Look, I’m not saying you’re a bad person. You’re not like those horrible people on the front page of today’s newspaper. But we all make mistakes, right? They may not be big, axe-murderer kinds of mistakes, but they still nag at us. Maybe the worst part is knowing that there are people out there who remember those blunders and have passed judgment on us. So, what do we do about them?
There are four time-tested ways of dealing with guilt and shame—or, to use a more old-fashioned word, our sins. See which one works best for you.
- Deny it ever happened
This is the preferred method of criminals, slippery corporate types and politicians who have made famous lines such as “I am not a crook,” “I believe that nicotine is not addictive,” and “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”
To be 100 percent successful, this method requires that you fool all of the people all of the time, which we’ve been told is impossible. So it will come as no surprise that denial can never completely clear your shame. There always seems to be some hotel employee or overly bright accountant who knows the truth about what you did. Most importantly, the person you hurt is not going to forget your sin.
On the other hand, you can always fool some of the people. Your favorite aunt will believe your story—until the DNA evidence comes in. The most intriguing possibility is that you might come to be convinced of your own innocence. The human mind is more flexible than airline pricing—we can believe what we want to believe. While this may ease our own pangs of guilt, it does nothing for the feelings of people who’ve suffered the effects of our sins.
- Deny it matters
“I put my hand on her back, to reassure her that her work was okay,” explained Garrison Keillor, “and my hand slid up inside the blouse a few inches and touched her bare shoulder.” The star of public radio in America had just lost his position after allegations of sexual harassment in the workplace. Instead of stating that nothing had happened, he claimed that almost nothing had happened.
This reigns as the favorite way of dealing with accusations of wrongdoing. It reminds me of the time we were at a nice restaurant with friends. I left the table for a moment and when I returned my wife reported that the waiter had snatched away the votive candle in the center of the table because our 11-year-old son had tried to start a fire with it. My son immediately countered the accusation. “No. No. No. It was a controlled fire,” he protested.
We always have an excuse or an extenuating circumstance that can salve our sense of shame. When the momentum of the #MeToo triggered accusations against Don Burke, presenter of the iconic Australian Burke’s Backyard TV show, of hideous behavior toward women, he explained that he was a perfectionist and that the complaints came from people who bore him a grudge after they had been fired for not meeting his high standards. He also pointed out that these accusations would hamper his “extensive charity work.” While Burke’s declarations may confirm his innocence in his own mind, they cannot remove the hurt and humiliation suffered by the 50 people who told reporters about his crude conduct. The injured party is the only one who knows the extent of the injury.
We are poor judges of our own behavior. We become like used car salesmen who value the same automobile at different prices depending on whether they are buying it or selling it. We all need a higher authority to tell us whether we have caused harm or not. This is why we need the biblical idea of a divine judgment. The God who sees all can cut through denial and excuses. He can also declare innocence. “Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart” (1 Corinthians 4:5).
- Dispose of the witnesses
I’m not seriously suggesting you do this, but one way to clear your name is to get rid of the witnesses. The same method that a mafia boss uses to beat a murder charge should theoretically work to remove the person who saw you at the beach after you called in sick at work. It’s drastic, but effective.
Even if you don’t rub out your accusers today, you can know that—given enough time—they will pass away, along with their memories of your sins. Their witness to your failings will be silenced. In fact, your own memories of wrongdoing will end with your own death. There is no shame in the sleep of death.
Maybe this is part of the biblical idea that death is the end point of sin. “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Death is a kind of firewall that stops the spread of cruelty, abuse, and hate. It brings an end to every sin, large and small.
Perhaps one of the most sublime teachings in the Bible is that it doesn’t have to be our own death that ends our guilt. In some mysterious way, Jesus absorbed all the sins of the world through His death on the cross. “He himself bore our sins’ in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness” (1 Peter 2:24).
- Ask for forgiveness
The most beautiful remedy for sin and guilt is forgiveness. It doesn’t happen all the time and it doesn’t happen easily. It came to Andrew Collins at a city park. A man approached him and asked if he remembered him. They started to shake hands and the man, who said his name was Jameel McGee, wouldn’t let go. “I knew it wasn’t going to be a good run-in,” recalls Collins. McGee’s expression changed. He glanced at the young boy who stood beside him and said, “I want you to explain to my son why his dad hasn’t been in his whole life.”
Collins knew that his past was catching up with him. It was widely known that he had lost his job as a police officer after being convicted of sending men to prison on false charges. McGee had done four years on drug charges cooked up by Collins.
Collins offered his apology. He had turned from his life as a dirty cop and had found redemption as a Christian. The men separated. Four years later, chance brought the men together again. A jobs program had assigned Collins as a mentor to McGee. When they met again, Collins started apologizing and McGee told him to stop.
“We’ve already had that discussion. It’s forgotten,” McGee said. Collins remembers that they started talking about how God restores Himself to us first through Jesus and then he restores us to each other.
Collins told the radio show This American Life that he considers it his duty to apologize as much as he can. “It kinda sucks the anger right out of somebody when the offender is standing in front of them and saying, ‘You’re right.’ No justification. No minimizing.”
But forgiveness is not guaranteed. Robert Walker got a felony conviction from Collins. Even though he only spent a couple days in jail, he’s not ready to let it go. “It don’t help me that you want to change,” he said while talking to a radio producer about Collins. “He’s a dirty cop, he is, and that forgiveness **** is overrated.”
So what happens if people are unable or unwilling to forgive you? Fortunately, there is a higher authority to which you can appeal. The Bible says: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Being forgiven by God is like being pardoned by the president. No accusation against you can stand.
Maybe you are haunted by your past. Or perhaps you should be haunted by a past that has been spackled over by your selective memory. Either way, you can clear your guilt. “Whoever believes in him is not condemned,” says the book of John (3:18). Or to put it another way: “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame” (Romans 10:11). And if there’s one thing we could all live without, it’s shame.
Kim Peckham is a freelance writer/producer from Lincoln, Nebraska.