This post is meant to offer guidance to common “What now?” questions that could emerge from Pastor J.D.’s sermon on Luke 8:40-48 addressing the emotion of shame preached at The Summit Church Saturday/Sunday September 8-9, 2018.
In this post we will reflect on four frequently asked questions related to shame.
What Is the Difference Between Guilt, Shame, and Regret?
Are these three words – guilt, shame, and regret – synonyms? Let’s start by exploring how guilt, shame, and regret are similar. Each is unpleasant. There is a natural instinct to want to hide or cover up. Frequently we are embarrassed to admit or want to talk about any of these emotions. There is a sense of being dirty, damaged, or bad in the midst of these experiences. We have a tendency to believe that these emotions define us (at least to some degree).
Each emotion is triggered by similar types of events. There was something wrong that happened and we were part of that event(s). Socially, the triggering event is believed to carry a stigma that would make us less acceptable. Memory of the triggering event is very “sticky” in our memory and hard to let go.
I would argue that these emotions, when rightly understood and our experiences are rightly interpreted, are three distinct emotions and the gospel speaks to each in unique ways. At the risk of over-simplifying, let’s explore how guilt, shame, and regret are different.
Guilt is a sense of legitimate condemnation in response to personal sin and says, “I did something wrong.”
Shame is a sense of illegitimate condemnation in response to suffering and says, “I am marred or inherently unacceptable.”
Regret is a form of grief for a reasonable good circumstance that was never realized and says, “I wish things had gone differently.”
We rightly feel guilt when we lose our temper, misrepresent the truth, fail to fulfill a promise, neglect a responsibility, dishonor an authority figure, make a crude joke, take advantage of someone, or fail to represent Christ accurately in some other way. If we do not feel guilty for these things, our conscience is seared (at least to some degree).
We feel shame (among other emotions) when we have been abused (physically, verbally, or sexually), are limited by chronic pain, have been betrayed by a spouse or trusted friend, lose our job, are helpless after a catastrophe, or experience other hardships that are not the result of personal sin. If we “own” these emotions in the same way we own guilt, then we feel a false sense of condemnation.
We feel regret when a parent died when we were young, an illness prevents us from pursuing a dream, an opportunity does not come our way, or some other reasonable and legitimate desire is unfulfilled. If we interpret these experiences as God’s rejection or a reflection of our value, then we over-personalize these events as if they carried a message about us from God; we treat regret like an insult instead of a hardship.
The gospel answers guilt with forgiveness. Guilt leaves a moral stain on our soul which the blood of Jesus washes clean and then replaces with His own righteousness. Sin does not become our identity because the gospel transforms us from rebels against God to ambassadors for God.
The gospel answers shame with comfort and truth to counter lies of suffering. Shame leaves no stain, but traps us in the confusion of suffering’s lies. The gospel patiently cuts through those lies of shame and offers us the freedom that comes with the identity of being a dearly loved child of God. As a loving Father, God is tender in removing lies of suffering knowing that we often cling to them like a dysfunctional security blanket.
The gospel answers regret with the assurance of that we are in the providence of a good God. The gospel reveals a God who transforms the unfortunate events of life. It does not force or rush us to call painful or unfortunate things good, but it does reveal the character of a God who redeems the darkest moments (Jesus on Calvary) for His glory and our good.
As you seek to make application of this post, ask yourself the following questions:
- How and when have you confused the experiences of guilt, shame, and regret?
- How has this confusion caused additional confusion (or offense) about the kind of help God offers in the gospel?
- How would rightly identifying your emotions in these experiences help you draw upon God’s hope in the gospel more effectively?
How Does Scripture Give Me Words to Express My Shame?
This personalization of Psalm 3 is meant to give you greater clarity on how Scripture invites us to speak your shame to God as a means of having weakening the power of shame in our lives.
Case Study: David is a Christian man that (literally) everyone admired. You could hardly find anyone in his church or community who did not have ample good things to say about David. If he ran for mayor in his town, he would be a shoe in to win. He is active as a lead teacher at the church. Within the community he is often consulted when important decisions are made.
David’s wife passed away several years ago, and he later married another woman with children of her own. Several years ago David’s stepson, Aaron, convinced David’s daughter, Tara, to experiment sexually. There is no other way to say it, he raped her. Tara confided in her brother, Barry. They went to their father, but David did not know what to do so he did nothing.
David tried to defend his inactivity by appealing to all the legal consequences that existed for Aaron and explaining that even he did report Tara’s pain wouldn’t go away. Barry saw this as pure weakness. He grew to despise both Aaron and his father. Aaron showed little remorse and tried to act like nothing happened. Barry was incensed and refused to be weak like his father David. Barry beat Aaron and left him unconscious in a neighbor’s yard.
Once the police got involved Barry was arrested. David bailed Barry out and smoothed things over, using his political influence to get Barry out of trouble. But again David didn’t really do anything more about Barry’s physical violence than he did Aaron’s sexual violence against Tara.
Barry, sick of the whole situation, outed everything that was going on in their home. With a few descriptive liberties he was able to turn everyone in the church and community against David. Even David’s wife was ashamed of him and asked for a separation. David was devastated and ashamed to show his face in public. The only person he had left to call was God, but he didn’t think even God would listen.
