Question of the Week: Human Depravity and Shame

By MicheleLovesArt [CC BY-SA 2.0  (], via Wikimedia Commons

By MicheleLovesArt [CC BY-SA 2.0  (], via Wikimedia Commons

On July 15th 2018, the Mentionables received this question:

as a survivor of incest, the doctrine of human depravity became very problematic. Survivors almost universally feel as though they are defective somehow and that something about them caused the abuse to happen. Recovery involves understanding that this isn’t true, that we were innocent, and that we need to let go of the feelings of shame and guilt that surround this experience. The doctrine of human depravity and original sin says that no one is innocent and that we are born deserving hell. This can reinforce the very feelings of guilt and shame that we spend years trying to recover from. What role do feelings of guilt and shame play in the life of a believer and how can someone trying to recover from sexual violence distinguish between these ideas? In your opinion how would this doctrine help or hinder recovery?

Here are the answers from the team:

This is the answer from Tyler Vela. For answers from Randall Hroziencik, Caleb Johnston, Nick Peters and Marc Lambert, scroll below.

First, let me thank you for your question. It takes courage to come forward and share such an experience with others. I am also aware that the victims of such abuse will often themselves feel shame over what occurred, and our ministry should never add shame to the victims. We know from the Scriptures that our ministry is to be to that of orphans and widows, and to uphold the cause of the victims and the oppressed. Should it be clear that a minister of the gospel is seeking to intentionally add guilt or shame to you for such an event, I would encourage you to look for other counsel.

However, as a Reformed Christian who affirms the Doctrines of Grace (otherwise known as Calvinism) which contains a robust treatment of the Biblical doctrine of Total Depravity, let me seek to answer this as clearly and concisely as possible. For further study, I have a workbook going through the Doctrines of Grace that you can read here; or the audio version of the section on Total Depravity can be found here. Here are several considerations.

  1. We should determine if a doctrine is Biblical based on the exegetical case for or against it from the Scriptures, and not what practical Christian ministry can come from it. While I am convinced that Reformed theology and the Biblical Doctrines of Grace are vital to Christian assurance, it is not because of this ministerial benefit that I believe it. With such limited space, I will not make the case for Total Depravity here, but you can see my links provided above.
  2. Total Depravity is not the same thing as Absolute Depravity or Absolute Guilt. Total Depravity simply means that sin has so affected every part of our nature that we have nothing of righteousness or merit within ourselves, whereby we earn God’s forgiveness or saving grace. This does not mean that we do nothing of moral worth (Absolute Depravity) as can be seen when we tell the truth even when it is damaging to us, or when we sacrificially love our children. We are also not guilty of every sin possible. I have not murdered anyone (besides the “murder in your heart” that hatred is described as) nor have I raped or physically assaulted anyone. I am not guilty of those wicked actions. However, I have plenty of my own actions to be judged unrighteous for. Therefore Total Depravity entails (though is often expressly confused with) Total Inability. I am not able to save myself, perform any actions to merit saving grace, and indeed, in my fallen nature which dead in sin and trespasses, I cannot understand let alone accept the gospel which is preached to us by the Spirit (1 Cor 2:12-14). I am not even able, without the regeneration that comes from the Spirit, to accept the gospel. I am not able, but God who began a good work in me will complete it. This does mean that with respect to God, we all are sinful – none of us are righteous, none of us are innocent.

Paul, citing from the OT says (emphasis mine),

“There is NO ONE righteous, NOT EVEN ONE;
11     there is NO ONE who understands;
    there is NO ONE who seeks God.
12 ALL have turned away,
    they have together become worthless;
there is NO ONE who does good,

For Paul, there is no one who would stand innocent before God, able to plead their own case or merit even a single ounce of divine mercy, save the blood of our Savior.

3. This does not mean however, that the victims of crimes are to feel guilty or ashamed of those specific crimes. There is an implicit subject change that occurs in your question. The first section deals without Total Depravity with respect to the perfect nature of God and his revealed standard for his creation. As the Westminster Catechism in Q/A 14 says, sin is any want of conformity to, or transgression of the law of God. With respect to our relationship with God, outside of Christ and in our dead natural selves, we are totally depraved and have nothing of which we could boast before God.

However, with respect to our fellow man, this is not the case. Humans can perpetrate sins against other humans and we cannot justify those crimes by saying, “well they are depraved… so they deserved it.” Nothing could be further from the truth. We see repeated Scriptural injunctions for us to care for the poor, the oppressed, the victims, women, children, and orphans. David says that it was against God and God alone that he sinned. There is no such thing as a “victimless crime” because God is always the victim when we sin because every sin is ultimately against him. But even though we are dead in our sins and trespasses against a holy God, it does not follow that we are not innocent with respect to each other.

