By Dr. Gary Sweeten
As a Counselor I have become well acquainted with people who suffer from feelings of despair. Depression and anxiety are the two most frequent conditions that bring folks to counseling.
Several years ago I received a call from Steve, a young man that grew up in our church. He was depressed to the point of suicide. As he talked, I heard Steve say many times that he felt guilty, but when I listened carefully I heard shame thinking not, guilt thinking. It was filled with things like, ‘I am no good,’ ‘I will always be a failure’, and ‘I am just like my drug addicted father and can never change’. I didn’t hear things like, ‘I did something I know was wrong’ or ‘I have been thinking about doing things I know are wrong.’
There is a big difference between guilt and shame. Guilt is designed to change unhealthy/immature behavior to healthy behavior/habits. Guilt arises when we believe we have violated a rule of law. The solution for guilt is usually simple; confess and repent. Honestly facing our failures and deciding to act differently leads to peace. We do not have to ever look back.
Shame is completely different. Shame is a very destructive emotional and behavioral pattern. It can be integrated into family or culture. Shame is designed to build unthinking conformity to the family or tribe. Shame comes from a lack of self-respect and self-acceptance and leads to feelings of unworthiness. I am no longer a Child of God and eternal separation is demanded.
If every time we fail to act with perfection we believe we are a total failure and deserve to be kicked out of God’s Family, we will end up depressed and anxious. Sick theology makes sick people!
Steve, the young man that called, knew he was an imperfect husband and father and he concluded it meant that he was destined to fail just like his dad failed. He too was tempted to do drugs, but he called me first. When listening to drug addicts we often discover depression and anxiety at the root of the problem. For Steve, the root of his feelings of shame came from growing up in a shame based home. When he misbehaved as a child he heard things like, “Our boys don’t act like that” or “You keep that up and I will give you away” or “I will have the police come and get you!”
Parents that understand true guilt challenge a child to admit their wrong behavior and offer a correction. They do not try to scare the child with a threat of family rejection. A family or church that uses shame has rigid rules with harsh rejection, if violated. They will turn their backs on the child and she develops a traumatized soul.
The good news is that through faith in Jesus, we have both forgiveness from punishment and adoption into the eternal family of God. Faith in the finished work of Christ builds inner peace and healthy boundaries despite our failures and imperfections. As Paul said in Romans 8:1 after admitting his own failures and sins, Now therefore there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus! And in Romans 8:15 We have not received the spirit of slavery to revert back into fear but we have the spirit of sonship that allows us to call out to our Abba Father.
We approach God as our loving, accepting daddy not as an angry judge ready to reject us. This assurance of eternal rest in the Family of God says, ‘Relax and enjoy life together. We are on vacation from Shame.’
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