This is one of a series of posts (intended to be read in the order above) focused on exploring the issue of race and how The Gospel shapes our beliefs and response. Racial reconciliation is a common name for this topic, and although it “is not the gospel or the central focus of it, it is a qualitative application of the gospel in function and practice” (Eric Mason).
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit…
For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
In the last three posts, we’ve explored underlying tensions that may exist prominently in our hearts and in the culture around us. Understandably, when analyzing these tensions, we may experience a range of emotions and feelings that are difficult to process. In the next several posts, we will take a look at common responses to these difficult realities.
For me, one of the initial responses I had was feeling guilty about being white. I felt uneasy about my race, sought to distance myself from it, and even looked down on other white people. In addition, there were times where my efforts to change were motivated by a desire to satisfy the guilt I was feeling instead of genuinely repenting.
Over time, I’ve learned that this is actually a common response, and it’s been given the name, “White Guilt.” If you can identify with this feeling, it’s important to remember that there is no condemnation for those in Christ, and nothing can separate us from God’s love. Unfortunately, on this side of Heaven, we will always fall short and continually find areas in our lives that are in need of repentance. However, God, in His great mercy, has saved us through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and although we may feel guilty, we don’t have to continue to live in that guilt because Jesus has already covered us. This is The Gospel!
In addition, it is important to remember that there is absolutely nothing wrong with being white. One day people “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” will be side-by-side praising Jesus in heaven (Revelation 7:9-12). This includes white people!
So, if White Guilt is a common but unhealthy response to our internal tensions, then what is a proper response?
Two Types of Grief
“For even if I made you grieve with my letter, I do not regret it—though I did regret it, for I see that that letter grieved you, though only for a while. As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us.
For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, but also what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what punishment! At every point you have proved yourselves innocent in the matter. So although I wrote to you, it was not for the sake of the one who did the wrong, nor for the sake of the one who suffered the wrong, but in order that your earnestness for us might be revealed to you in the sight of God. Therefore we are comforted…”
“For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.” Paul is saying that there are two ways to experience and respond to conviction and guilt. There’s a godly guilt that is healthy and produces repentance, but there’s also a worldly guilt that doesn’t lead to healthy change.
We’ve all experienced this in life. For me, there have been times where I’ve realized I needed to change, and although I felt remorseful and guilty, it produced repentance and led to healthy growth and maturity in my life. On the other hand, there have been times where I was caught in something, but I felt remorseful and guilty only because I was sad about being caught, and this did not lead to change. In both cases, I felt remorse. However, the key to Godly grief is the fact that, again, it produces repentance.
When exploring the deep attitudes of our heart in regards to race, we will inevitably find areas that lead to grief, and sometimes these feelings lead to white guilt. We realize that we need change, and we begin to feel guilty for being white. However, white guilt is in line with worldly grief and not godly grief because it can lead to withdrawal, condemning of other white people, or other unhealthy alternatives. None of these responses are fruits of repentance.
For example, at one point in my journey, I decided that I was going to investigate the possibility of moving to the inner city in order to be a part of some sort of racial reconciliation (I wasn’t sure what it looked like, but I wanted to go and see what happened). I was convinced that this was the step I needed to take in order to be a part of positive change and glorify God. However, I began to see God close doors to potential opportunities to make this move, and I couldn’t understand why. Over time, God began to show me that my motivations weren’t always pure. He revealed many underlying issues, and one of them was a desire to satisfy white guilt or be some kind of savior instead of truly desiring to glorify Him.
Side note: It is possible that moving to a different area of the city is in God’s plan for us. I’m not saying that is always a worldly grief response. All I know is that my underlying motivation at points revealed that it was more my plan than God’s plan at that time.
Whenever the Holy Spirit convicts us of sin, it’s a very good and gracious gift, and it’s an opportunity to grow more into the image of Jesus and represent God to the rest of the world. In addition, it is okay and right to feel remorse during conviction because we shouldn’t be excited about our sin (Matthew 5:4).
However, I think what we are experiencing with white guilt isn’t just conviction or remorse, but shame, and shame is not a healthy motivator for human change.
“Brown believes that the difference between these two words is far more than semantics. Guilt can be a positive and helpful motivator in a person’s quest for transformation, but shame rarely produces healthy outcomes. She has done extensive research on shame, and here is the definition that emerged from her research: Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging. Shame is the fear of disconnection— it’s the fear that something we’ve done or failed to do, an ideal that we’ve not lived up to, or a goal that we’ve not accomplished makes us unworthy of connection. I’m not worthy or good enough for love, belonging, or connection. I’m unlovable. I don’t belong…
This is why Brown contends that shame is a poor tool for instigating transformation, despite the widespread belief that it’s helpful for keeping people in line. She believes it’s not only wrong to use shame to motivate people but also dangerous. Her research suggests that it’s virtually impossible to correlate shame with positive outcomes of any type, as there are no data to support that shame supports good behavior. Instead shame is more likely to cause destructive and hurtful behaviors than it is to open up solutions. When we’re filled with shame, we tend to engage in self-destructive behaviors such as addiction, violence, aggression, depression, eating disorders, and bullying.” (Hill, p. 102-103)
This idea can be seen in the Bible as well.
“So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths. And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.”
When Adam and Eve “knew that they were naked,” this wasn’t just a reference to being physically naked but also refers to the emotional feeling of shame. They felt shame and attempted to hide themselves from God. Shame was not a motivator to move toward God in repentance but instead drove them away from God.
Jesus is strongly against shame…
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame [emphasis added], and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”
What does “despising the shame” mean? Here’s John Piper’s take.
“It means Jesus spoke to shame like this:
“Listen to me, Shame, do you see that joy in front of me? Compared to that, you are less than nothing. You are not worth comparing to that! I despise you. You think you have power. Compared to the joy before me, you have none. Joy. Joy. Joy. That is my power! Not you, Shame. You are worthless. You are powerless.
You think you can distract me. I won’t even look at you. I have a joy set before me. Why would I look at you? You are ugly and despicable. And you are almost finished. You cover me now as with a shroud. Before you can say, ‘So there!’ I will throw you off like a filthy rag. I will put on my royal robe.
You think you are great, because even last night you made my disciples run away. You are a fool, Shame. You are a despicable fool. That abandonment, that loneliness, this cross — these tools of yours — they are all my sacred suffering, and will save my disciples, not destroy them. You are a fool. Your filthy hands fulfill holy prophecy.
Farewell, Shame. It is finished.”
Let’s look to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, to break free from White Guilt. Let’s look to Jesus to receive the grace to pursue healthy repentance. We need to repent and not live in guilt about being white. We need to engage and use whatever standing or privilege we have in being white in our culture to pursue reconciliation and justice in our everyday lives. We don’t need white people to stop existing. We need people of all races to engage and work together.
If you’re experiencing conviction, be encouraged and assured because it may be evidence that you are truly God’s child…
“Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?
“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
nor be weary when reproved by him.
For the Lord disciplines the one he loves [emphasis added],
and chastises every son whom he receives.”
It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled;
Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.”
God loves you and is pursuing your heart. Sanctification many times is painful, but it’s always for God’s glory and our good. Again, there is no condemnation for those in Christ. We have been set free from living in guilt, and when the Holy Spirit reveals our hearts, we are free to repent without shame having power over us anymore.