By far the most traumatic event of my adolescence was Sue Cook’s house fire. I recall the suburban home ringed with a crowd of people, spewing fire and black smoke out of its windows. I stood there watching solemnly with Sue, who whispered, “Don’t tell” and held me in the grip of her panicked eyes.
We both knew how the fire started. We had accidentally dropped a burning cigarette onto her couch only hours before; it had disappeared into the box springs and, unbeknownst to us, smoldered into life after we left. What began as a mischievous 13-year-old secret became a life-altering disaster.
For about a year, until Sue’s father discovered the matter, I carried two monsters on by back—guilt and shame. Guilt reminded me of the horrible thing I’d done, while Shame told me that the horrible thing defined who I was. When Guilt flashed the burning house before my eyes, hissing, “You lit this fire!” Shame followed quickly with, “You arsonist, you!” Guilt afflicted my conscience, while Shame wounded both my conscience and my identity. Together the monsters on my back weighed enough to create a curvature of the spine (which, oddly enough, happened), but if I had to estimate, Shame weighed about twice as much as his smaller, albeit formidable, brother.
Guilt reminded me of the horrible thing I’d done, while Shame told me that the horrible thing defined who I was.
Let me swap out of storytelling mode into clinical mode.
Psychologists have studied these “monsters” and made some relevant discoveries. For example, one study revealed two reactions to wrongdoing: a shame-based reaction and a guilt-based reaction.
The researchers pointed out that shame-prone people tend to globalize wrongdoing to their entire person. In contrast, the guilt-prone person can feel remorse for a wrong done without lapsing into self-loathing. They can differentiate between self and behavior, effectively saying, “I was mistaken, but that doesn’t make me a mistake.”
And the shame/guilt difference extends beyond self-image to relationships. Specifically, the shame-prone have more defenses and insecurity in relationships, but the guilt-prone tend to have secure, trusting relationships. The study says: “Guilt-proneness involves a working model of self that is humble about personal limitations; shame-proneness involves a more narcissistic working model of self.”1
Let’s see if this research fits Christian experience: As sinners, we know both guilt and shame. We feel guilt for what we do, and shame for what we are. Guilt is the appropriate and healthy response to wrongdoing, and can, through empathy for the ones harmed, blossom into soul-cleansing repentance, confession, restitution, and ultimately healing. Shame, while accurately reflective of our sinful state, can present some complications. Unresolved shame tends to cause us to fold in on ourselves, developing a “narcissistic working model of self” that ultimately leads us to think badly of ourselves and others and compromises our ability to trust.
Do you see the irony in the fact that self-loathing can actually lead to narcissism? Many have confused shame with humility, but shame handled apart from God actually adheres us to our own wounded egos in a kind of inverted pride.
Guilt is the appropriate and healthy response to wrongdoing, and can, through empathy for the ones harmed, blossom into soul-cleansing repentance, confession, restitution, and ultimately healing.
Shame handled with God, that’s a different story. Or, to be more precise, shame taken to God is a different story. The truth is, our sins flow out of a corrupt nature. Left to ourselves, we are indeed seething with corruption. As Daniel brokenly prayed, “To you, O Lord, belongs righteousness, but to us open shame” (Daniel 9:7, ESV).
Yes, shame belongs to us, but shame surrendered to Jesus, who bore the Cross despising the shame, can actually become His opportunity to reconstruct our self-respect on a more sure foundation. In that sacred moment of soul-baring, Jesus whispers, “In Me, you’re a new creature. This sin doesn’t define you. I do.” Then, as followers of Jesus, we have the prerogative of disassociating with sin, of regarding it as separate from us.
Paul’s well-known Romans 7 struggle reveals this important principle. He said, “I was once alive apart from the Law; but when the commandment came, sin became alive and I died” (Romans 7:9, ESV). Ellen White puts Paul’s “I died” in more modern language by saying, “his self-esteem was gone.”2 In other words, Paul’s entire sense of self decayed under the blight of shame. “Sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me, and through it killed me” (Romans 7:11, ESV), he explains. In what way did sin deceive him? It identified him with itself, saying, dude, you belong to me. But only nine verses later, Paul fights back in the Spirit, saying, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me (vs. 20). Now fully identifying Himself with Jesus, he sees his sinful tendencies as an aggravating fact of his existence in a fallen world rather than a self-defining reality.
Don’t put even one calorie of your energy into trying to manage shame without Jesus. Among other things, it won’t work.
Why do we need this new identity? Because of this basic maxim of human psychology: You become what you think you are.
Think of the energetic little Johnny attending school for the first time. The teachers tell this mountain goat of a kid to sit in a chair all day, and he just can’t do it. When he involuntarily bounces around the room, he’s told, “You’re a bad boy.” If Johnny believes this lie, he actually becomes a bad boy, spitball by spitball, and if no one intervenes, incarceration by incarceration. Johnny becomes what he thinks he is. He conforms to his own self-image. And he becomes a criminal in the process.
Adam and Eve fashioned fig leaf garments in an attempt to cover shame with self-righteousness. God came along and clothed them with garments made with His own gentle and holy hands from the skins of their pets. Blinking back the tears, the pair began to realize that Someone dear to them would pay the ultimate price for their covering.
I’m not sure how things played out exactly, but before donning their new garments, they must have stood naked before God for at least a few moments. Shame is difficult, but standing in the presence of Love, it can become a kind of sweet sorrow. In that nakedness-to-covered exchange, they experienced the healing power of the gospel. As can we.
Don’t put even one calorie of your energy into trying to manage shame without Jesus. Among other things, it won’t work. Come to him, naked and shivering. He’ll give you another chance, a restored self-respect, and a renewed ability to love and be loved. In this way, the inevitable shame we experience as sinners can become a gateway into the transforming power of God.
- Comparison of Two Group Interventions to Promote Forgiveness: Empathy as a Mediator of Change. Steven J Sandage, Everett L Worthington Jr. Journal of Mental Health Counseling. Alexandria: Jan 2010. Vol. 32, Iss. 1; pg. 35.
- Steps to Christ, p. 30.
Jennifer Jill Schwirzer
Jennifer is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC). She lives in Philadelphia where she conducts a private counseling practice and a writing, speaking and music ministry. She is married to Michael and has two young adult daughters, Alison and Kimberly. Not to be overlooked is her amazing dog, Fred, who has recently learned to roll over.