Guilt is accumulated through an individual’s violation of the moral law. Rather than being entirely experiential (i.e., a feeling), guilt is primarily a forensic term used to describe the state of a soul before the Living God, specifically in light of His righteous requirements (for example, notice the language in passages such as: Gen. 26:10; Lev. 4:3; 20:19; 1 Sam. 26:9; 2 Sam. 3:8; Ezra 9:6, 13, 15; 10:10, 19, etc.). Universally, all men have incurred the guilt bestowed upon our father, Adam, when he sinned against God in the Garden. As the federal head of the entire human race, Adam’s guilt was legally transferred to all of his descendants without discrimination (Rom. 5:12a; 15:22a). Individually, we also incur our own personal guilt when we commit particular sins that violate God’s perfect, moral law (Rom. 3:23; 5:12b).

            As such, the decree of guilt may or may or may not be fully realized by the guilty individual. A criminal may very well believe, and whole-heartedly profess, to his own innocence in a matter, and yet stand utterly guilty before the judicial law. The realization of guilt, then, is found in the recognition or acknowledgement of the act(s) that have accumulated a guilty verdict.

            With such acknowledgement comes two potential responses from the guilty party: 1) that of shame, or worldly sorrow, leading to greater condemnation (2 Cor. 7:10b), or 2) Spirit-led, penitent conviction, or godly sorrow, leading to repentance (2 Cor. 7:10a, 11). There are those who would advocate for a potential third option in that of total ignorance. But I believe that the Scriptures, as well as the whole of human experience, forbid this line of reasoning. Even if the individual has no specific knowledge of his guilt in Adam or the specific law(s) that he has broken, his soul is still naked and exposed before God (1 Sam. 16:7; Prov. 15:3; 21:2; 1 Cor. 2:10b).

            Added to this is the universal reality that God has written His law upon the hearts of men so that, even without a specific knowledge of God or the law, men’s consciences are equipped with the faculties to differentiate and choose between right and wrong in a general sense (Rom. 2:15). So if man in not in acknowledgement of his guilt as God sees it, he will still carry around the weight of shame that guilt produces. Furthermore, when shame is not addressed through faith in Christ and repentance, then it always leads to a covering of some sort. Like Adam and Eve who covered their nakedness and sought refuge from God’s piercing omniscience (Gen. 3:7-8), so all who are under the yoke of shame seek an external covering for their inward exposure before God. Their wounded conscience demands this of them.

            Practically speaking, men and women will approach this covering in different ways (although there is plenty of room for overlap based on individual personality). Women, on the one hand, in their efforts to hide their shame, may become insecure and fearful of the harsh opinions of others toward them. They feel gross and uncomfortable (for lack of better wording) internally and begin to view their external appearance in the same light. In response, they may resort to altering their appearance to hide what they fear others might see if they look to closely. Thus, make-up, hairstyles, jewelry, clothing, and even dangerous, experimental body alterations become tools to mask a much deeper, spiritual problem. And because this is primarily a spiritual issue, no amount of exterior adornment is able to bring them peace with God, or within themselves—the inside of the cup must be cleaned first. The result of this conundrum is a never-ending pursuit of something that is always just out of arm’s reach.

            On the other side of the spectrum, men tend to gravitate toward character reconstruction. If a man is under the weight of shame and insecurity, he will often resort to developing a machismo persona that masks his inner struggle. A ‘never let them see you cry’ sort of approach to life. He may become brash, crude, and stoic. Emotions are considered a liability and sign of weakness, and he is unable to display genuine love and compassion in his close relationships. Such a man will likely bury himself in his work; finding his worth in what he can physically bring to the table. This too is a covering—and a damaging one at that. It not only damages the man, but also those who have come to rely on him (i.e., his wife and children). Such character manipulation can be likened to a mighty fortress with nothing on the inside but a weak and pitiful king. The castle might seem intimidating, but there is nothing within the walls that is worth defending. Or, to pull in another analogy, when the curtain is pulled away, the great and powerful Oz really isn’t all that great and powerful after all.

            The aim of my ramblings here is not to condemn anyone in particular, but to shed light on what is an incredibly common affair in the plight of mankind. This isn’t something purely isolated to our own generation, but spans the course of history with offshoots in every generation where the curse is found (which is literally every generation). Wherever humans are found, there will be guilt. The forensic guilt of Adam has been universally transmitted to every man, woman, and child. This is an inescapable reality. And where guilt exists, there will be shame. When shame is not confronted with spirit-led, godly sorrow that leads to repentance, then it will always result in a covering of some sort. This, too, is inescapable.

            A significant part of the Mission of God in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ is the reclamation of the Image of God in man. This not only implies forgiveness of sin, peace with God, and eternal life in the hereafter (as wonderful and cherished as those are), but also the redemption of that pure, undefiled, and unashamed position that man had with God before the Fall in the here-and-now. Redemptive history as recorded in the Scriptures (and providentially worked out throughout history) is the story of God redeeming a guilt-laden, sin-struck people, through his covenant faithfulness, and restoring them to Eden, where they will enjoy fellowship with Him forevermore.

            As men and women in covenant union with Christ, we have access to the great and precious promises of God. We are no longer those who require coverings for our shameful nakedness, but are able to bask in the warm, bright light that is God’s favor. There is no shame in such a relationship as this. No need for hiding and altering our character and appearance to mask our inner disgrace. There is no disgrace left! There is no charge that can be raised against us to alter our position before God (Rom. 8:33-34). The work is finished (Jn. 19:28-30; Heb. 10:12)!

            Certainly, Christians can still live with a sense of shame in this life. This almost always has to do with the presence of unconfessed, unrepentant sin leading to shame, fear, anxiety, depression, anger, or melancholy. When our practice fails to live up to our position in Christ, we will feel the weight of our doings. This is not condemnation, but a form of discipline from our heavenly Father. When we think of our own children, this makes more sense. When one of our little ones partake in activities that are a danger to them (whether spiritual or physical), our response isn’t fury and wrath; but rather love and pursuance. Sometimes that pursuance results in corrective discipline, which is usually uncomfortable, and even painful, for the child. But the end result is always restoration and reconciliation with you as the parent. In the same way, when unrepentance persists in our own lives, our personal communion with God is affected. We are doing things that hurt us, and He responds as any loving father would. This is not Him leaving us, but allowing us to experience the weightiness of our actions with the intention of drawing us near again.

            As we pursue the further outworkings of the Image of God in our lives through progressive sanctification, we must be ready and willing to confess sin at every turn. The accumulation of unconfessed sin brings upon us guilt (though no longer a condemning guilt), and shame will soon follow with its attempts to seek a covering. The only way to avoid this vicious cycle is to cut it off at the source. Make it a daily practice of confessing sin as it happens. Specifically, intentionally, and by name. As one preacher put it, “We often sin retail and try to confess wholesale.” General confessions of all the sins I may or may not have committed today isn’t going to cut it. We need to be consistently examining our hearts with the intention of bringing to God the things that we find—as we find them.

            May the people of God once again take up this precious means of grace live in the beautiful freedom of an unashamed life!

“If we confess our sin, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sin, and to cleanse us of all unrighteousness.”

(1 John. 1:9)