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The Goodness of Guilt and Shame

No one enjoys the feelings of guilt and shame.  These feelings are some of the least pleasant experiences in the life of man.  The aversion to guilt and shame is often so great that men will go to extremes to cover their shameful deeds.  Even King David, who was a man after God’s own heart (Acts 13:22), carried out an unthinkably evil scheme to conceal the guilt and shame of his sin (2Sam. 11-12).  Others have followed in David’s example, and many times the shame of the cover-up becomes even greater than the shame of the original sin.  Some men would even prefer to suffer pain or death rather than to face the disgrace and dishonor of their sin.

Yet the feelings of guilt and shame do us a great service when we seek to relieve them according to God’s word.  While guilt, shame, sorrow, embarrassment, humiliation, and regret can be very painful and can leave deep scars, they can also be great motivators and teachers.  For example, consider the example of the Corinthian Christians.  They were strongly rebuked in a letter by the apostle Paul because of certain ungodly behaviors.  Later, Paul wrote of their reaction to his rebuke in 2Corinthians 7:8-11:

For though I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it; though I did regret it – for I see that that letter caused you sorrow, though only for a while – I now rejoice, not that you were made sorrowful, but that you were made sorrowful to the point of repentance; for you were made sorrowful according to the will of God, so that you might not suffer loss in anything through us.  For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation, but the sorrow of the world produces death.  For behold what earnestness this very thing, this godly sorrow, has produced in you: what vindication of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what avenging of wrong!  In everything you demonstrated yourselves to be innocent in the matter.

Although the experience of godly sorrow was very painful for the Corinthian Christians, in the end it was a valuable motivation that produced a host of good results.  Godly sorrow, guilt, and shame always lead to repentance, just as they did for David (Ps. 32; 38; 51).  Likewise, on Pentecost in Acts 2:37 when the Jews heard the gospel, they "were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brethren, what shall we do?’”  They were given an answer that still applies to every sinner today: "Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).

Indeed, a tender conscience is a valuable blessing that should be sought and treasured.  The Scriptures speak of a good conscience as one of the goals of the gospel (1Tim. 1:5, 19; Heb. 13:18; 1Pet. 3:16, 21).  The gospel creates a good conscience in disciples of Christ in two different ways.  In the first way, it removes the guilt and shame of past sins from the conscience through the forgiveness of sins by the blood of Jesus Christ.  In the second way, it conditions the conscience to become sensitive to present and future temptations and sins.  In Hebrews 5:14, the Scripture speaks of mature Christians who "have their senses trained to discern good and evil.”  This training of the conscience comes through the study of God’s word (2Tim. 2:15).  The trained senses of our consciences will serve us well as we are steered away from every appearance of evil (1Thess. 5:22).

Those who lack enough sensitivity to feel guilt and shame are in grave spiritual danger.  Many have incurred this danger because they have become "seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron” (1Tim. 4:2).  Through repeated exposure to wickedness and sin, their consciences have been rendered insensitive so that they no longer feel shame for their sins.  When the Jews became this way, Jeremiah wrote, "Were they ashamed because of the abomination they have done?  They were not even ashamed at all; they did not even know how to blush” (Jer. 6:15; 8:12).  When a person loses the ability to feel guilt and shame, the displeasure of those feelings no longer motivates him to avoid sin.  At this point, he is unrestrained by conscience and is likely to indulge any sinful pleasure that tempts him, putting his soul in danger of eternal loss.

Therefore, although it seems to be a strange sentiment, you should be thankful if you are capable of experiencing guilt and shame.  Your aversion to these unpleasant feelings will help to keep you from sin.  If your conscience is on "red alert” because of a tempting situation, then heed the warning, flee the temptation, and avoid guilt and shame altogether.  If you do yield to temptation and commit sin, and you are burdened with the guilt and shame of your evil deeds, then embrace your godly sorrow and follow it to repentance and God’s forgiveness.  After experiencing the guilt and shame of sin, let that experience teach you not to repeat the sinful behavior that resulted in such a miserable experience.  Like a child who has felt the pain of touching a hot stove, you will learn a valuable lesson that you will not soon forget.  As odd as it seems, God has truly blessed you with the ability to feel guilt and shame, so keep your heart pure, tender, and aware of the wickedness of sin so that your soul may be saved.

Stacey E. Durham




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