“Many will follow their shameful ways and will bring the way of truth into disrepute.” 2 Peter 2:2 (NIV)
Guilt is something we feel when we’ve chosen to do wrong, or failed to do right, something we assent to by our will. Hopefully, our consciences (providing they’re properly formed – a big “if” these days…) convict us. Our best response then is to admit our failure directly, ask forgiveness, and make amends as best we can. Guilt, property understood, is a gift from God; it’s meant to act like a surgeon’s knife – it’s painful but quick, meant for our healing.
Shame, on the other hand, has to do with having our imperfections and weaknesses seen by others. It comes not from a sense that we’ve done wrong, but instead that we ourselves are wrong – irreparably flawed, broken and perhaps even unlovable. The visceral feeling of shame itself is a sinking feeling in the stomach and a flushing of the face. People will say, “I just wanted to disappear”, or something similar. In other words, shame makes us want to hide.
We see this response right from the beginning of Scripture, when, after the first sin, Adam and Eve hide, and they feel shame for the first time. Their shame is because they are excruciatingly aware of how far they have fallen from their original dignity, beauty and, indeed, their “glory” as the pinnacle of God’s creation. That’s why tradition calls this tragedy “The Fall”.
When we feel shame, we feel disappointed in ourselves, embarrassed for our inadequacies. We may vainly – pridefully – try to hide from ourselves, from other people, and even from God. That doesn’t work, of course, as we can hide nothing from God (who knows all), and it’s hard to hide from ourselves (though we do try!) and it’s even difficult to hide from people who know us very well; they might not know exactly what is wrong, but they know something is.
Our Savior offers us a remedy, however. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest.”, Jesus says (Mt 11:28). The invitation is clear: come out into the open, agree with God about any sin in your life, cry out to him in your neediness, and receive the generous mercy and forgiveness that Christ purchased for you by his Passion and Cross. If you’re Catholic, go to Confession, that marvelous sacrament of reconciliation and healing! Staying in the dark, trying to hide, denying our brokenness, sin, and pain, only serves to play into the hand of the Accuser, that enemy of our souls who wants to demoralize us, and keep us from the light of Christ.
The world, in contrast, has no real remedy for shame. Because shame is so incredibly painful, our culture has devolved into denying any need to feel shame at all by denying even the existence of sin, that “outdated concept”. Instead, our current system offers us a pretense of okay-ness; a covering over by re-naming our sin as not actually sinful, even celebrating the sin. Deep inside us, though, we perhaps feel the gnawing conviction of the Holy Spirit who “convicts the world of sin.. and… judgement” (John 16:8).
It’s hard work trying to justify ourselves in our own and others’ eyes, especially when we know we’re in the wrong. We might even feel the need to silence all those “voices” outside ourselves that disagree with what we’re trying so hard to convince ourselves of by cutting ourselves off from others. Like the Prodigal son in Jesus’ parable, we may find ourselves far from home and in a deep hole emotionally and spiritually.
Without the Cross of Jesus Christ, without the Church, without the sacraments, the world is left to its own devices, helpless and bankrupt. No matter how much we try, humankind cannot restore itself nor make itself well. For the truth is that we are the “patient” and not the Physician; the wounded one and not the Rescuer. We’re the Prodigal, not the Father who is awaiting our return, ready to embrace us and celebrate our return to His family, restoring our dignity and reassuring us of his love.