Well isn’t that a big question! What in the world do we do with the shame and guilt we sometimes feel? Are they always a bad thing, or can they be used for my benefit?
Defining Shame & Guilt
Before I try to answer that question, let’s first define what shame and guilt are. Reading through Dr. Peter Bouteneff’s book How to Be a Sinner helped me understand shame and guilt from an Orthodox perspective. He, as well as other scholars, defines guilt as a feeling about something I have done, and shame as a feeling about something that I am. Guilt and shame are often a mixture of feelings of regret, embarrassment, and humiliation.
This week I asked friends on social media what are somethings they feel ashamed and guilty about. Their answers covered many things such as past mistakes, insecurities, old sins never confessed, not having the right boundaries, not forgiving others, and general mom guilt. I know I can identify with many of these things, and maybe you can too. So what’s next? Do we allow ourselves to foster shame and guilt, or should we do something about it? What can even be done about it should we choose to act?
Negative Shame & Guilt
There are decisions we make in the moment that we grow to regret later on. Whether that’s a secret sin or a public wrongdoing. Dr. Boutenff points out how “the devil rejoices twice, first at the sin, and then the havoc wreaked through ill-placed shame and self-loathing.” It’s not enough that the enemy has tempted us, but that he sits back and enjoys the torment we put ourselves through. When we forget our sinner identity, that we are a fallen creation trying to make it back to the kingdom, we tend to beat ourselves up over and over again over a sin we committed. We ought to remember that we are sinners, forgiven sinners (as stressed in the book), and we should expect ourselves to fall, repeatedly. St. Paul reminds us, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (romans 3:23)
But the key to falling and sinning is getting back up. Every single time. And not laying in guilt for too long.
Unfortunately there are many tragic events that happen that are outside our control. Being a victim of horrific abuse of any kind, suffering through a miscarriage, or feeling responsible for a patient’s death are all things that can be followed by shame and guilt. It’s important to understand that many things happen out of our will, and therefore we cannot change our course of action, but rather bring them to God and pray for healing. Sitting in shame and guilt will only prolong the healing process and bring further damage.
We can also feel shame about our life circumstances: the family I was born into, the color of my skin, my socioeconomic status, and so on. All these things, if viewed correctly, can be a gift from God; but because of social labels, they can feel like a shameful burden.
Healthy Shame & Guilt
In other instances the guilt we feel can be an internal alarm waking us up to something wrong we have done. Think of it like the Holy Spirit speaking into your conscience and letting you know something is off.
The synaxarium story of St. Augustine mentioned the following, “With divine providence Augustine met St. Ambrose and he was delighted with his spirituality and his eloquence. He diligently came to hear his profound spiritual sermons. His conscience began to awaken and admonish him for his sins and iniquities.”
Read that last sentence again. It was when awareness overtook his conscience that he began to see his sins, and that ultimately led to his repentance.
When our conscience initiates the feeling of guilt over a sin, the best way to direct that guilt is towards repentance.
What to do with Shame & Guilt?
Circling back to our original question. How to Be a Sinner gives 3 steps you can practice when you feel overcome by shame and guilt:
Identify what you are actually feeling
Acknowledge it to yourself and to someone else
If it may be acted on, do so. As soon as possible, let it go and move on.
And I’d like to reiterate that if it cannot be acted on, then accept it and find a way to move forward.
Shame and guilt can be used by Satan to keep us in a self-loathing pit, but they can also be used by God to redirect us back to Him. You will sin, but the choice is up to you on what to do next.
“For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death.” (2 Corinthians 7:10)
P.S. This is the last blog post that will be posted on liliesandthorns.com, I’m moving the blog to a new website (lilyanandrews.com)! Make sure you’re subscribed here to never miss a blog post (you’ll get one email every other week). If you’re already subscribed, first - thank you, and secondly - you’ll be receiving all the new updates.