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  • Janyne McConnaughey, PhD

An Easter Perspective: Guilt, Shame, and Forgiveness

Why did Jesus die?

Well, first of all he died because religious types hated him for speaking truth that upset their carefully constructed boxes and disturbed their power base. There are thousands of books on the subject of why Jesus died, but plain and simple, he died because he was hated and he refused to keep quiet and stop healing people. He knew exactly what was going to happen because he knew how entrenched religion had become and the power it wielded over those it oppressed. Religion had completely lost its purpose and they hated him for pointing it out.

It is revealing that the religious leaders pushed for the most shameful means of death. It is what oppressors do—they shame. It is their way of unloading their own guilt on their victims. They tried to convince Jesus that he was wrong and that they were right. They ridiculed Jesus for what he believed about himself. They tried to embarrass him in front of the crowds. They tried to make him realize he was nothing and they were everything. It is what oppressors do—they shame.

Oddly enough, unlike most humans, Jesus never internalized their guilt. He never accepted the role of victim. Victims struggle to separate themselves from the guilt of their oppressors. They take on the sins of others as indicators of their inherent lack of worth. Oppressors make the victims feel responsible for their own oppression. The victim says, “This is happening to me because of who I am. I am the one who is unworthy. I am responsible.” This is shame. Shame is the belief that we are worthless.

In an earlier blog post, I said, “Many confuse guilt and shame—they are not the same. Shame tells us we are not worthy; guilt tells us what we did was unacceptable. They are two totally different things. Shame occurs when we internalize what others do or say to us and take it as our own truth about ourselves. Guilt is the result of our own actions—we can ask for forgiveness and move on. Shame makes us apologize for our very existence and being. There is no moving on from that.”

Jesus had no sin, and thus he had no guilt—even though he did several things that others told him he should feel guilt about. All we call sin is not sin. His conscience was absolutely clear the day he died on the cross. He had done nothing wrong. He also was absolutely secure in who he was and had not internalized any of the shame they attempted to thrust on him. He had not internalized shame and clearly understood who was at fault in the situation.

I remember all the days I worked through layer after layer of internalized shame about what was done to me. How could I possibly forgive someone else for what I believed was my fault? That is what we ask of victims—to forgive out of their depth of unresolved shame and pain. There is only one way to do that—to ask forgiveness for being who their abusers convinced them they were. Without true healing of the trauma and shame inflicted upon them, the victim is not forgiving their abuser, they are attempting to ask forgiveness for being responsible for their own abuse. They ask God to forgive them for who they are not realizing they cannot see themselves as the beloved creation of the creator. What they believe is guilt is actually shame.

Jesus forgave out of a clear conscience and so should everyone who has ever been a victim of another’s sin. Without confusing shame and guilt, asking forgiveness for those things that are truly our responsibility is a simple thing. “I am sorry I did that. Forgive me. I will do my best to never do that again.” Forgiving others for what is clearly their fault is more difficult, but without internalized guilt and shame for their actions it is easier.

Asking forgiveness out of internalized guilt and shame looks entirely different. “Forgive me for being the awful wretched person that I am.” It is asking forgiveness for being who we are. Sin is what we do, it is not who we are. I hear this sense of shame all the time. It is in the hymns. It is in the preaching. Asking forgiveness for who we are never gives us peace because we walk away believing something about ourselves that God doesn’t believe. God forgives guilt but shame must be healed.

Jesus himself alluded to the fact that it was much easier to forgive sin than heal the body (Matthew 9). Trauma is held in the body and it is difficult to heal. What we believe about ourselves as a result of trauma is in every fiber of our being. Healing is a difficult process, but once healed forgiveness becomes much easier because it is clear who is responsible. We no longer are asking forgiveness for what others made us believe about ourselves.

Two years ago, I would have denied that I was holding myself responsible for my own abuse and believing things about myself that were not true. Layer after layer, I found the messages embedded deep inside of me. What happened to me was not because of ‘who I was.’ The dark cloud of sin that hovered over my subconscious for sixty years was not my sin—it was theirs. No number of trips to the altar could ever rescue me from the cloud of shame. There was nothing to forgive so there was no relief. It felt like I had not been forgiven, but the truth is I had not been healed.

The Easter message for me this year is that Jesus died because men hated him, but he lived to heal. I am far from perfect, but my need was not so much to be forgiven but to be healed from the shame imposed on me by the guilty. Now healed from shame, and free from my abusers guilt, the example of forgiving that Jesus set on the cross seems more possible.

In their own brokenness, my abusers really didn’t know what was driving them to do such despicable acts. If you think sin is always a completely controllable conscious act, you are wrong. Yes, they chose and are culpable, but whatever caused their brokenness wired them in ways that, without healing, are extremely difficult to control—not that control isn’t possible. Control is possible, just not healthy—and usually results in epic failures. Their own pain resulted in their choice to inflict pain on others. They needed the healing that Jesus came to offer—probably through quality therapeutic care. How sad they never were able to receive the help they needed. How wonderful it is that I did. Knowing it was their guilt, their pain, and their brokenness--not who I was, helps me to forgive.

The Easter message I give to all who have suffered at the hands of other broken humans is that healing is what Jesus came to do. He lived to heal, he died to heal, and he rose to heal. We can be forgiven from our own sin, but we must be healed from the guilt and shame inflicted by the sins of others. Mixing up the two and living in condemnation of who we erroneously believe ourselves to be will never bring peace and joy during this season. I know that is true because it was my story.

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