What to do with My Guilt and Shame
Luke 22:61,62 Peter remembered the saying of the Lord, how he had said to him, “Before the rooster crows today, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.
As my life came crashing down and the consequences of my addiction piled up, so did my guilt and shame. I had profoundly hurt those I loved and I felt awful. In treatment, where I obsessed over that guilt, I was told repeatedly that I needed to forgive myself. At that point, I could not quite wrap my mind around that concept.
I saw others who asked God for forgiveness and thus, seemed to not have a care in the world. They had destroyed their families as I had, but it did not seem to bother them at all. They would say things like, You have a disease. You would not feel guilty if you had cancer, would you? It’s not your fault so forgive yourself and stop with the shame. I could not stand the contortions they would use to dismiss the guilt of what they had done.
While I do know that Christ’s sacrifice means that we are forgiven for all time, I also know that this does not free us from all responsibility in this life. Peter found this out. Jesus predicted that Peter would deny him three times. Peter vowed that he would die for Jesus, but after Jesus arrest, Peter folded, insisting that he never knew the man.
When Peter realized what he had done, he responded in the only appropriate manner. He went out and wept bitterly. He had abandoned Christ and thus, he felt terrible. This was not an inappropriate response.
There are, in fact, times when it is completely appropriate to feel sorrow over our destructive behavior. It would be profoundly disingenuous if we claimed to be victims of a disease or clung to God’s forgiveness, insisting we do not feel bad after we have hurt those around us.
Paul said there is an appropriate grief to feel after destructive behavior. Godly grief produces a repentance (1 Cor 7:10). If my guilt motivates me to turn and repent from my destructive behavior, then it would be premature and inappropriate to forgive myself and dismiss my sin. When I hurt those I love, I am to feel guilt and I am to do whatever it takes to change my ways. Prematurely claiming serenity removes any impetus I have to change. *
To be sure, there is a paralyzing shame that is inappropriate. Paul also says, Worldly grief produces death (1 Cor 7:10). While appropriate guilt leads to repentance, inappropriate guilt leads to more destruction. The difference may largely be in my response to that guilt. I can wallow in my shame over my addiction, using it as an excuse to return to addiction, or I can use that guilt to motivate me to repentance. What makes it Godly or worldly is my response to it.
When I engage in destructive behavior, it is appropriate that I feel pain over the hurt I have caused. It is pathologic to deny that pain. I am to use that discomfort to motivate me to turn from self and follow God.
*I am referring here to the guilt that stems from our own destructive behavior. I am not referring to misplaced or inappropriate guilt that stems from the destruction of others.