The pun and the juxtaposition of content in the meme may be funny, but shame is far from fun and games. As Eric and Bruce gave their views on the unforgivable sin, they were describing the twin of shame. If the unforgivable sin is to refuse forgiveness then any person enslaved by shame is regularly committing that sin. Shame is more than guilt. In the words of Marilyn J. Sorensen, “Unlike guilt, which is the feeling of doing something wrong, shame is the feeling of being something wrong” Guilt is I did a bad thing. Shame is I am a bad thing.
Guilt does not need to lead to shame. Guilt is the emotional equivalent of physical pain. Sometimes we inflict pain on ourselves, sometimes we ignore pain, but when we listen to it, pain is powerful teacher. We learn that it is not smart to put our fingers in a flame when we feel the pain of doing it. So, too, we learn what things not to do when we feel the guilt of the wrong we do. Granted, it is not always simple or straightforward. Guilt can be manipulated by others and we can feel false guilt. The important point to remember is that guilt can lead to forgiveness, shame can never do that. In fact, shame points us away from forgiveness, taking us in the direction of the unforgivable sin.
To be freed from shame, we must stop arguing with the grace of God. God already loves you just the way you are, even if you are not quite the person God wants you to become. And guess what…none of us are quite the person God wants us to become and God still loves all of us. God, the author of forgiveness, wants to restore right relationship with each of us and between all of us. That is a tall order, good thing that it is God who is working on it. We don’t make it any easier when we disagree with God’s assessment of us that we are eminently lovable. That is why shame is so toxic, it completely stymies the holy work of reconciliation. If God thinks you are worthy of love and forgiveness, shouldn’t you agree?
Think of God as the pure, bright light of love. Things in the light are fully exposed for what they are. When we turn our backs on love we look into the darkness and feel guilt. Jesus reminded us that we too often love the darkness and so we can learn to ignore the message guilt is delivering. But forgiveness is not optional and I can’t imagine God ever giving up until all have accepted it (even if that takes longer than the short span of years any of us have on earth). Shame would have us believe that we are lost in the darkness without hope, that we are the darkness itself and not worthy of the light. But we are called to repentance, which is the act of turning (the literal meaning of the Hebrew word). We are always able to turn our gaze from darkness to light. When we behold the loving face of God, all the painful guilt and even shame is burned away in the searing soul-searching brilliance of God’s wild love. You really should try it sometime.
Rev. Ian Lynch is pastor of First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ in Brimfield, MA. He blogs about the intersection of spirituality and society at CultureDove.blogspot.com and the intersection of spirituality and ornithology at https://birdparables.blogspot.com