Guilt and Shame
James 4:8-10 Cleanse your hands, you sinners… Be wretched and mourn and weep… Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.
If you have never failed in a way that was painful for you and your loved ones, then this is not for you. You can stop reading. If however, like me, you have caused yourself and your loved ones significant misery in your failure, then today’s passage is for you (and me).
At the time I went to treatment, I had a tremendous amount of guilt over the destruction I had caused. I had wrought much misery and I was miserable about that. I was encouraged repeatedly to forgive myself and get over this shame. I was told that feeling wretched over what I had done was self-destructive. God had forgiven me (which was true) so I needed to forgive myself and stop mourning my sin.
James however, instructs me that there is a proper time for mourning my destructive behavior. When I pursue self and enter the living death of slavery to my flesh nature, I should be terrified of the consequences. Then, when I come to repentance of my destruction, I should mourn that destruction.
I may, in my repentance, insist that, since God has forgiven me, everyone else must forgive me as well. I have met those who, on day two of treatment, insist that they have no regrets as they are forgiven and free from all the consequences of their past. While it is a blessed truth that God has forgiven me and I am thus eternally saved, God’s forgiveness does not free me from earthly consequences.
God is not mocked. I reap what I sow here on earth, even after I am forgiven. If I lose my job, go to jail and leave my family homeless, it does little good to my family to tell them of how God has forgiven me.
When those around me are wallowing in the consequences of my actions, it is disingenuous to claim that I am happy and free. James says when I fail, I do need to mourn and weep over my failure. God uses that pain and misery to motivate me to change. If I dismiss the guilt and shame I feel, then I remove the impetus to change and it becomes much more likely that nothing will change. If I am comfortable, I have no motivation to move.
There is of course, a shame that leads to more destruction. Paul describes how a godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation… whereas worldly grief produces death (2 Corinthians 7:10). If I refuse to accept that God forgives me, then I am denying that which I desperately need the most. If, I insist that I am too far gone to be forgiven by God, then I will throw my hands up in defeat, which leads only to more death and destruction. It is necessary that I rejoice in God’s forgiveness if I want to grow and change.
It is not wrong however, to be sad about the destruction I have caused in my life and in the lives of those around me. If I sin boldly and if I hold my head up proudly when I fail, I will not change. My sin grieves God and thus humility and mourning are right responses to my sin. It is only in humbling myself before God that He lifts me up.