Our RealityBeing a Christian and engaging in compulsive sexual behaviors causes us to feel shame. When we’re acting on our sex addiction, we know we’re crossing lines we shouldn’t cross. We’re going to feel ashamed. That sense of shame is painful, even excruciating. That’s why we compartmentalize and dissociate, to avoid the pain that comes with shame. So why do we use shame? To stop our behaviors. To help motivate ourselves (or others) to make changes for the better. But shame doesn’t work that way. Rather than becoming an internal force that causes us to stop our compulsive behaviors, shame works the opposite way. Shame reinforces our dependence on the behaviors we’re trying to change.
When we’re ashamed, we often hear an inner voice that says something like:
- “How can you behave this way when you say you’re a Christian?”
- “You’re a liar and a hypocrite; how can you say you believe in God and do this stuff?”
- “If anyone knew what you think about and the things you do they wouldn’t want anything to do with you.”
Why Shame Doesn’t WorkThe messages of shame are, “There’s something wrong with me. I will never get this right. I’m a lost cause.” The effects of shame messages are to make us feel hopeless, miserable, and alone. Since we’ve already developed a pattern of numbing our uncomfortable emotions so we don’t feel, that’s what we go back to. Shame drives us right back into our compulsive behavior. Going back to our addictive behavior reinforces the shame messages, “See? You’re a loser. You’re never going to beat this. God must be so disappointed with you.” So, is there not an appropriate use of shame for Christians? No. It’s a semantic issue. There is a proper use of guilt for the Christian, but not shame. Hebrews 12:1-2 instructs Christians to engage our life in Christ like a race, a marathon really, with our focus on Jesus. “The founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” Jesus’ act of ascending the cross was an act of fully identifying himself with each of us in the depth of our powerlessness, our vulnerability. In a cosmic exchange that is difficult to understand fully, Jesus experienced all of the guilt, loss, and despair common to all of his brothers and sisters. A victim of Roman execution, he was brutalized, tortured, humiliated, and hung naked. And the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews said he despised the shame. What does that mean? Did he ignore it? Wasn’t he affected by it? I think it means he saw it for what it is, a lie. He was suffering, and he was in pain. But he wasn’t a loser. He wasn’t worthless. And neither are we.
True IdentityShame messages are inappropriate because they lie to us about who we are. We are not losers because we struggle with compulsive behavior. We’re someone who needs help, needs healing. God is not disappointed with how badly we’re doing. God wants to help us, heal us, and draw us close. Shame is a lie about who we are. So, what is the truth? The truth is we’re known, loved, and invited to live a better life. That’s where guilt can be useful when shame can’t.
GuiltGuilt is the conviction “I have done something wrong.” Shame is the message, “There is something wrong with me.” Accepting our guilt when we behave in ways that contradict our values is appropriate and helpful. When I feel ashamed, I want to hide. When I do something that makes me feel ashamed, I want to hide. But when I register guilt, I want to change, repair, or fix what I did wrong.
And while this is counter-intuitive, guilt, in a Christian framework, actually reinforces two healthy and redemptive truths:
- We are all guilty (so I belong!)
- We are all loved and desired (I am wanted!)