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Guilt, Shame, and Self-Loathing

Guilt, Shame, and Self-Loathing

By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything. 1 John 3:19-20

In the disastrous consequences of my addiction, I had a tremendous amount of self-loathing. As my life fell apart, my toxic behavior destroyed the lives of those closest to me. In treatment then, I was drowning in self-condemnation. There were those who explained the difference between guilt and shame, but it didn’t matter. I’d done terrible things and I hated what I’d done. I asked God for forgiveness, and I believe I got it, but my conscience was still screaming at me for all the pain I’d caused my family. At that point, I don’t believe my guilty feelings were inappropriate. My conscience was right to be offended. God often speaks through our conscience, letting us know when we’re wrong. So, I used that pain to figure out how to change. As I got sober though, my guilt began to hold me back. In my shame, I wanted to avoid church. At that point, my conscience threatened to become a negative force.

Though God uses our conscience to speak to us, sometimes we experience inappropriate self-condemnation. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death (2 Corinthians 7:10). Our grief may lead us to change for the better, or our grief may destroy us. There are appropriate and inappropriate feelings of guilt. How do we know the difference?

First, we must ask if we feel shame over something we’ve done or something that’s been done to us. Many victims feel dirty and shameful, though they’ve done nothing wrong. This kind of shame is clearly misplaced and those who suffer from it must daily take it to God, asking what he wants them to do with it. This may be a life-long struggle and may require counseling to work through.

Second, if it’s something we’ve done about which we feel guilty, we must do whatever it takes to abandon the behavior. If we’re still doing the thing that pricks our conscience, of course we should feel guilty. It’s absurd to ask God for absolution and comfort for some evil that we continue to do. We should feel guilty about that. Once we’ve truly repented and asked God to forgive us though, we must daily rest in the comfort that he has done so.

Finally, we must ask if we need to make amends. We can be forgiven by God, but still be required to do what we can to right the wrong. If we’ve hurt someone, it does them little good to let them know God has forgiven us. If we feel guilty because we’ve injured someone, then we have a responsibility to go them, apologize, and do what we can to right the wrong – as long as doing so wouldn’t make things worse. There are times when it is inappropriate to approach those we’ve hurt. This is difficult to sort out and it’s often helpful to ask someone wiser to help us know when we should make amends.

There are, unfortunately times when we cannot fix the past. Some hurts are permanent. What then? Then, the only thing we can do, is ask God forgiveness and embrace radical change in our own lives. If we’re still struggling with self-condemnation, we must daily go to God, asking what he wants us to do and then we must do whatever he asks. It is only in following God daily that we may daily know the life of peace and joy for which we were created.

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