is a focus on behavior.” While guilt acknowledges, “I did something bad,” shame takes it much farther and imagines, “I am bad.”
The word guilt or guilty is used over 180 times in the Bible. Guilt is when a good part of ourselves judges something bad that we have done or said. It is a paralyzing feeling in the courtroom of our own consciences that seizes our attention. However, it can alert us to a sin we have committed towards God or others. But, shame is something quite different.
Emerge counselor, Jessica Smith, says the difficult thing with shame is that it brings with it “no redeeming path.” She cites Genesis 3:9-13 when God approached Adam and Eve who were hiding in shame. In this iconic instance, shame quickly turned to blame. Adam blamed Eve, Eve blamed the Serpent (i.e., Satan), but all the while the Lord was simply calling upon the couple to confess their guilt. Instead of confessing their own sin, however, they chose to pass the blame. We do the same to this day. “That’s why we need a Savior,” Jessica says. “We don’t need to carry the guilt, but to confess our sin and be unburdened.”
Consider the differences between guilt and shame:
Guilt is about conviction.
Shame is about condemnation.
Guilt is about confession.
Shame is about blaming.
Guilt is about recognizing the truth that we have done something wrong.
Shame is a debilitating feeling that we ARE wrong.
Guilt is a sense of something true, but perhaps difficult to face.
Shame is always connected to a lie.
Ultimately, shame is a hard taskmaster that can diminish our sense of how much God loves us. However, genuine guilt is not something that should ever keep us away from God or from a sense of forgiveness. On the contrary, guilt is the vivid conviction and emotional awareness of a sin we have committed that awakens us to the need for confession and the path towards discovery of God’s full forgiveness and freedom.
Getting from Guilt to God
So, the next time your conscience cries “GUILTY!”, stop and ask God to show you the truth about yourself and your actions. Then, remember “if we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).” Case closed. And, after you have confessed and prayed, if you can’t shake the guilt feelings in your heart, recognize this: “If [you] still feel guilty, remember God is greater than our feelings and he knows everything (1 Jn. 3:20, NLT).”
And, if you have already done all these things and still feel the weight of guilt, it may be time to talk with a pastor or counselor or respected Christian friend about it. In such a situation, God may want to speak his words of comfort, forgiveness and healing to you through the voice and support of another Christ-follower.