Guilt, Shame, and Speaking Truth to One Another

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.  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.

The Sacred and the Profane

So is this 24/7 connection to God automatic?  If there is no sacred/secular distinction for the believer is it all smooth sailing on the sin front?  Are our actions always godly by virtue of our identity in Christ?  The short answer is No, No, and No.  There is one distinction that still haunts us, even in our new identity as God’s children.  And it is the distinction between the sacred and the profane.

Profane was a more common word in the days of King James.  Its Greek form bebēlos (βεβηλóς) means, “primarily, permitted to be trodden; hence, unhallowed, profane, opposite of sacred.”  According to Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, “it is that which lacks all relationship or affinity to God.”  It is more commonly translated “worldliness” in today’s versions of the New Testament.

As Paul, Peter, James, and John all make clear in the epistles, it is possible for believers – who have a “relationship or affinity to God” in their identity – to not always show it in their actions.  If fact, we can show in our actions a lack of relationship or affinity to God.  We can look like an unbeliever.  The Bible calls it “walking in the flesh”.  It is walking in a worldly manner.

Christians have a choice.  “Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body that you should obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God.  For sin shall not be master over you” (Rom 6:12-14).  We can choose to serve sin or serve the Lord.  We can choose the sacred or the profane.  And, in an incredible infusion of Christ’s righteousness in us, we have the power to choose the sacred.  “Sin shall not be master over you.”

But the choice still must be made.  May I encourage you walk in the Spirit, to walk in the identity of the Spirit that indwells you, to walk in the Spirit’s power.  It is our one defense against the profane deeds of the flesh.

A Life of Love

Paul continues in Colossians chapter 3 to explain what a life of love looks like.  Remember, Paul has already identified the key to overcoming the flesh.  It is living into all that became new at our salvation.  It is laying aside the old self with its evil practices and putting on the new self with its holy attributes.  And the greatest of these is love.

“And beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity.  And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body; and be thankful” (Col 3:14-15).  Two times in these two verses, Paul writes about the unity of the body.  One of the signs of a life of love is the peace that comes in our relationships with other believers.

The peace of Christ is the opposite of strife.  The peace of Christ is the opposite of dissension.  The peace of Christ is the opposite of jealousy.  The peace of Christ is the opposite of all these things that tear down the body of Christ.  Peace is synonymous with unity.  And it is God’s design that we live in peace.  And this peace leads to thanksgiving.

“Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thanksgiving in your hearts to God” (Col 3:16).  In this context, the “word of Christ” is not just referring to Scripture.  It applies to all the ways we hear the voice of Jesus.  We hear His voice in the Bible to be sure.  But we also hear His voice in our Spirit, the Spirit of Christ that indwells us.  In fact, we should expect to hear the voice of Jesus through His Spirit that is alive and active inside us.

In this particular verse, Paul highlights hearing the voice of Jesus in the community of believers that surrounds us.  We are literally the voice of Jesus when we teach and admonish one another; when we sing with and sing to our brothers and sisters in the Lord; when we express our admiration and thanksgiving to God.  Let the word of Christ, in all its different expressions, richly dwell in you.  A life of love is a life of listening to the voice of Jesus.

“And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father” (Col 3:17).  When we set up a rule-keeping system for pleasing God, we tend to separate our lives into the spiritual – following the rules, doing things to earn God’s favor, keeping spiritual disciplines – and the secular – our normal everyday responsibilities.  But when we walk in the Spirit, our connection to God is 24/7.  There is no separation between the sacred and the secular for the believer.

By virtue of who you are in Christ, all you do in word and deed is sacred.  Your homemaking, your 40-hour-a-week job, your visiting a neighbor are all sacred because you are indwelt by the sacred Spirit of Jesus.  Christ in us, living His life through us, sanctifies all of who we are and all of what we do.  This is “doing all in the name of the Lord Jesus” (vs 17).

