Both the Bible and our contemporary, western culture have much to say about human identity. And central to both the Bible’s and our culture’s understanding of identity are the issues of guilt and shame, and specifically how to overcome guilt and shame.
But the ways the Bible and our culture seek to overcome guilt and shame are strikingly different. And this difference is connected to the heart of the gospel, and thus is a matter of tremendous importance.
Our culture seeks to deal with guilt in one of two ways. On the one hand, it says that guilt and shame are a problem (to which the Bible agrees), but that they are a problem because they’re not real. If someone or something outside of yourself makes you feel guilty, the problem is with that person or thing (or God or religion), not with you.
And so the way to deal with feelings of guilt and shame is to convince yourself they are based on lies, based on outdated definitions or morality, imposed from the outside by someone who doesn’t understand your experience. You must tell yourself, and constantly listen to others who tell you, that the guilt you feel is powerless, even non-existent.
On the other hand, and more recently, there has been an acknowledgement that guilt and shame do exist, though it is limited to issues of intolerance of and injustice towards identity groups, whether defined by race, sex, sexual preference, gender-identity, socio-economic status, etc.
In this domain, guilt and shame must first be acknowledged (which is something Christians can celebrate to a degree, as long as it is actual sin being acknowledged), and then atoned for by changing the way you live your life, and/or doing your part to change the way society operates.
Now, to be clear: the issue here is not whether recognition of past injustices should lead us to reflect on and change our behavior in the future. The issue is: how are guilt and shame dealt with? Though the term isn’t usually used in the culture, how are “sins” atoned for?
And from a Christian perspective, both ways that our society attempts to deal with the problem of guilt fall flatly short, and for the same reason: both of them eliminate the need for a God who extends grace. Both of them eliminate the need for the person and work of Jesus. And the need for Jesus is at the heart of the gospel. Salvation is of the Lord!
So if the Bible (and it’s divine author, God) agree that guilt and shame are a problem, how does it (and He) propose to deal with these problems? God, in the gospel, deals with our shame and guilt not by pretending they don’t exist or have any power, and not by telling us how to personally overcome them, but by fully acknowledging their reality and power, and then dealing with them fully, finally, and satisfactorily with his grace in Jesus. In love, Jesus dies in our place, for our sin. God takes our judgment on himself. Salvation is of the Lord!
God says, “Your sin is real, and is much worse and more serious than you think, but I am going to deal with it. Your shame is real, but I am going to deal with it. I am taking your problem as my own, and it’s going to cost me greatly, but am I doing it because of my love for you.”
And while it goes against not just our culture, but also against our very pride and self-worth to confess guilt and shame AND confess our own helplessness to deal with them, this is the only way to true joy and comfort and rest. Because this is the only way into the loving, delight-taking, and protecting forgiveness and favor of Jesus.
God wants to deal with our sin and judgment, with our shame and guilt, but in a way that draws us to himself, rather than making us believe we are self-sufficient; in a way that causes us to see his unspeakable goodness, rather than thinking much of our own goodness; in a way that humbles us before him, rather than making us proud before him; and ultimately in a way that causes us to boast and rejoice in him alone.