The Lenten period is one of self-reflection and of striving to grow closer to Christ. But the more we look closely at ourselves in the mirror, so to speak, the easier it is to not like what we see. Next thing we know, we’re filled with guilt and shame for our past actions and even our present circumstances. And guilt and shame only leads to more guilt and shame. Before we know it, we’re immobilized with fear and despair, and we’ve forgotten the whole point of our self-reflection.
When we start to feel this way, we need to remember that the Christian life is not about sitting in despair over our own brokenness. Christ gives us joy because in Him we no longer have to bear our sin. We see the distance we have yet to walk in our journey towards the Kingdom, but we rejoice knowing that we do not walk of our own strength.
How can we develop this healthy vision of self-reflection and repentance and not get trapped in the cycle of shame and guilt? Here are three things that can help.
1. Run to Jesus
When we feel guilt and shame, it may be hard to feel and accept God’s presence with us. We compare the sense of our own unworthiness with the greatness of God’s holiness and we want to get even further away from Him. We want to isolate instead of running towards the only One we most need.
I still remember my first liturgy after I had been chrismated in 2005. I had spent months attending liturgy, not yet able to receive Communion, but so looking forward to this moment. It was the Pascha liturgy and the sanctuary filled with lit candles as we were celebrating the Resurrection. Yet my mind kept worrying about my candle which, unlike everyone else’s, was billowing black smoke. Was this a sign of my unworthiness? I had to let this go so that I could focus on Christ.
When we are holding on to a feeling of guilt, when we’re in a rut, we’re frozen in place. We’re stuck because we’re burdened by more than we can handle on our own. So before we can run to Jesus, we have to first listen to St. Peter who writes, “cast all your anxieties on Him, because He cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). St. Peter knew, from his own experience, what life was like when he tried to hold on to fears and guilt. When he ran to Jesus, he did the impossible – St. Peter walked on water. And later, St. Peter also had to navigate his own guilt and despair after he denied Christ (Matthew 26:75). So we need to keep our focus on Christ, run to Him, and let Him bear the weight of our sin.
We can’t afford to hold on to our guilt and shame, we need to run to Jesus. But once we get to Him, what do we say?
2. It's more than saying “sorry”
Prayer is our opportunity to let go of what we’re feeling, to share our hearts with Christ. But the natural response for many of us is to start with saying, “sorry.” Next thing we know, we’re swearing off sin and making promises we’re not sure we can keep.
But repentance – mending our relationship with God or with others – is more than saying, “sorry.” I’ve learned I need to be specific: “forgive me for ____.” Right then though, shame kicks back in, and we’re stuck begging forgiveness from God as if He were a merciless king. This isn’t repentance, it’s fear. Once we’ve asked forgiveness, we need to move on to praise and gratitude for all that He has done for us. This keeps us focused on Christ instead of focused on ourselves.
Our personal repentance is lived out as we commit to specific action for today. God knows our hearts, He sees our failings, but He also desires the best for us. Once we have asked forgiveness, we need to trust that God has forgiven us. Emboldened by this trust in Jesus Christ, we will be able to see our past sins as opportunities for growth.
3. No condemnation in Christ
Too often, our world is focused on blame and punishment. And living in the world, we in the Church have the habit of applying the world’s way of thinking to our relationship with Christ. We approach our own repentance either as an escape from punishment on the one hand or an admission of our own unworthiness such that we’re beyond hope. We forget that “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).
When a sick person comes into a hospital, the doctor isn’t there to be the judge and prosecutor – he is there to heal. Similarly, when we approach Christ with an attitude of humility (acknowledging our need for healing), He is there to heal us. More often than not, we are our own worst judge. We somehow think that our sins are the worst and therefore unforgivable. Or, we see ourselves as lost causes, irredeemable because thus far the healing hasn’t quite stuck.
There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ because they recognize that in Christ, they have everything they need. For those of us who have chosen Christ, who have put on Christ in baptism, and who choose Him each day, we know that it is no longer we who live but Christ who lives in us (Galatians 2:20). It is no longer our strength that holds us up, but the strength of Jesus Christ that bears our sins and takes them away.
“Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again; for forgiveness has risen from the grave” (St John Chrysostom's Paschal Sermon).
Shame and guilt keeps us looking at ourselves, condemning ourselves, instead letting Christ pick us back up in repentance.
The hymns and teachings of the Orthodox Church work to instill in us humility in the place of pride. We read that we’re the “worst of sinners” and we pray that God have “mercy on me a sinner.” But living in a world focused on “who’s to blame” and “what’s their punishment,” we can start to think that we’re irredeemable, falling into the grip of guilt, shame, and ultimately despair.
Instead, the Church calls us to humility so that we will focus on being honest with ourselves and not looking at others’ faults. Guilt and shame are not the answer – in fact they keep us further from Christ. “Godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death” (2 Corinthians 7:10).
Self-reflection, especially the kind the Church calls us to have during Great Lent, should lead us to run to Christ, ask for forgiveness, and then take the actions necessary to live differently today. And finally, we ought to remember that in Christ, we are not condemned.
How has shame and guilt kept you from growing closer to Christ? How could gratitude help you to see God’s presence in your life?
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Sam is the Pastoral Assistant at Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He grew up in Powhatan, Virginia and studied International Affairs and Spanish at James Madison University. Sam received his MDiv from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in 2013. He loves food, languages, genealogy, and good coffee.
Photo Credit: depositphotos