In fact, as Christians we do not believe in Karma. While we hold that God will deliver justice to the wicked, in this life or the next, even our own legal system says that someone may be guilty of crime X, but they could still be a victim of crime Y. Imagine a car thief has stolen your car. They have gotten away with it and the statute of limitations has expired. Years later they are shot and killed while waiting in line at the bank by a robbery gone wrong. As Christians, we do connect the karma dots between the two. When the Tower of Siloam fell and the people asked Jesus whether it was because of the sins of those who died or because of the sins of their parents, they were asking the karma question. They were asking, “Who got what they deserved? The one’s who died or the parents that now mourn them?”

Jesus basically said that it is the wrong question. That is the pagan conception of retributive justice and God does not play by those rules. Jesus told them that the people in the tower were just as guilty as their parents... and the rest of the people living in Jerusalem (which would have included the Rabbis and the Pharisees). God is not like Zeus or Vishnu. God is a God of justice and peace, wrath and mercy.

So how can the victim of a crime like the one you mention escape the feeling of guilt and shame? By looking to Jesus and him crucified - by seeing their sin taken up on the cross and the punishment and shame that belongs to it nailed there with our savior. “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus,” (Rom.  8:1). In our fallen, unregenerate nature we are totally depraved and unable to do anything to earn, merit, or even willingly accept the grace of God shown to us in Jesus Christ. But as Christians, we have been chosen by God, called according to his purpose, predestined to be adopted as sons and daughters and are coheirs to the promise of eternity given to the church. There is no shame because Christ, who knew no sin became sin for us, scorning the shame of sin, and who sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

Seek him while he may be found and experience the freedom and shameless joy that is ours in Jesus Christ.


This is the answer from Randall Hroziencik. To see answers from Caleb Johnston, Nick Peters and Marc Lambert scroll below.

That's a tough question, and let me begin by saying that I totally get where a survivor of incest would be coming from on this issue: The doctrine of total depravity isn't exactly comforting for someone who has endured incest.  For me, a big part of the problem revolves the incompleteness of this doctrine.  I do believe in the depravity of mankind, but that's only half the picture.  We are simultaneously saint and sinner, created in God's image yet fallen in our nature.  I know pastors who are well meaning but stress the depravity of mankind way too much, seemingly even to the exclusion of the Imago Dei.  I prefer a different approach in my classroom teaching on this topic: We have to always be mindful of the fact that we are created in God's image, but as soon as that thought enters our mind we need to immediately acknowledge that we also possess a fallen (sin) nature.  And vice versa.  In essence, we need to tame our Imago Dei with our fallen nature, and vice versa.  So, yes, the doctrine of total depravity/original sin/the fallen nature of mankind maintains that we are sinners deserving of Hell, but being created in God's image does just the opposite: It tells us that we don't deserve to be abused, neglected, or in any way harmed by another person - and anyone who harms you is wrong for doing so, because you were fashioned in the image of God.  I truly believe that acknowledging our dual nature can be potentially helpful to a victim of incest.

Only for the sake of clarity, and maybe to be more helpful, I've included this excerpt from my book Worldviews in Collision: The Reasons for One Man's Journey from Skepticism to Christ (p. 88-89).  

     The book of Genesis opens up with the account of how everything came into existence, including mankind who was the pinnacle of creation.  In fact, the Bible says that God created mankind “in his image” (Genesis 1:27), setting human beings apart from all other creatures.  What it means to be created in God’s image is a point of debate among theologians, but we can say with a very high level of confidence that being created in God’s image is a positive thing – it is an honor that sets us apart from every other creature.  Yet, despite this wonderful attribute something is clearly wrong: We do not always act godly, and in fact we oftentimes struggle just to act decently.  Once again, we must ask ourselves why we are both saint and sinner.  The book of Genesis gives us the answer.
         Moses, writing under the inspiration of God’s Spirit, revealed in this incredible book that all people suffer from a fallen nature, which is a residual condition resulting from Adam and Eve’s rebellion against God (Genesis 3:1-24).  Although we may not understand exactly how the fallen nature is passed from generation to generation since the time of Adam, it is clear that the mode of transmission is not nearly as important as is its pervasive reality.  The doctrine of the fallen nature of mankind is clearly revealed throughout Scripture, perhaps most forcefully in Paul’s letter to the church in Rome (Romans 3:23; 5:12-19).  Therefore, human beings are simultaneously saints created in God’s image, and sinners by birth.  The Bible describes why people have a dual nature, and no other worldview or religion makes as much sense regarding this phenomenon.
         The dual nature of human beings is something that caught my attention early on in my investigation of the Christian worldview.  After thinking about this issue for some time, it eventually came down to one of two scenarios for me: Either human beings are evolved creatures, or we were created but then something went wrong.  Can naturalistic evolution explain why we are a combination of Mother Teresa and Adolph Hitler?  Not really.  As previously noted, evolution thrives on concepts such as “survival of the fittest” and “might makes right,” but it doesn’t explain altruism and self-sacrifice.  Additionally, the evidence for naturalistic evolution is sorely lacking, so I wasn’t buying into this explanation for the dual nature of people.  However, creation in God’s image followed by a rebellion – and consequent fallen nature – does explain this dual nature.  You can imagine how intrigued I was when I read for the first time the account of the fall of mankind in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3).  Talk about an “aha” moment!

