Several weeks ago, a friend of mine sent me the picture of a Beagle puppy that looks like he’s been caught in the act of wetting the rug. If there’s a picture next to the word shame in the dictionary, I’m pretty sure it’s of this puppy’s face. His head is bowed and his ears are lowered, but his eyes look up with a plea for understanding and forgiveness.
I’m sure that all of us have been caught in the act at some point in our lives—whatever “the act” might be. Perhaps your mom caught you with your hand in the cookie jar. Perhaps your retail store employer caught you attempting to get a five-finger discount on an expensive tech toy. Perhaps your spouse caught you cheating. Our first response in such situations is usually anger combined with rationalization. How dare someone accuse us doing something wrong! We have good reasons!
But sooner or later, we realize that rationalizations are “rational lies,” and we succumb to the twin feelings of guilt and shame. A lot of people confuse these feelings, but they are different. The dictionary defines guilt as “an awareness of having done wrong or committed a crime, accompanied by feelings of shame and regret.” It defines shame as “a negative emotion that combines feelings of dishonor, unworthiness, and embarrassment.” Guilt has to do with rules, shame with relationships.
Guilt and shame may be negative emotions, but they are also morally useful ones. They help keep us in line. After all, no one starts his day by saying, “Today I want to feel guilty and ashamed.” Instead, we usually do our best to avoid feeling either. We try to get through our day with our integrity and confidence intact.
No matter how hard we try, however, at some point, we break the rules and hurt our relationships. When that happens, what should we do? Obviously, if we’re talking about relationships with family, friends, and coworkers, an apology and restitution help. But what about when we break God’s rules and hurt our relationship with him? Then what do we do?
According to 1 John, we turn to Jesus. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1:9). He is “the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (2:2). He “appeared so that he might take away our sins” (3:5). God demonstrated true love for us by sending “his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (4:10). And therefore, “anyone born of God does not continue to sin; the one who was born of God [that is, Jesus] keeps him safe, and the evil one cannot harm him” (5:18).
Jesus is the divine antidote to guilt and shame. “And now, dear children,” as 1 John 2:28 puts it, “continue in him, so that when he appears we may be confident and unashamed before him at his coming.” Look up to Jesus, and you’ll find forgiveness.