The Depths of Guilt and Shame

How Should We Respond to Our Sin and Suffering?

Psalm 130 - 8 minute read

"God, meet me in my depths."

Have you ever felt the full weight of your actions so heavily that you have been crippled by shame? Is there a difference between guilt and shame, and what do they mean in the light of the Cross? How do we respond to God in the face of sin, shame, and suffering?

Psalm 130

1 "Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord;
    Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive
    to my cry for mercy.
3 If you, Lord, kept a record of sins,
    Lord, who could stand?
4 But with you there is forgiveness,
    so that we can, with reverence, serve you.
5 I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits,
    and in his word I put my hope.
6 I wait for the Lord
    more than watchmen wait for the morning,
    more than watchmen wait for the morning.
7 Israel, put your hope in the Lord,
    for with the Lord is unfailing love
    and with him is full redemption.
8 He himself will redeem Israel
    from all their sins."
Psalm 130 is one of seven "penitential psalms," or psalms of confession; the others are Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, and 143, and together they cover a wide range of human emotion.

In the first line of Psalm 130, it's easy to see just how gripped by sadness, sorrow, and suffering the author is. He uses a clever metaphor, “the depths,” to give us some insight. In Hebrew thought, “the depths” — deep, dark waters — represented chaos and disorder. They represented and often referred to "Sheol," the realm of the dead, somewhere you did not want to be. A deep sense of pain has surrounded the author, and to him there seems to be no way out of the chaotic rush of intense negative emotions.

He feels like he is in "the depths," as if he's dead (or might as well be). Quite literally, he feels as if life is Hell.
We have all been there.

But, surprisingly, there is a bright side. Even from the "depths of despair," as it were, he is waiting with eagerness, anticipation, and confidence — hoping — for God’s compassion on him. In fact, he says he is more confident that God’s loving forgiveness will come than he is that the sun will rise in the morning.

Guilt v.s. Shame

Sometimes when we're in the middle of hard circumstances, we might feel like we must have done something wrong. We might even know exactly what it was. It's not that God is punishing us, but that sin naturally brings about relational, emotional, and even physical pain.

Distinguishing between guilt and shame is important in our discussion of sin and hope.

Guilt is being held accountable for poor decisions and actions.
Shame is the dreadful, piercing, crippling response to our actions.

Guilt is taking ownership of our sin.
Shame is letting our sin take ownership of us.

Guilt says that you have made mistakes.
Shame says that you are your mistakes.
The author of this Psalm is confessing his sin and anticipating forgiveness not only for himself, but on behalf of Israel. He is acknowledging his guilt, but it pales in comparison to God's forgiveness, so much so that he wants to share that relief and freedom with everyone around him. There is no room for shame; instead, he is interceding for a people that have turned against God. Even in his pain, he compassionately makes room for the pain of others in his plea to God:

                       “Israel, put your hope in the LORD,
                               for with the LORD is unfailing love
                               and with him is full redemption.
                          He himself will redeem Israel
                               from all their sins."

In this way, Psalm 130 is related to the many prayers of the prophets and people of Israel. Ezra and Daniel, among many others, constantly pray on behalf of God's people. Ultimately, the end of this Psalm, like all Scripture, points forward to Jesus's life, death, and resurrection — the ultimate and final act of intercession that rescued us from the oppression of shame, blotted out the reality of our guilt, and granted us an eternal victory over sin and death.

Really? No condemnation?

In his letter to the early followers of Jesus in Rome, the Apostle Paul explains how the Resurrection establishes a new way of living for Jesus's community even in the middle of sin and suffering. Paul paints a picture of this new reality that people are invited to live in and through by hoping in Christ.
1 "Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, 2 because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death ... 18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us ...

34 "Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died — more than that, who was raised to life — is at the right hand of God, and is also interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? ... 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us" (Rom. 8:1-2; 18; 34-35; 37)
Paul is saying something radical to us and to the Roman followers of Jesus he was writing to in the first century:
If you have placed your hope in him, Jesus's sacrifice, which brought unfailing love and full redemption, has made you wholly innocent. He himself has redeemed you — not only Israel — from all of your sins.

That seems too good to be true, but it isn't. Elsewhere in his letters, Paul says that faith is what gives us relief in our suffering. The author of Hebrews tells us that "faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see" (Heb. 11:1). Faith is the assurance that what we are hoping for in the future is actually available to us in the now.

Only by faith can we know that Jesus is the LORD from Psalm 130, and only by faith can we hope surely in his forgiveness — as surely as the sun will rise in the morning.

Shame is Dead, Guilt is Gone

In Romans chapter 5, the Apostle Paul makes another remarkable (and hard to imagine) claim, this time about suffering — about being stuck in "the depths," whether we can pinpoint the reason or not.

3 "...we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us" (Rom. 5:3-5).
Suffering increases our hope because it is only by Christ's suffering that a way has been made for our trust in God's promise of forgiveness, for infinite clean-slates, and for access to God's own self-giving love. This has incredible implications for our bondage to shame. Even though God may seem distant in our suffering — even though the circumstances seem too hard, "the depths" too deep — our suffering has already been redeemed.

By God's perfect grace and love, suffering — the very thing that had been both the root and result of shame in every man, woman, and child since the exile from Eden — now puts shame to death forever.