For years, two separate past decisions I made haunted me and I couldn't shake their pain. I felt the weight of guilt, shame, and embarrassment. I knew they were not who I now was, and yet the poison of shame had taken root in me. Can I chalk it up to being young and stupid? Yes. Can I chalk it up to being selfish? Of course. Still, I came to recognize how the past can shape the present.
Guilt naturally follows our sinful behavior. It is a recognition that we have done wrong and it calls us to set things right. Guilt is an expression of empathy that sees the pain that we have caused to someone else. Guilt can motivate us to make amends and work towards restoration of relationships. Guilt looks outward upon the pain that we have caused, but shame looks inward and erodes our sense of self-worth. Shame lets the pain of failure define our identity. Shame hides us from seeing God’s love and grace and instead focuses on our failures. Shame creates a mindset of being unworthy and unlovable. Shame can destroy us from within by blinding us from seeing our identity as God’s beloved children.
Shame infects our present identity, and its strength is significant. Shame holds our lives captive and cripples us with its web of lies, leaving us debilitated. Shame chains us to the past and doesn't allow us to move forward. Shame digs deep into our thoughts and tethers our present to our past pain. The present moves forward but it does so under the weight of the past that feels inescapable. Wherever we go, our shame accompanies us and tells us we're failures here too.
To the believer, this tethered “reality” becomes even more painful for its irony. The Christian's hope is in the promise of our future with God, and my tethered-past says there may be no future, as if, because of my choices in life, God is now rethinking his decision to love me.
Our shame cause us to question our salvation by reminding us of our unworthiness. It is true that we are unworthy of salvation. None of us are worthy of God’s grace. Yet we can recognize our unworthiness without the constant barrage of shame to remind us of the fact. Shame hides from us the fact that we are so loved by God that Jesus died to restore us into relationship. The lens of shame makes it hard to see that nothing can separate us from God’s love.
We read in 1 John 3:6 that "no one who lives in him (God) keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him." John is absolutely correct. God is light and goodness and sin can neither be around him or in him, and as his children sin is not to be of us either. Too often we have allowed John’s words to tell us that because of our sin we must not be God’s children--but that's not what John is saying. John isn't saying that his children never sin. Instead he is drawing a line in the sand between those who seek the freedom TO sin and those who do not. In other words, sin happens, but do you intentionally do it or seek forgiveness from it?
Remember that as a child of God, shame cannot hold power over our lives. God is much bigger than any failure of ours. As children of the Light, and as forgiven sinners that are washed in the blood of Christ, our future is held securely. Our past and future actions will not undo the cross. So it's time that we and our fellow livers-in-shame look to the cross to see that Jesus already paid it all. Here are a few things I've done and continue to work it through. I pray they give you strength and hope.
Shame may lie to us and try stop us from living today in the Joy of the Lord. Don’t let shame dilute your understanding of God's grace. Lies are lies and truth is truth. And God's truth is that there is nothing we have done, or can do, can take away the crown that was sealed in his blood. You, my brother and sister, your sins are forgiven.
Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra
Dr. Robert Ritzema