[This case study attempts to mirrors closely portions of the life of David, King of Israel. To read the biblical narrative of these events see II Samuel 13-17. It was after these events that David wrote Psalm 3.]
- Note: For a reflection on a different Psalm on written in reference to these same events, see “Tamar Listens to Psalm 61: A Reflection on the Impact of Misused Spiritual Authority,” This article is written from the perspective of Tamar instead of David. I encourage you to read it, because Psalm 3 is very David-focused, uncomfortably so if you are the victim of abuse.
Pre-Questions: This case study is meant to challenge you to think biblically about the real struggles of life. These questions will not be answered completely in the sections below. But they do represent the kind of struggles that are being wrestled with in Psalm 3. Use the question to both stir application and to give you new insight into the psalm.
- If David spoke to you about his sense of failure and shame, how would you respond?
- How would you help David sort through questions regarding his level of responsibility for these matters?
- What should David do to gain relational support since he is isolated from family and friends?
- How could you help David begin to shake the sense of God-forsakenness that overwhelms him?
Read Psalm 3 in your preferred Bible translation. The “personalization” of Psalm 3 below is an attempt to capture the words that God would give a modern David to pray (Romans 8:26-27). This would be something David would need to pray many times as he struggled to surrender his shame to the Lord.
A Personalization of Psalm 3
- Lord, everyone I know has turned against me; my family, my friends, even those who just “know of me.” They are saying that I am an accomplice to rape and murder. And they are right.
- Even those who went to church with me are openly questioning my salvation. “How could a Christian father just do nothing?” they ask. I have the same questions. They used to eagerly attend my Bible studies, now they wonder if I’m an apostate.
- Lord, you are my only refuge; my only protection. I realize how much any wisdom and righteousness I ever had was yours. If it was not for Your tender hand under my chin lifting my eyes to Your face for reassurance, I would sink into despair.
- When I prayed I was desperate. I can’t really say that I expected You to hear me. I thought You might have abandoned me like everyone else. But You heard me! You were willing, even eager, to hear my prayer! In Your holiness you are still accessible. Thank You!
- When I sleep these days it can only be a gift from You. My mind is too tormented for sleep to be natural. When I wake from each few hours of sleep I get, help me to be grateful for Your grace to sustain my weak body and mind.
- If You are still with me, why am I so concerned about my reputation. Concern for my reputation is what led me make the choices that got me here. They are only against me, for what I’ve done, not against You. They are for Your ways. That is why they are incensed. If they are for You in their anger, then I should be able to face them without fear.
- I want to believe that. I do believe. Help my unbelief. Arise! Keep showing Yourself to Me, Lord! Do not let me lose sight of You! You are my salvation. There are many rumors spreading and slanderous thing being spread about me. Even most of the things that are true are not being shared “in love” or “for my good.” I will have to entrust those distortions to you. I am not capable of discerning what I need to hear.
- I have no choice but to trust You with my whole life. You saved me from eternal hell and only You can save me from this living hell. You are a God who loves His people. I am Your child. You are even sovereign over those who reject You. As my Father, I trust You to guide me and these circumstances.
Passages for Further Study: Psalm 25; Isaiah 6:5-7; Luke 7:36-50 (especially verse 47); Romans 5:3-5; James 1:2-4; I Peter 1:6-9
Post Questions: Now that you have read Psalm 3, examined how David might rewrite it for his situation, and studied several other passages, consider the following questions:
- Are you surprised that the Bible would include this kind of information about David and that David would be willing to share his prayer to God as part of Israel’s public worship (the psalms)?
- What does this Psalm and its inclusion in Scripture say about the degree we should allow others to be involved in the more painful and “private” struggles of our lives?
- How would your answers to the “pre-questions” have changed as a result of reflecting on Psalm 3?
- How has your view of God and His response to our “big” sins with dynamic consequences changed as result of reflecting on Psalm 3?
- For what instances of shame do you need to re-write your own version of Psalm 3?
Question 3: Friend?
What Are Other Helpful Resources on Shame?
Here are several resources on shame that you might find helpful:
- The Gospel for Shame by Ed Welch
- The Many Faces of Shame by Ed Welch
- How Do I Deal with Shame from My Past? by Ed Welch (2 minute video)
- The Difference Between Guilt and Shame by Dan DeWitt
- Seminar Resources from Summit on Subjects that Can Create Shame
Question #4: Counseling?
If my struggle with shame persists and I wanted to seek counseling, who would you recommend?
If you are in the RDU area, we have several options to serve you through The Summit Church.
- G4 Groups on Abuse or Trauma (common causes of shame) – This is a free, peer support group ministry at Summit that has groups for anger and many other life struggles.
- Summit Counseling Graduate Intern Program – This is free counseling with students completing their masters or doctoral degree in counseling.
- Bridgehaven Counseling Associates – Bridgehaven provides a context to receive counseling from a full-time, experienced counselor on a donation basis. Bridgehaven offers a high quality of care that is both clinically-informed and consistent with the teaching of The Summit Church.
- Related Question: How would the counseling provided by a formal pastoral counselor compare to a licensed counselor?
- Related Question: How do I know if my life struggle merits counseling?