March 15, 2011
In Praise of Guilt and Shame
Excerpt from Psalm 32
“Many are the torments of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord.”
Reflection by Quinn G. Caldwell
Samuel Sewall was one of the judges who condemned so-called witches to death in Salem. Eventually, he became convinced he’d made a terrible mistake, so he later wrote a public confession of guilt and chose to stand before his church in shame while the minister read it out. This moment was so important for Boston that it’s immortalized in a State House mural entitled “The Dawn of Tolerance in Massachusetts.” Sewall’s heart was so softened and opened by this pain that he became a leading advocate for the oppressed: he later went on to argue publicly for women’s rights and the full personhood of Native Americans, as well as to write the first anti-slavery tract on this soil.
Feelings like guilt and shame have gotten a bad rap because of the ways they can really screw up a life if ill-placed, dwelt in too long, or used as weapons. But I think they’re good to have around, at least when well-placed. The Psalmist says that the wicked suffer torments; perhaps, but what’s more important is that the good suffer torments when they act wickedly. When what we have done is unworthy of a disciple of Christ, the pain of realizing it can often lead us to great feats of discipleship.
Guilt and shame feel terrible, but that doesn’t mean they’re always bad. As often as we let them be, they are invitations to reshape our lives for greater faithfulness. And the pain they cause digs channels in the soul that God is just waiting to fill up with grace.
God, when I go astray, grant that guilt and shame might torment me—but only into deeper discipleship—and then let them dissolve in your forgiveness. Amen.
About the Author
Quinn G. Caldwell is Associate Minister of Old South Church in Boston, Massachusetts.
Live simply. Love generously.
Care deeply. Speak kindly.
Leave the rest to God.
“The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the strangers; [the Lord] upholds the orphan and the widow.”
– Psalm 146:7-9
“I trace the rainbow through the rain and see the promise is not in vain.”
My YouTube Channel
God is still speaking
John Mark Ministries