A few months ago, I had the opportunity to meet Wm Paul Young, author of The Shack. One of the things he shared with our group really resonated with me because it articulated what I have been trying to say through this blog since day one. Mr. Young said, “Guilt is I have done something wrong, shame is I am something wrong.”
The first line of his quote is the biblical view of sin. We are guilty because we have done something wrong. But to our detriment, the authority figures in our lives often see our sin and make clear to us that “we are something wrong.” This second line, the shame, is not the biblical view of who we are in Christ. And the distinction between guilt and shame has tremendous implications for living the Christian life.
When you embraced the gospel message of Jesus Christ, you were infused with the righteousness of Christ (II Cor 5:21). And this infusion is not only to justify us; put us in right standing with God, but also to sanctify us; empower us to live the Christian life. You now have the power of Christ living in you by the person of the Holy Spirit and your birthright is to experience victory over sin.
But in this life, that victory is not 100%. Believers still sin. And when we do, we have an advocate, Jesus Christ, who intercedes with forgiveness (I Jn 2:1). And although we believe this with our intellect – the facts about Jesus, our advocate, and forgiveness – we often set them aside in practice and treat people as if their sin is in fact who they really are. Remember, guilt is I have done something wrong, shame is I am something wrong.
In our speech with one another, have we fallen into the trap of shame-based accusation? In our Bible teaching, do we lecture folks as if they are something wrong rather than having done something wrong? If you think about it, there is a lot of Bible teaching today that is shame-based. And it starts with the use of the word “sinners” applied to believers. The use of that word skips over the biblical idea that we are guilty because we have done something wrong and goes straight to the unbiblical position that you are guilty because you are something wrong. You sin because sinner is who you are. This is not the message of the New Testament. This is not the truth of Scripture.
Did you know that nowhere in the New Testament are believers referred to as “sinners”? Think about the verses you know that use that term. One of the most famous is, “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners (a reference to life before Christ), Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). And so it goes throughout the New Testament.
The only place that even comes close to calling us sinners is I Timothy chapter one. Here the apostle Paul writes “It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners (again a reference to the lost), among whom I am foremost of all” (I Tim 1:15). The present tense “I am” is often interpreted to suggest that Paul currently sees himself as “foremost of sinners”.
But when we read and understand the context, this is clearly not the case. Paul is saying that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners; of which I, Paul, am exhibit A. I was the worst. Just a few verses above, Paul introduced this passage with a summary of why he considered himself exhibit A. “I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor” (I Tim 1:13). Notice the use of the word “formerly”. Paul’s chief of sinners reference is a reference to his past, not his present condition. Paul is essentially saying that because this is what Christ does – rescue sinners – he did it for even me, the worst on the list. And not only did he rescue me, but He went so far as to now place me, a former #1 sinner, into service (I Tim 1:12). (See this Chief of Sinners post for a more thorough verse-by-verse interpretation.)
Please, please, please hear me on this. This is gospel truth. You are not a sinner in the biblical use of the word. You are a saint. Do believers sin? Yes, we do. We still struggle with our enemies of the world, the flesh, and the devil. And when we sin, we are truly guilty. But the New Testament makes a clear and very important distinction between guilt and identity. Our guilt has been taken care of at the cross, and our identity is that sin is no longer our default mode. Sin does not define who we are. Sinner is not our identity. We are the children of God with the seed of God living inside (I Jn 3:9). And God’s seed – this is who you are – are not identified in this way.
An example of how important this guilt vs shame distinction is can be seen in our parenting experience. When we discipline our children, we want to make clear that they have done something wrong. We want to clearly explain what they are guilty of. But we also go to great pains to help our children understand that this mistake is not their identity. We never want to imply, “You are something wrong”. If we do, it places our child in a “condemned” status that is unhealthy and can be difficult to repair. And the same thing happens to believers that are constantly told they are something wrong.
Not only is it wrong and demeaning to say to a child “You are something wrong”, but we also know that children live into the expectations we put on them. And the Christian life is the same. As we grow in the path of sanctification, we can choose to live into the righteous expectations that the New Testament describes as our true identity. And we can learn to reject and not live into the sinner description that is often held over our heads.
I think that this is one of the reasons why so many folks are disillusioned with the Christian church’s message. I am not sure they would put it in these exact words. But I have heard enough of their stories to conclude that they are tired of shame-based teaching. They are tired of being told they are bad people. They are tired of being told that the mistakes they make are the inevitable result of who they really are as sinners. And the sad thing is that this tired message of shame is not the biblical view of who we are in Christ. God’s intention is for us to walk in truth.
This shame emphasis is not only detrimental to believers, but casts a pall on our message to the outside world. Who wants to sign up for a message of shame? But shame is not what Christ offers. Jesus Christ is calling out to a lost world with a beautiful offer of love, acceptance, and forgiveness. Christ offers a life set free from guilt and shame and the overwhelming power of sin. Does this mean we are watering down the message in any way? No, we preach faith in Christ as the only way. But it is a beautiful way, a hopeful path forward that calls the lost to repentance and freedom in Christ.