We have been blessed by a great dog named Kactus who has been a part of our family for over 10 years. Not long ago we noticed a bump on her leg. The bump continued to grow so we took her to her vet who after some tests advised us to have it removed. We didn’t hesitate as we love her very much and she is an important part of our family.
After the surgery, she returned home wearing a large clear plastic cone around her head to keep her from biting the wound on her leg. We called the cone the cone of shame, a nickname we got from the movie Up. She ran into door frames, couldn’t get to her food bowl, and couldn’t jump down from the bed with the cone of shame on her head. She looked so embarrassed and even depressed.
A lot of us relate to God out of our own version of the cone of shame. Some think God’s primary role in our life is not only to make us feel guilty, but to make us wear the cone of shame. When Kactus came home from her follow-up appointment at the vet, and we took the cone of shame off her after two weeks, she was like a new dog! She ran around so excited! I think it’s a picture of the liberation God wants to work in our lives when we live in His forgiveness and His grace. He wants to remove the burdens of shame and guilt we carry around that prevent us from enjoying the uninhibited liberty we find only in Him.
Our connection with God is based not on our good deeds, but exclusively on His grace. The danger is in assuming we have grace all nailed down when studies show most American Christians definitely do not. Every one of us, no matter how much we think we know in our head, can grow in our experience of God’s grace. We are so very like Gomer and Hosea. We face many of the same obstacles and barriers. The powerful images that the Bible gives concerning what we are rescued from and to make grace truly amazing. It is the character of God that clears the way for our relationship with Him.
Two obstacles to our relationship with God are guilt and shame. Sometimes the cone of shame just seems to fall right into place in our lives. We feel guilt about our mistakes, our anger, and things we’ve said or words we can’t get back. Maybe we came from painful home environments where love was never communicated or where parental blessing was never given. We are confused about where God has been in the pain of our lives. All of this can add up to a deeper identity burden – shame. Where guilt is associated with feeling bad about things we’ve done, shame is a burden we carry deep in our identity. Guilt says, “What I did was wrong; I really messed up.” Shame says, “I am wrong; I am a mess.”
Guilt and shame can serve positive purposes in our lives only in driving us to God for His forgiveness, grace and healing. After all, the Bible teaches that we not only do what’s sinful, but have a sinful nature. However, unhealthy guilt and shame drive a wedge between us and God and hinder us from living in His forgiveness and our new identity. They not only drive us away from God, but separate us from the people we love the most and lead us into self-abuse and self-hatred. This kind of distorted guilt and shame plays right into the hands of Satan. His very name, according to the Bible, means, “accuser.” So the Bible challenges us to “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come close to God, and God will come close to you. Wash your hands, you sinners; purify your hearts, for your loyalty is divided between God and the world. Let there be tears for what you have done.... Humble yourselves before the Lord, and He will lift you up in honor” (James 4:7-10) There is great joy on the other side of humbly seeking God’s grace and forgiveness.
The barriers of guilt and shame can be obvious and typical, but they can also show up in tricky ways. When you always compare yourself to others or vacillate to emotional extremes of unimportance: If I can’t do this or that as good as so-and-so, then I’m nothing. When you go to church, but don’t take the Lord’s Supper because you feel unworthy. When you’re always working hard to keep up appearances, taking yourself so seriously that you never laugh anymore. When you pray for others, but not yourself; do good to others, but treat yourself harshly. All of these can be indicators of unresolved shame or guilt in your life.
We see Paul wrestling with guilt and shame in Romans. He says, “I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway” (7:19). There is guilt over specific actions he’s done, but the wrong just keeps flowing out of his life. He tries to get it together, but he keeps failing.
There is also shame. He continues, “Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death?” (7:24). Guilt and shame weigh him down and threaten to crush him. And both of them are justified based on his life, as they are in our own lives. The solution isn’t to just stop feeling this way or to build up our self-esteem and engage in positive self-talk. The answer isn’t in trying real hard to bury it in the past. Paul concludes this way: “Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord.” (7:25). God through Jesus is the one who can remove shame and guilt and clothe us with our true identity as His people.
This is part of the miracle of grace, which is freely given to us, but which cost God everything. He paid dearly to set us free and restore us. He paid with the most precious gift He could give – Jesus. The One who died for us, in our place, and then came back to life fueled by a powerful love that could come only from His Father. He bears our shame and forgives our guilt.
Hosea also knew what it was like to pay the price to redeem the person he loved the most. We know that Hosea, the prophet, married to the prostitute Gomer had to go and find her more than once. He had to pay her debts in order for her to be released from the sexual slavery in which she had become ensnared. The level of strength this displays in Hosea can’t be underestimated. He would be more than justified in letting Gomer suffer the consequences of her idolatrous, disastrous behavior.
In our present world, most of us would be told we’re “enablers” if we continued pursuing someone behaving like Gomer. Yet Hosea refused to give up on her, refused to allow her to self-destruct the way she seemed determined to do. He loved her more than she was able to love herself, beyond her guilt and shame. He loved her as God loves you.