By Linda Rex
A while back I was getting some help with health issues from a local chiropractor. It was good to receive some assistance with my problems, but I was appalled at the way shame and guilt were used there to try to motivate people to take care of their bodies through eating right, exercise and chiropractic care. If a person did not leave that place feeling bad about themselves, I would have been surprised—it was hard to escape the message that was being given.
As I began to look around me, I found many cultural messages that try to tell us we are guilty and ought to be ashamed of ourselves. Often it is churches or parachurch groups that push this message—with the best of intentions, of course. But it can be seen and experienced in many places, even in advertising and in the business place.
I remember a pastor saying once that guilt and shame are healthy—they tell us when we have crossed the line between wrong and right, and they show us our need to repent. That’s all well and good, but I really don’t see Jesus using shame and guilt as a motivator anywhere in his ministry. Even his call to repent pointed people to himself as the coming and presence of the kingdom of God in their midst.
For example, when the woman who is caught in the act of adultery is brought before him, he merely asks that the one who is without sin be the first to cast a stone. So instead of shaming the poor woman further, or making her feel more guilty than she already probably felt, he pointed out our common humanity—that we are all imperfect and in need of grace. Then he invited the woman into a new way of living and being—“Go, and leave your life of sin.”
Jesus’ ultimate invitation to a new way of living and being came through the cross. The apostle Paul helps us to understand that in Christ we are all new creatures—all that old self with its guilt and shame was taken up with Christ on the cross, crucified, buried and resurrected into a new self. God not only gives us a perfected humanity in Jesus, he also transforms us by his Spirit into a new person who can fully participate in Christ’s intimate relationship with the Father.
At some point we all face the reality that we are not what we should be. It isn’t helpful to pile on guilt and shame in such situations. It is a whole lot more helpful to address such personal failures through love and grace within the context of community and loving relationship.
In other words, we are offered in Christ and by the Spirit a relationship full of unconditional acceptance and forgiveness, predicated on Christ’s perfected humanity and the power of the Holy Spirit to bring us into alignment with all we were created to be as image-bearers of God. We offer this same relationship to one another, understanding that Christ defines our humanity now, and our shortcomings and failures, which are real, are buried in Christ and transformed by the Spirit as we are willing to participate with God in his work of transforming us into Christlikeness.
There is an appropriate time to speak truth into someone’s life about the harm they are doing to themselves and to others. This is a participation in God’s justice, and must always be done with love and grace. It is not constructive to go from there to shame and guilt—it is much more productive to offer forgiveness and unconditional acceptance while at the same time refusing to allow the person to continue to hurt themselves or others.
I’ve heard this called passive resistance. I once heard someone say that this is actually what Jesus was talking about when he said to turn the other cheek. In the culture of the time, turning the other cheek wasn’t about letting someone abuse you freely, but rather about exposing the one who was being abusive to the public exposure and criticism of his behavior since it was culturally inappropriate and wrong to be abusive in that way. And therefore, within the context of community, the person would be motivated to change.
This means our communities and relationships need to be places where love and grace abound, and where people are accepted and forgiven rather than overwhelmed with shame and guilt. They need to be places where we point out our common center in Christ, and where we invite one another to grow up into all that Christ won for us in his life, death, resurrection and ascension. Here the Holy Spirit is welcomed and obeyed, as he leads us into all truth and creates in us and among us the holy fellowship of the Triune God and the perfected humanity of Jesus Christ our Lord.
In this place of our common center in Christ, we both acknowledge our own failures and weaknesses, but we also acknowledge where others are growing up in Christ as well. We create a safe environment in which people can face up to their shortcomings, confess their faults and receive the grace and help they need to begin to change. We open ourselves up through spiritual disciplines and shared community life to the work of the Holy Spirit who is the only one who can truly transform a person from the inside out.
This is what James Torrance and others call Christian community. This is a sharing in the divine fellowship of Father, Son and Spirit. It is a wonderful experience to participate in such a community, so I encourage all my readers to find a group they can be a part of where such grace, love and truth are lived out in the presence of the Triune God. It can be hard to find people who are willing to be this transparent, humble and gracious. But it is definitely worth it.
Father, thank you that through your Son and by your Spirit you have freed us from guilt and shame, and you offer each of us participation in Christ’s perfected humanity and your Triune life of love. Grant us the grace to offer one another this same love and grace, and to live in fellowship with one another as you do. In Jesus’ precious name, amen.
“But you did not learn Christ in this way, if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught in Him, just as truth is in Jesus, that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.” Eph 4:20–24 NASB