Guilt and shame are two of the most powerful spiritual forces known to humanity. Guilt is what we experience when we do something wrong, while shame is what we experience when we are wrong. In other words, guilt is about what we do, and shame is about who we are. We can think of them as alarms that go off when our lives have gotten off track. They call us back to God. Through His grace we can experience forgiveness for what we have done and acceptance for who we are.
Guilt and shame made their debut in the garden. When God created Adam and Eve, they were naked and not ashamed (2:25). We might take this to mean they were okay with living in a clothing optional environment, but that’s not what the writer means at all. He wants us to understand they were living before God in the intimacy of innocence. Nothing came between them and their Creator. Talk to a young child and they will tell you anything because in their innocence they have absolutely nothing to hide. Their life is an open book. That was the relationship Adam and Eve had with God.
Sin changed all of that. Adam and Eve’s eyes were opened, and they saw themselves quite differently because they had changed in a radical way. As Satan had promised, they now had a personal knowledge of evil. Belatedly, they realized their innocence and intimacy with God had been lost. Guilt set in because of what they had done, and they felt shame regarding who they had become. Predictably, they turned to themselves for a solution. They sewed some fig leaves together to cover their nakedness (which was now shameful), yet when God approached, they still felt the need to hide behind some trees. Though they were covered, they still cowered.
Not much has changed. We still pursue solutions that don’t involve God in an attempt to rid ourselves of guilt and shame. Many try to ease their conscience by making sure they do good deeds or contributing money to charitable causes. Some turn to alcohol or abuse other substances to numb their feelings of estrangement. Others spend a great amount of time and money on therapy in an attempt to talk their way out of the alienation they’re experiencing. Then there is the option of simply denying there is any reason to ever feel guilty or ashamed about anything. We take pride in and celebrate things we should be ashamed of. Though this is an increasingly popular approach, it would be a mistake to think it is something this generation invented. Paul spoke about this in Philippians when he wrote of those whose glory is in their shame (3:19). There is nothing novel about celebrating sin.
Guilt and shame can only be healed through God’s grace. In the garden, God provided animal skins for Adam and Eve to clothe themselves with (3:21). The animals didn’t voluntarily give their skins up—something innocent died to clothe those who were guilty. This foreshadowed the sacrifice Jesus would make on the cross in dying for our sins. Because of His death, we can be forgiven for the sins we have committed so that our guilt is lifted and taken away.
But there’s more. Paul will bring this around full circle in Galatians 3:26-27 where he writes, So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. The animal skins God gave Adam and Eve not only pointed to forgiveness through the sacrifice of Christ, they also covered their nakedness (shame). In the same way, when we are baptized into Christ, our nakedness/shame is covered by Him. It is gone—it has been lost in our new identity. We are in Christ. We have been forgiven in regard to what they have done and accepted for who they are. We are gloriously freed to live a new life.
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:1)