Since we all sin, the problem is not that we are not worthy to talk to God; it is that we don’t feel worthy to talk to God, and thus we create a major barrier in our connection to Him.
When we mess up, it is so easy to let our sense of worth, our sense of believing we are worthy of love and belonging, to slip as well. It is crucial, therefore, that we find a way to not attach our sense of worth to our behavior.
One idea that has really helped me in disconnecting my feelings of worth from my mistakes is understanding the difference between guilt and shame.
Understanding the Difference Between Guilt and Shame
For most of my life, I’ve misunderstood guilt. I knew on some level I needed to feel guilt in order to bring me to repentance, but I could never seem to get the balance right. I thought true repentance meant I had to feel really bad about myself for a long time. That’s how it works, right?
Wrong. I was mistaking guilt for shame.
Guilt = I did something bad, something not in line with my values.
Shame = I am bad.
For example, let’s say you haven’t read your scriptures all week. If you think, “Ugh! I’m the worst! I’m never righteous enough,” that is shame. If you think, “Hmm, this business of not reading my scriptures all week—that is not in line with my values. I made a mistake. I better fix it,” that is guilt.
Shame can lead to all sorts of negative behaviors: seeking validation from others, defensiveness, feeling threatened, and burying our emotions. Feeling the right kind and the right amount of guilt, on the other hand, should lead us to repentance, course correction, and humility. Once those have been achieved, the guilt should stop. Shame never knows when to stop.
How do you tell if you are experiencing guilt or shame? You’ll know it by its fruits. Does it lead you to repentance and peace or to relentlessly beating yourself up and avoiding course correction?