Owning Our Guilt and Healing Our Shame


A sermon preached on March 25, 2012 — the fifth Sunday in Lent — based upon Psalm 51. 

A major theme during the season of Lent is a call to acknowledge our own personal guilt.  The psalm we just hear read is all about confessing guilt, and it’s always read on Ash Wednesday at the beginning of Lent, and then it pops back up again in the lectionary as we near the end.  

A lot of people figure they can do without Lent and the downer that all this naming of guilt would seem to be, and who can blame them?   The language of the psalm can get pretty heavy handed:

“Behold, I was born into iniquity, and I have been sinful since my mother conceived me.”

Not exactly a sentiment that would be helpful in building a healthy sense of self-esteem in a child.

Through the centuries the church has often gone out of its way to load people down with guilt  — frequently about things that, in retrospect don’t seem like legitimate reasons to feel guilty at all.   For instance, labeling dancing sin, or simply acknowledging that we are sexual beings.  We have the expression, “Laying a guilt trip”, because we recognize that often times guilt is used as a way to control and manipulate people – get them to do what we what we want them to do.   (If the church could simultaneously be the source of people’s guilt as well as the place where that guilt could be reduced – well, the church had a hold on people, to say the least.) 

So it is easy to understand the urge to get away from guilt altogether.  

But guilt – and here I referring to real, legitimate guilt as opposed to guilt for the sake of manipulation – is really a very wonderful thing.  Yes, that’s what I said:  a wonderful thing. 

It is a sign of spiritual health if from time to time our conscience bothers us.  If I do something cruel or dishonest, and I don’t feel any guilt about it, something has gone terribly awry inside me.   It indicates I’ve lost contact with that God-given conscience that keeps me on the right, life-giving path.   If I can hurt people and not be troubled by this fact, then I’m on my way to losing my soul.  A marriage or a friendship is in big time trouble when we can wound one another and not feel any remorse.

And guilt is not intended to be a permanent condition.  We are not condemned to wallow in guilt.   The nature of God, the psalmist reminds us, is steadfast love and mercy – a fact that becomes all the more clear in the New Testament with Jesus. 

Where there is real guilt, once we face up to it, own it, and where possible make amends for it, we are to trust the mercy of God and move on with life. 

Here is what I want to talk about today:  the reason we often have a hard time appreciating the blessing that true guilt is, or to own up to our legitimate guilt, is that we’ve gotten guilt and shame mixed up with each other. 

Guilt is not the same thing as shame, though we often use the words interchangeably.  Quite simply, guilt means, “I have done something bad.”  Shame, in contrast means, “I, myself am bad, worthless, unlovable.”

When the psalmist cries out to God “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!” he’s talking about guilt, not shame. 

If I can be washed clean of something, then what I’m afflicted with is not something at the core of who I am.  My guilt is external to my essence. 

But shame isn’t a judgment about something I’ve done wrong – it is a judgment that I myself am wrong.   The filth is who I am.  No bath will ever help clean me if I am the filth.

Now, shame and guilt is a part of the experience of all of us.  If we go back to the story of Adam and Eve we find both guilt and shame present in the story.  The story isn’t literally, historically true, but it sure does express what it feels like to be a human being.

We are told that Adam and Eve were made good – that they are made in the image and likeness of God.  When God first looked at these first human beings, God declared them to be not just “good”, but “very good.”

But good creatures can do bad things.   Adam and Eve eat of the fruit of the one tree that the Lord explicitly told them not to eat from.  They do something wrong.  They are guilty. 

They are still good creatures – good creatures who have done something wrong.   There is guilt, and the guilt needs to be dealt with.But as the story proceeds, that’s precisely what they can’t seem to do.  And why not?    All we can say is that they can’t deal with their guilt because they immediately descended into shame.  

This is expressed in the story by the fact that for the first time, Adam and Eve notice that they are naked. Never noticed this before.  Been parading around in their birthday suits, and thought nothing of it.    Their bodies seemed just fine — nothing to be ashamed of.   