The Law of Love

Let’s dive back into our recent topic:  empty religion.  We were working our way through the book of Colossians, when we stopped at Paul’s warning regarding the “empty deception of empty religion.”  The apostle reminds us that setting up a self-abasing, overbearing, tedious, rule-keeping system for living the Christian life is not only inappropriate, but is “of no value against fleshly indulgence” (Col 2:23).  The very thing we are trying to defeat is not the least bit hindered by a law-keeping system.  Why?  Because in its empty deception, it lacks true power.

The power to live the Christian life lies instead in our connection to our new nature.  Paul goes on in Colossians chapter 3 to explain that we defeat the flesh when we live into all that became new at our conversion.  Our recent posts,  Empty Religion, Indulging the Flesh, and Defeating the Flesh cover this in some detail.  To summarize, we are to put on the “clothes” of our new nature; a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, and forgiveness (Col 3:12-13).

These attributes, these qualities of the new nature, look a lot like Christ.  The new self we are to put on is essentially putting on Christ.  And putting on the new self, the life of Christ in us, is the answer to the flesh.

The final attribute of the new man that Paul commends here is love.  “Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity” (Col 3:14).  Love is the overarching quality – “beyond all these things” – that energizes all the others.  Love is the motivation for living into all that we are in Christ.  And this love dwells inside you right now.

It is not waiting for some new level of spirituality.  It is not waiting for some new attainment or enlightenment.  It is in you by virtue of the Holy Spirit who has taken up residence inside you.  In Romans 5:5 we learn that the Holy Spirit is literally “pouring God’s love into our hearts.”

If there is a “law” to follow for the New Testament believer, it is the law of love.  It is to empower and inform your relationships, activities, and thoughts.  It is a unifying bond for your church and family.  Throw off the chains, throw off the sin that inhibits its fullest expression.  You are a saint, holy and beloved by our Lord (Col 3:12).  Because of this, you can do it!

Defeating the Flesh

Paul makes clear in Colossians chapter 2 that legalism in the church has the appearance of wisdom but in reality is “of no value against fleshly indulgence” (vs 23).  So how do we approach our struggle with the flesh and how do we win?

Our victory over sin is expressed throughout the New Testament as a laying aside the old self and putting on the new.  “In reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self…and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth” (Eph 4:22,24).

That is why it is so crucial that we understand the new man; understand the new creation we are in Christ.  The New Testament writers constantly refer to who we are in Christ as the motivator for walking in righteousness.  Paul captures this connection with, “Therefore I implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:1-3).  And, “Therefore as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him” (Col 2:6).

Seeing our new identity in Christ as our motivator, we return to Colossians 3 and Paul’s answer to the flesh.  After again reminding us of who we are in Christ (Col 3:1-4), the apostle writes, “Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry.  For it is because of these things that the wrath of God will come upon the sons of disobedience, and in them you also once walked, when you were living in them.  (Notice the past tense here.)  But now you also put them all aside: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive speech from your mouth.  Do not lie to one another, since you laid aside the old self with its evil practices” (Col 3:5-9).

The answer to the flesh?  Consider it dead and lay it aside.  The attributes of the flesh are here described, and we are to consider ourselves dead to them (vs 5), having cast them aside (vs 9), because they represent our old self (vs 7).  (One sentence does not nearly do justice to this powerful passage, but we must move on to our main point.  A more detailed explanation of this passage can be found here.)

In verse 10, we move to the new self.  “And having put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him – a renewal in which there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all.  So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you.  Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity” (Col 3:10-14).

The instruction moves from the negative focus of laying aside the old man and his attributes and on to the positive focus of putting on the new self.  And when you see these attributes that accompany the new self – compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, and love – you realize they look a lot like Christ.  The new self we are to put on is essentially putting on Christ.  Putting on the new self is the answer to the flesh.  And while we acknowledge that it is easier said than done, the key point is that it is not impossible.  We have the power to rein it in.  We will talk more specifics next time.