I sat having a conversation with a young man whose life is at a crossroads, largely in ruins, because of the broken places of his soul and his choices. He comes from a similar religious heritage as I do, so we have language in common. In this moment, he believes he is utterly depraved; worthless. His statement to me: “I am nothing but a piece of sh*t.”
He is making a declaration about what he believes is the most basic and fundamental truth of himself.
What he is saying isn’t true, but he believes it. Any process of healing in his life will be disempowered by that lie. I recognize it because I used to believe it and religiously I had been taught that God saw me that way too.
Shame often gets mixed up with guilt, as if they were the same. They are not.
There are many ways to approach the distinction but here is one that has been most helpful to me:
Guilt is that I have done something wrong. Shame is I ‘am’ something wrong.
Guilt has to do with a transgression, as benign as a mistake or as overt as an intentional violation.
In the story of the Garden of Eden, there is a breaking of a command. On the surface, it had to do with eating of the Tree of the knowledge of good and evil, but at a deeper level, it was about a relational betrayal of trust. Eve transgressed through thorough deception. Adam transgressed through willful violation.
Many of us growing up in a religious environment related to guilt as legal requirement; the breaking of a rule or law. The validity of those rules and laws were rarely questioned. The only real concern was whether or not I had broken or violated them.
How or why you experience guilt is often very different from my feeling guilty. I think that much of religious education is the defining of the rules so that there is more to feel guilty about. Once I know what the rules are, I can compare my performance against that of others and feel appropriately self-righteous and judgmental.
Only as we grow and mature do we begin to realize that there are fundamental relational truths that are so much deeper than laws and rules. These can be summed up by the law of love, or Golden Rule, but they center around expressing a life full of other-centered, self-giving love.
But shame? Shame is a different beast altogether.
Shame has to do with an accusation against my very being.
Guilt might be associated with shame as a prosecuting witness, proof that shame’s proclamation that I am a worthless piece of crap is true. When a parent, or adult, tells a child that they are useless, or stupid, or fat, or dumb, this is not about guilt, but a declaration of shame aimed at dismantling the very being of a person.
Religion wouldn’t be so ruthless as to use that language. It has perfected a host of other ways to say it even more subtle and destructive. “You are depraved, utterly wicked, a Jezebel, a wretch, full of sin etc.” But the power of religion is that shame’s authority is not simply another human being, but God. These are God’s judgements against you. And once embraced, you will live your life at a deficit, always in the red, forever a sin away from perdition.
True guilt has a legitimate place in our human experience. We violate, betray, hurt ourselves, others and the creation we dwell within, and Godly sorrow at our transgressions is important and good.
Shame has no proper place. It is an attack against the “very good” creation that God has brought into being, “you.”
This informed my response to the young man I referenced previously.
“You are most fundamentally a very good creation, long before anything was broken,” I told him. “The imago dei (image of God) in you is the truest about you. So even though right now, I think you are full of sh*t, you are not a piece of sh*t.”
Unless we come to know the Truth about who we are as human beings, the ways of our lives will never match it. We need to be appropriately sorrowful about our failures and about our choices not to love, to ask for forgiveness; this is true guilt.
But we also must confront and disagree with shame and the lies it whispers in the fabric of our souls.