But now, as they look at their bodies, the sight suddenly disgusts them.  They feel the urge to cover up their bodies so they won’t be so grossed out by the sight that they are now convinced is disgusting. 

There bodies aren’t actually disgusting.  Remember that God looked at the same bodies and said they were very good.   But their vision is now warped, and disgusting is what they see.  

The sight of themselves fills them with shame, and whatever is takes to avoid feeling that shame they’ll do, so clothes are now the order of the day.  They find some fig leaves and make the first clothes to cover up the sight of their flesh. 

To some degree, shame lurks inside all of us.  When it breaks out in full force, the feeling is simply horrible – quite literally the worst feeling.  The words that are associated with it are… “I’m no good, I’m ugly, I’m a loser, I shouldn’t be alive. Nobody could ever really love me.” If we were to experience shame directly and continually without relief, we would eventually want to kill themselves.  That’s what Judas did.

So when we feel threatened by shame, we will do whatever it takes to try and keep it at bay.  And what we do is — we hide.  That’s what Adam and Eve do – they go into hiding.  

To be seen is to evoke the sense of shame – so got to stay hidden.

We all know what its like to hide, though.  We keep people at a safe distance so they won’t have a chance to get a good look inside us because we’re certain they would be horrified by what they see, reject us, and evoke in us that awful shame.

Now in the old story, usually whenever God stopped by the garden, Adam and Eve would be right there, happy to see God.  But this time when God stops by, they are nowhere to be seen.  God has to go looking for them.

But you can’t really hide from God.  So God finds them and asks about what it is they have done.  But Adam and Eve can’t seem to own up to it.   They can’t take responsibility for the fact that they did what they shouldn’t have done – they ate the forbidden fruit.  “It wasn’t me,” says Adam.  “It was that woman you gave me.”  “It wasn’t me,” says Eve.  “It was that serpent you allowed to be in the garden.” They pass the buck.  They blame somebody else. 

Take it as a given.  When you find yourself consumed with a need to blame others for the reasons things are so messed up, you’re trying to get away from your own sense of shame. 

Adam and Eve can’t distinguish between guilt and shame.   In their minds, to acknowledge guilt would cast them down into shame.   So the guilt isn’t faced up to. 

There are plenty of ways to avoid confronting our sense of shame.  At their core, addictions are driven by the need to flee from shame.  They are the habits we develop to flee from the awfulness of feeling ashamed.  So we flee into drink, or our work, or shopping, or eating or TV and the internet.  

But the problem with our addictions, of course, is that although they provide temporary relief, afterwards we feel all the more ashamed of ourselves. 

When we understand the difference between guilt and shame, we can better understand the story of Jesus and his redeeming love.

Take, for instance, the story of the paralyzed man who early on in the Gospels is brought to Jesus on a stretcher by four friends, who can’t get in the door of the house where Jesus teaching because there’s such a great crowd of people.   So they hoist him up on the roof, tear a hole, and lower him down to Jesus.  

And what does Jesus say to the paralyzed man?  “My son, your sins are forgiven.”


You see here how clearly the nature of God is to forgive sin.  Jesus doesn’t hesitate – doesn’t even wait around for the man to ask for forgiveness.  He declares the man’s forgiveness straight out. 

And it’s curious, because the man hasn’t been brought to Jesus to have his sins forgiven, at least, that’s not what his friends figured he needed.  They brought him there so Jesus could heal him – enable him to walk again.  

But Jesus recognizes that at the core, the man’s problem is one of shame.    He doesn’t feel worthy of life.  Perhaps there were things he did, or imagined he did, that contributed to this final judgment he rendered upon his life.   On an unconscious level, he’s sentenced himself to a slow death.   That’s what his paralysis is about. 

And so Jesus senses what this man most needs to hear is, “My son, your sins are forgiven.”  

At this point in the story we hear about some scribes and Pharisees who were present who start to grumble about the fact that Jesus has claimed for himself the authority to forgive sins.   That is only God’s prerogative!  This Jesus is committing blasphemy!  

