As I passed by a woman at a church dinner recently, I reached out to gently touch her on her shoulder to let her know I was there (I didn’t want all those well-prepared potluck casseroles I was carrying on my plate to get spilled down my shirt). Upon being touched, the lady jumped as if she had been electrocuted.
She apologized for being startled by jokingly saying, “I guess I have a guilty conscience.” To which I asked, “Well, were you raised Catholic or Baptist?” This is not a knock against Catholics or Baptists (I was raised in the latter tradition). It is an observation of the Christian church in general, particularly the church in the Western world. We wallow about in self-contempt and crippling shame.
I will not argue against the fact that we are all “sinners,” because we all commit selfish acts that hurt others and hurt ourselves. But our status as “sinners” should not lead us immediately into a culture obsessed with our own personal wretchedness.
And yes, there is a healthy guilt – the Apostle Paul called it “godly sorrow” – that leads us to repentance, restoration, and change. But once God’s grace and forgiveness have been received and realized, life can only be lived with joy, gratitude, and confidence.
It could be that the Eastern Church – the Greek Orthodox fellowship along with their brothers and sisters – could help us here. Their view of sin and shame is quite different than the one with which we are most familiar.
Where Protestants and Catholics focus on our personal depravity, the Orthodox focus on our potentiality. Where we have always understood that humanity is a collection of offenders with incorrigible guilt, the Orthodox understand that we are unwell, but can be made whole. Where we have concluded that salvation is something that keeps us from being executed by God, the Eastern view is that salvation is restoration to full and abundant living.
In the shame-based view of sin we hear God say, “Look what you made me do to my Son, Jesus!” But in the healthier view, we hear God say, “You need the right medicine. You need grace to be made well. You need extraordinary intervention to restore your soul, and I love you so much I’ll do whatever it takes to make that happen.”
We can then embrace our identity as “sinners” but see that it’s nothing to be ashamed of – it’s simply the human condition, and God doesn’t want to kill us for being human. He made us this way – but wants to give us all that we need to be all that he created us to be. This doesn’t make us grovel about in shame; it inspires us with gratitude.
Summarily, God’s forgiveness granted through Jesus should never saddle the forgiven with any form of “survivor’s guilt.” After all, the Christian life cannot be lived from a place of fear and shame. It can only be lived out of grace and thanksgiving.