If God forgave me why do I still experience shame for past sin?

I guess I may be a little early but I will go ahead and post my question so I don’t forget to do so.
This is my question for Jo: If God forgave me why do I still experience shame for past sin?

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Hi Sadie,

Thank you for trusting me with such a vulnerable question.

You are not alone. If I had to trace one theme more than any other that I’ve needed God to help me overcome, it would be shame. I also meet a lot of people dealing with that same struggle.

The reason for this, I believe, is because as the Church we don’t always do a good enough job of talking about the difference between sin and shame.

Sin is something that you do. Shame is something that you are. One is about action, the other about identity. Where they overlap is that often, the things that we have done come to define the way that we feel about ourselves and the way that perceive ourselves. So we do something wrong, and then we interpret that to mean that we have become something wrong. We take something that happened, and it’s as if we blow it up into this overarching statement for our life that says something like: “If I did that, then it must mean ‘this’ about me… I am now ‘this’.”

The trouble is that we then confess our sins to God knowing that he will forgive us, and perhaps even experiencing that forgiveness in a very real way. And yet, even though we’ve repented and turned from that sin, many times we can go on feeling that sense of failure, as if we’ve been diminished somehow. As if we are no longer what we once were; we are stained in some way.

My point is this: sometimes, it’s not enough just to ask God to forgive us for our sins. Sometimes, we also need to ask God to take away our shame.

The beautiful news is, the cross speaks to both of these needs. The cross is not only the place where God deals with our sin once for all, but it is also the place where God takes on our shame as his own. If you’ve ever wondered why the particulars of Jesus’ death are so incredibly shameful, I believe this is why: so that we who look on can see for ourselves not only that he has carried our sin, but that he who deserved nothing but glory and honor has also clothed himself in our shame in the most real and intense and authentic of ways.

This is why the Bible not only speaks of God as the one who deals with our sin (“as far as the East is from the West, that’s how far He has removed our transgressions from us”), but as the one who also removes our shame:

“No one whose hope is in you will ever be put to shame…” (Psalm 25:3)

“Those who look to Him are radiant; their faces are never covered in shame” (Psalm 34:5)

“Do not be afraid; you will not be put to shame. Do not fear disgrace; you will not be humiliated. You will forget the shame of your youth and remember no more the reproach of your widowhood.” (Isaiah 54:4)

I still remember the day when I confessed to Vince (with a lot of tears and shaking) about the sin of my past that was still causing me to drown in shame. Vince’s response shocked me. So kindly, he took my face in his hands, and he raised it until we were looking eye to eye, and then he said to me, “that is NOT who you are anymore.”

In that moment, the Holy Spirit did a tremendous work in my heart, as I came to realize that the grace with which Vince responded to me was a grace that had been given to him by God. I realized that the reason Vince could see me that way was because that was the way that God already sees me. At the cross, when we come to God and we lay down our burdens, that is the place where Jesus takes our face in his hands, he raises it until we are looking eye to eye, and then he says to each one of us: “that is not who you are anymore.”

Or if you want it in biblical language:

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Corinthians 5:17)

“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.” (Romans 8:1-2)

It may not feel like it, but the reality is that if you give your sin and shame to God, then from God’s perspective it truly is dealt with. The one who defines all reality and who holds the universe in his hands declares over you that you have no reason to be ashamed anymore, because He has set you free. In fact, you don’t even have the right to own that shame, because Christ has taken it from you, it doesn’t belong to you anymore.

If you don’t feel it, then what it likely means is that at some level, you don’t believe that what the Bible is saying here can be true for you. If that’s the case, then my advice would be for you to begin memorizing these and other Bible verses that directly address the way that Jesus has dealt once and for all with ALL of our sin and shame. Then, whenever shame overwhelms you, pray into those verses, and ask the Holy Spirit to make them real to you, to help your unbelief, and to defeat the voice of your accuser, Satan.

I also think it can be extremely powerful to share with another, and have somebody else pray for you. Sometimes, it is hard for us to hold onto our true spiritual reality by ourselves: we need somebody else to remind us of it, and encourage us to step fully into it.

One other recommendation: spend some time meditating on Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well in John 4. This is such a stunning picture of the way that an authentic encounter with Christ can free us from the worst kind of shame. This woman was so shamed in her community that it is likely she has to visit the well alone at midday, when the sun is hottest, because she has been ostracized from her community for her sexual past. And yet, when Jesus meets her, he doesn’t shun her. He looks her in the eye. He initiates conversation. He reveals that he knows her whole story, and yet he doesn’t put her down for it. Rather, he reveals himself to her as he truly is, her Messiah. A savior who would go out of his way just to spend time with her, because she matters. What I love most is her response to encountering God face to face: “Come and meet the man who told me everything I ever did: could he be the Messiah?” “Everything I ever did”: the very things that she has been put to shame for, and ashamed of, now become her reason to boast. She boasts not because she is suddenly proud of those things, but because they no longer have any power over her. Now she can boast because those things no longer define WHO she is: they are simply something she once did. She may regret them, but she is no longer ruled by them, because she has a new Lord and savior, and he alone defines her.

Whenever I read that story, it feels so familiar to me, as that has been my experience with Jesus as well: that he is the God who takes my face in his hands and speaks over me this astonishing truth: “that is not who you are anymore.”

My prayer, Sadie, is that you might experience that same freedom as well. The freedom to let go of who you have been, and allow God to be the one who gets to say who you are, and how you ought to be seen.

Grace and peace,

Jo

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