What we see here is that the problem of shame and guilt doesn’t happen in a vacuum. 

Communities can be built around inducing guilt and shame, as we said before, to control people.   It’s the worst when churches do it, because we’re supposed to have our marching orders from Jesus — the one who has come to set the captives free. 

Why are the scribes and Pharisees so intent at pointing the finger of condemnation at Jesus, and by implication at the paralyzed man?   Well, you guessed it.  They are driven by their own sense of shame.  They keep one step ahead of their own sense of shame by pointing the condemning finger outwards at others.

So let’s go back to guilt. 

The world isn’t the way God wants it to be.   It’s full of hostility and violence, isolation and suspicion, not to mention all kinds of injustice.  Who bears responsibility for the brokenness and suffering of this world?  It’s pretty easy for us to point to others – there is no shortage of easy targets to blame, and there are certainly times where prophetic words need to be spoken.

But we all have a hand in tearing down the destruction of life and the fabric of community, and each of us is responsible, first off, with our own culpability.  

So in the next two weeks, as we hear once again the story of the final week of Jesus’ life, the invitation is for us to ask ourselves in what ways can identify with the characters in the story?

To the fickle crowd, at one moment welcoming Jesus with loud Hosannas, and five days later, calling for his death, because he wasn’t the kind of savior they wanted him to be.

To the money-changers and the sellers of animals in God’s temple – who have put the love of money ahead the love of God and people?

To the High priests conspiring, incensed that Jesus could challenge their power, their sense of entitlement, and their image of themselves as the “good people” over against the wretched sinners?

To Judas, who, I believe really thought he loved Jesus, but couldn’t parcel out his need to control Jesus from what it would have meant for him to truly love Jesus. 

To those who come by cover of night to arrest Jesus, because they figure if nobody sees what they’re doing, they won’t have to take responsibility for their actions.  

To Peter, unwilling to acknowledge how frail and vulnerable he was, and intent on seeing himself as braver and stronger than the others. 

To the Romans, willing to do whatever it takes to “keep the peace” and hold onto their power.

To the crowd mocking Jesus in his agony, perhaps because everybody else is, and in their passivity, figuring that whatever the crowd says is right is good enough for them?

We see something of these characters inside ourselves, and we confess our guilt.  We don’t suddenly enter into a life that knows no sin, but maybe we inch a little bit closer to living a life of compassion, kindness and justice. 

And here’s something wonderful we discover along the way.  We can own up to our guilt without descending into shame, because we know the God revealed in Jesus is one who delights in bringing home the lost. 

We sang thing that Oh so familiar hymn:

Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.

I was visiting somebody in the hospital recently and I was looking over the devotional literature the chaplain’s office had given out.  They had the words to Amazing Grace, but they had changed the word “wretch,” to something more pleasant.  It’s understandable why they would do that.   Words like wretch are associated with shame, and we certainly don’t want hospital patients wallowing in shame. 

But the hymn, like so many psalms, is emotionally honest.  When shame takes hold, “wretch” is a good word for describing ourselves, because that’s how we feel. 

The Gospel, however is good news about God’s intention to heal us of our shame. 

This is jumping ahead, but after Jesus’ crucifixion, the disciples descended into a pretty toxic dose of shame.   They let abandoned Jesus, denied knowing him, let him down.  Now they feel absolutely unworthy of love. 

At the resurrection Jesus comes looking for them, like God came looking for Adam and Eve.  And Jesus comes not to condemn them, but to call them out of their personal tombs of shame. 

When we really begin to catch hold to the meaning of the Gospel, the communal life of the church has an altogether different quality from the shame-based interactions commonly found out in the world.  We are let others get close enough to get a pretty good look inside us, trusting that they will not condemn what they find there.   When we do something that hurts somebody else in the church, we can acknowledge our failing, ask for forgiveness, trusting that we will in fact be forgiven, because the one in whose name we live together has come to forgive us all.  We can make the clear distinction: we were created good by a loving God, and our inherent value doesn’t disappear because we sometimes, maybe even oftentimes – forget who we are and do bad things.