Guilt and shame. We all feel them from time to time. (Or those of us who are not psychopaths.) I’m not totally sure of how the experts would define the differences, but for me guilt is the feeling we get when we have done something wrong or perceived we have done something wrong. We are guilty of a “crime”….or we are innocent of it. Whether we did it or not. Shame is the feeling we have either let others down or let our self down. Whether we have or not. So similar that they can almost be interchanged and often they hang out together. And like most feelings, they don’t have to be valid to be felt. And like most feelings, what we do with them can lead to good or bad.
I believe guilt and shame have their place. When we do things wrong we should feel guilty. Whether people find out about what we have done or not. The very basis of my faith is based on this principle. We screw up. It’s in our nature. And to try to keep up to date with sacrifices to atone for all of these screw ups, well it’s a mess. Which is why God figured out a way to make the ultimate sacrifice on my behalf. Because if not, my whole life would be a cycle of perpetual guilt and atonement. And in my case, not a lot of time to do much else. Which would probably mean, with my attention span….I’d just remain guilty!
And shame. Sometimes I think we just may need to feel this a bit more. People do things to hurt others, or themselves, and are defiant in their belief they have done nothing wrong. Our world has a moral code, our community has a moral code, we have a personal moral code….and sometimes when we break moral code we should be ashamed of our selves. Because moral codes usually are born when someone infringes on the rights, or perceived rights, of others. Sometimes these moral codes are good…. sometimes they are pure evil. For example of a good moral code, think of the issue of child abuse, where we protect the innocents. For a bad moral code think of something like racism, where we condemn someone for something for which they had no hand in determining for themselves.
Denying guilt often perpetuates the problem and it enslaves us to it. We get in a place where we are like a deer in the headlights….continuing to do wrong because of our guilt, shameful of who we have become, and so overcome by it all that we continue to make decisions that keep the cycle going. That perpetuate that thing we did that produced the guilt and the shame in the first place. For any sort of positive change to happen, to really get off the crazy merry-go-round, we need to admit what we have done. To ourselves, and sometimes to someone else. Not a weak acknowledgment, but one with substance. One that not only admits we have done wrong, but creates a plan to avoid such a thing happening in the future. Sometimes that is not so simple, because facing up to our problems often means we have to make amends. Sometimes our plan means we have to keep ourselves away from something that is a great pleasure in our life. Which is difficult, even when we know that particular pleasure is destroying ourselves and/or others.
The story of David and Bathsheba is such a perfect example of this. In 2 Samuel 11 where the story begins comes the key verse. It was the time that kings went off to war. As you may know, David was king. But where was he? Lounging on his roof, leaving his responsibility in the hands of others. Looking at the story now we can see time after time when David could have changed the course of things. Instead step by step he continued to screw things up…..even seeing to it that Bathsheba’s husband was killed. It ultimately resulted in the death of David’s son. And we all have David moments and David vulnerabilities. But how do we stop them? We learn to recognize the cycle and set up our life so that we don’t continually entrap ourselves. We take the guilt, and the shame, and use them to learn who we are, who we want to be, where we are vulnerable, and make the changes in our life that will get us from here to there. Living as a deer in headlights for the rest of our life will never give us a life of purpose. It will always just lead us back to the cycle of destruction.
But that’s all speaking to guilt we own. Sometimes we feel guilty when we didn’t do anything wrong. Or feel shame because of the opinions of others or because we are personally embarrassed about something that we have done. In these cases, we need to examine the truth of the situation, and work from there. There’s no reason to take ownership of something you haven’t bought.
When feeling guilty or shameful ask yourself a lot of questions. So what did you do or did someone say or imply that you did? Is it against the law or against the rules of the situation or against your own beliefs? Did it hurt someone? Did it hurt you? Was that hurt valid and/or intentional? Would you expect your best friend to feel either guilty or ashamed if they were in your shoes? Could you look God in the eye when you told him about it and feel He would be OK with it? Do you really have a reason to feel guilty or ashamed?
We live in a world of critical people. And we are so very critical of ourselves. All of that criticism is not valid. All opinions are not correct and you must weigh them yourself and see if they land on the side of truth. Often criticism is necessary and helpful. Even when it is delivered poorly and without sensitivity. Sometimes feeling guilt and shame can lead to good changes in our lives. But other times they become a personal indulgence, where we cover ourselves (or others) in them and use them as our blanket to keep us away from the world, or to gain the sympathy of the world.
Your life is worth more than either of those choices. There is much for you to do. Take a lesson from King David….you can really screw up a lot in your life, and still become someone described as a man (or woman) after God’s own heart. There is still time to live a life of great value. But you have to take responsibility for your actions. You have to remember your responsibilities. You have to ask for forgiveness when necessary and also forgive others. Sometimes that person you have to forgive is yourself. But you can’t stop there. You need a plan afterward. One that you develop in full acknowledgment of who you are and who you should and can be. Because we have a tendency to ride the same roller coaster over and over if we don’t head out to another amusement park. Guilt and shame can consume us and ruin us…..or can be just the tools we need to wake up and make our lives better. We get to choose how to use them. We get to choose how we will live.