Last night we were discussing guilt in our homegroup/life group. How can I return to God time and time again, asking forgiveness for the same sin, knowing that this will not be the last time? This is the question that was posed by one person in the group, but I think it is a feeling that most of us would recognise.
Although I stated that we were speaking about guilt, and though Christians often use language like ‘guilt’ and ‘forgiveness’, I think what we are actually speaking about is shame. Brene Brown is a researcher and writer some of you will be familiar with. She explains that guilt, the position of having done or not done something that means we’ve fallen short of our values (or society’s, or God’s), is adaptive and helpful. Shame, by contrast, is the intensely painful feeling of believing that we are unworthy of love and belonging because we are failures and flawed. Shame drives us away from others, and like Adam and Eve hiding in the garden after they’d eaten the forbidden fruit, away from God.
I was plagued by shame throughout much of my Christian life. It was a tool used to control by a church that proclaimed grace but practiced legalism, and cemented by the people-pleasing anxiety of a family member.
I was told as a young teenager that when I got to heaven, all of the things I had done in my life, and all of the things that I had ever thought would be displayed on a giant video screen for everyone who had ever lived to see (the world’s most demeaning drive-in cinema!). At that point, I didn’t have the life experience to recognise that each of us has done, said, and thought things that we would rather remained locked inside us. I could only anticipate heaven with horror. I also vividly remember never being enough – never experiencing the joy that other Christians seemed to experience, or lying on my bed trying to recreate the example of Christians I’d read in biographies of being moved to tears by my own sinfulness. I couldn’t make the tears come. Wise Christians advised that we should look at Jesus, rather than dwelling in introspection, but this just made me aware that I was unhelpfully preoccupied by myself. More shame.
In Atomic Habits, James Clear explains how we should build identity-based habits if we want to see change in our lives. He says that the key to making a change and building new habits that stick, is to focus on creating a new identity. ‘Your current behaviours are simply a reflection of your current identity. What you do now is a mirror image of the type of person you believe that you are.’
How can we see change in our lives when we are convinced that we are the opposite of what we want to be? 2 Corinthians 5: 17 says that whoever believes in Jesus is a new creation; the old has gone and the new has come. The King James version says that we are actually new beings! We are being renewed and changed: Philippians 1:6 tells us that God began a good work in us and that He will complete it! The results may not be as quick as we would like, and we will probably be challenged (and growing, learning, and changing!) in some particular areas we struggle with for the whole of our lives. But this is a promise of God, and We can hold onto it with the same faith that we have when we declare that Jesus died and was raised to life so that we could be saved.
Other truths that the Bible proclaims about us:
Ephesians 2: 10 – we are God’s workmanship, created to do good
Philippians 4: 13 – I can do everything through Christ who gives me strength
Luke 12: 7 – I am worth more than I can imagine
2 Timothy 1:7 – God has given us a Spirit of power, love and self-control
1 Corinthians 6:19 – our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit
1 John 3: 1 – we are called children of God, and that is what we are!
Romans 8: 2 – we are free from the law of sin and death
Romans 8: 37 – you are more than a conqueror
Ephesians 5: 8 – I am a child of light
Some of us perhaps don’t struggle to accept ourselves as we are and you might be completely bewildered as to why I am writing this. Some of us, however, think that our biggest battle in life is with selfishness or envy, greed or stealing from work, pornography or materialism, when in fact the battle with shame is the thing that most threatens the peacefulness and joyfulness of our relationship with God.
This is what the bible tells us about ourselves. We don’t have to find it easy to believe, we simply have to cling onto it, in faith.