What Kind of Shame?

One of my all time favorite stories is Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. And I’m not ashamed to share that The Muppet's Christmas Carol is my favorite movie adaptation of it! Ebenezer Scrooge is an unforgettable character who experiences a complete transformation from old crank to a jolly fellow. I love the scene when Scrooge is sitting down for dinner in his parlor, and he is visited by the ghost of Jacob Marley.

He sips on his soup, and the bell begins to ring. The clock is chiming. The wind is blowing. Suddenly the door swings open and Marley’s ghost appears. Scrooge is understandably shaken. They sit down in the parlor chairs, and Marley says to Scrooge, “You don’t believe in me?” “I don’t!” replied Scrooge. Marley asks, “Why do you doubt your senses?” In one of Dickens’s best lines, Scrooge answered, “You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato. There's more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”

Sensations and Their Causes

Here’s what I find interesting about Scrooge’s answer. He acknowledged that he experienced a sensation—fear or whatever else—yet he is aware that vastly different causes may produce a similar feeling. In Scrooge’s case, fear may feel a lot like an upset stomach: one sensation; two distinct causes.

C. S. Lewis made a similar point in his lecture “Transposition.” He explained that, at the base level of sensory experience, fear at hearing terrible news and joy in the middle of a symphony feel the same. You must interpret the feeling by introspection and circumstances to understand which one you are experiencing. He argued that this must indicate that our emotional life is richer and more varied than our sensations. Since the resources of our nervous system are more limited than the range of emotions our souls must produce, then “the senses compensate for this by using the same sensation to express more than one emotion…” (Lewis, The Weight of Glory, 98).

In 2 Cor. 7:9-10, Paul acknowledged this same problem as Lewis and Scrooge. In this case, he pointed out the experience of grief. He wrote, “As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting…. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.”

According to Paul, there are two kinds of grief. One kind of grief is a “worldly” grief, and it only results in death. However, “godly” grief leads to a salvation that is free from any regret. From what we have said so far, we may conclude with two implications.

What Kind of Shame?

First, if you feel guilty or shameful, that does not mean that you are repentant of your sin or trusting in the gospel. Both guilt and shame are a status. If you break the law, then you are guilty. However, they can also both be experienced as sensations. We often call this sensation feeling guilty or ashamed. Since we know that more than one cause may produce a similar feeling, and Paul confirms that there is more than one kind of “grief,” then we must admit that there may be times when we are deeply ashamed yet not repentant.

Second, if you are trapped in guilt and shame, then you need to discover what kind of grief you are experiencing. Paul says that this is a matter of life or death. The “worldly grief,” let us call it remorse, will end in death. This is challenging. It takes away any hope that I have in my ability to somehow atone for myself through beating myself up. Be honest: we have all done that. The “godly grief,” let us call it repentance, will end in salvation. 

You may be torn up with guilt and shame. What kind of shame? Are you experiencing repentance that will lead to salvation? Or are you experiencing remorse that will only produce death?

Let me leave you with this thought: being remorseful may feel terrible, but it doesn’t motivate you to do anything about it, whereas being repentant motivates you to reconcile with the person you have offended. If you’re experiencing shame, then let me appeal to you to bring it to God and seek reconciliation with him. The gospel assures us that he is eager and willing to have that talk with you.