Those are synonyms, right? Actually, after some research and thought, I think they are all three distinctly different.
Shame is, according to the Oxford dictionary, “a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.” Some other synonyms are mortification, embarrassment, indignity, discomfort and remorse.
Shame is a complex collection of feelings about your whole self in general. Shame says you are foolish. Shame says you are bad. Shame says you are stupid.
Guilt, on the other hand, is the feeling that you have done something wrong. Like letting someone down, it is related to a specific incident.
When you feel guilty, you may be able to take steps to “right the wrong.” An apology, a confession, some vulnerability perhaps. Even after the action though guilt still hangs around because, after all, I’ve done something wrong.
But with shame, there is no way back, because all of me is what’s wrong. There’s no action I could possibly take to dispel the dark and lonely shame that covers me like a smelly wet blanket.
I think we can agree that guilt is better than shame, right? While I also agree with that, the reality is that there is a third option: regret. Regret is defined as “a feeling of sadness, repentance, or disappointment over something.” Regret says, “If I had the chance to do that over, I’d do it differently (or I wouldn’t do it at all).” There is a knowing that the past is in the past, any amends to be made have been taken care of, so that we can now move forward free of the smelly blanket.
That is easier said than done. We feel shameful. We feel shamed. We loathe ourselves. We may withdraw, or act out, or drink too much, or eat too much, or even harm ourselves. Shame cannot be relieved by “working on it” – it is deeply ingrained and affects all of our thoughts and behavior. Shame takes charge. It takes over.
Maybe we feel guilty over things done and left undone. We’ve done our best to make amends, but still there is guilt. Deeply we feel these things until maybe enough time passes that we can hide it in a corner. But it remains covered with that same smelly blanket, no matter how small and hidden it is, and sometimes the smell of it rises up and reminds you just how awful that thing really was. Reminds you that the things you did (or didn’t do) may be mended, but never atoned for. We work and work on this guilt thing, but we never seem to get free of it.
Let’s just stop here. Jesus’ own blood and tears flowed as He died – and for what? To atone for our sins, the very ones we can never atone for on our own. To usher us into the very presence of God, now and forevermore. My sin – all of it, past present and future – my shame, my guilt – all of those things are covered by the blood of Jesus, who went to the Cross specifically to free me from shame and guilt.
He declares that I am HIS CHILD. He says that He delights in me, and sings over me, and sees me white as snow. My identity is no longer a “bad person” or a person who “did a bad thing.” No. My identity is in Jesus alone.
Do you see where I’m going now? Regret. Regret is all that is left after the forgiveness of God, and although that may be accompanied by a sadness, it is NOT accompanied by shame or guilt. Ever. We can look back, really far back, or to yesterday or 10 minutes ago, and feel an “oops, I should have done that differently,” do my part if there is one, and then stand tall. Why? Because the King is my father. I can stand before my Father shame and guilt free, perhaps with some regrets, often repentant, but with a full understanding of what God’s forgiveness truly looks like. It looks like taking an ashamed, guilt-ridden girl and making her into someone new, someone who bears no marks of shame or guilt, because those are erased at the moment of salvation. They are GONE.
Twenty-two years ago, I became a new person. (It’s a kind of crazy story, ask me about it sometime.) God claimed me for His own, once and for all, on April 19, 2000. What was “my part?” It was to believe that Jesus on the cross is the only acceptable sacrifice to atone for my own sins, all of them. It was understanding that there is only one way to heaven, and that it is through Jesus. It was a changing of my mind – a realizing that the “old ways” of living might seem enticing, but in reality they simply led me into a small life, full of guilt and shame.
But the story doesn’t stop there. What if it did? Would we really be free of anything? No, because that would have made Jesus a liar. Or a lunatic.
He’s neither of those things, and we know it because He came out of His grave three days later. He came out whole except for the scars from the piercings in His side and His hands, to remind us I think, of that great sacrifice.
Once I realized who Jesus REALLY is, I changed. Everything changed.
Well, almost everything. Because I was still walking around carrying the same bag of guilt and shame that I’ve always had! In fact, I was clutching it tightly in my hands. It took me years to pry my hands off that bag, to examine some of the contents, to toss most of it in the trash bin, and lay the rest down before Jesus. Can I say I never pick that bag back up? Nope. Sometimes I do. But I know where it belongs, and back it goes, to the foot of the Cross.
Mostly now, when I look back on the hard and sad things, what I do feel is a bit of regret. I wish there were do-overs, but I do not feel ashamed, and I do not feel guilty. I cannot. Because to live in shame or guilt is to lose sight of, or even to deny, God’s forgiveness.
Are you living in shame or guilt? Let’s talk.
And let’s all turn to Him and believe what He says about us. Shame and guilt are liars and thieves. Let’s live the life He created us for!
Angie, that was a great definition of each. I had never separated each out and examined them.
And you’re right, Jesus paid it all.
When we feel any of those things, His arms are open for us to run to.
Thanks Jan – it was an eye opener for me too!