I hope this helps, even if it's just in some small way.  God bless,

Randy Hroziencik

This is the answer from Caleb Johnston for the answers from Nick Peters and Marc Lambert, scroll below.

First off I’m very sorry that you had to go through what you did. I cannot imagine the immeasurable challenge of overcoming that experience. I can also understand your questions about shame, guilt, and depravity. 

Shame from a biblical sense always seems to have a negative context, Isaiah 54:4 is just one example of many. "“Fear not, for you will not be ashamed; be not confounded, for you will not be disgraced; for you will forget the shame of your youth, and the reproach of your widowhood you will remember no more." Shame is often noted as a consequence of rebellion against God. However, these references never seem positive in the least. Guilt on the other hand is mentioned a lot in context directly with sin. In fact their was a guilt offering the Hebrews gave that closely resembled the process of the sin offering. All the context in which we see these words reflected in the Bible also helps us to understand the Christian approach. 

Guilt is good. Guilt convicts of sin. However, when the sin is paid and repeated of the guilt should be gone. Christians should experience guilt when they commit a sin, however, since sin was paid for once and for all with Jesus's sacrifice guilt should be brief and lead to repentance and learning only. Shame on the other hand is a long term symptom of unrepentant sin that has been uncovered. You don't feel guilt in a shameful situation because you are only upset you were found out. Not because you realize you are truly guilty. 

With all this said I completely agree with a therapeutic approach to remove both shame and guilt in situations of sexual violence. Being a victim of said act is no valid reason to experience either emotion although I'm sure it is impossible to not experience these on some level. When emotionally damaged we have a tendency to self blame even in situations where this shouldn't be the case. Much like a fire alarm that goes off due to smoke from a cooking mishap. The guilt reaction has a distinct purpose that is meant to help but it can be triggered when rationally it shouldn't. 

A proper Biblical understanding should help victim recovery, as it runs in line with therapeutic approaches. Depravity is of the individual heart and guilt and shame point back to this depravity, however, these may be triggered inappropriately. The final distinction that should be made though is that the popular approach to shame may be the only difference in that the culture at large does not want to ever encourage shame and yet none of us would want a violent criminal to not experience shame for their act. In situations where shame is warranted we should hope that shame will eventually lead to guilt and guilt to repentance rather than merely eliminating the shame altogether. 

Thanks for the question and I hope this can help in some small way in your understanding of Christian beliefs. 

This is the answer from Nick Peters. For the answer from Marc Lambert, scroll below.

Hi. Thanks for the question.

This is a very serious topic. My wife underwent some abuse from guys (Not from her own family) and it does leave a mark. Trust can still be very hard. Our society can often get people thinking that they are damaged goods because of what happened. That it did happen to you at the hands of a family member, someone you should have trusted is even worse. 

So what do you do about guilt and shame? Well, guilt is the feeling that you've done something wrong. Interestingly, if you look at the Bible, when it talks about guilt, it doesn't normally refer to an internal feeling of guilt. Instead, it refers to a legal status of guilt. Someone is guilty of a crime. They could not feel guilty or maybe even it was a crime of revenge and they feel great. It doesn't matter. They don't feel guilty. Shame, however, is spoken of abundantly. Shame should be understood as something that forms a breach in a relationship. For us as Christians, our sin brings shame upon the name of God. It does damage to His reputation on Earth since we are meant to represent Him since we bear His image as Genesis 1 says.

Feelings aren't really that reliable and we depend too much on them. If our feelings were the best measure, we would all be better people. We can have false feelings, shame and guilt where we don't need to. This is especially the case with sexual abuse. Sex is especially the case with this because sex goes to the heart of who a person is. It involves the real exposure of yourself and your entirety as a person. To be mistreated sexually is to feel violated as a whole person. 

I know you want to get an answer on the doctrine, but the doctrine really doesn't matter now. With sexual abuse like this, it is not your fault. You bear no guilt and should bear no shame. The person who did this is the one who should bear it. I recommend reading writings of people like Dan Allender who did overcome sexual abuse and did it so much he was able to write with Tremper Longman the book God Loves Sex. I would recommend getting in good therapy for what happened and finding a Celebrate Recovery group as well in your area and connecting with people of your gender who can help you with this.

If there's any doctrine to focus on, it's the doctrine of restoration and resurrection. God can bring good out of evil, including the evil that happened to you. It's hard to trust God in these times, but He can handle it and He understands your mistrust. You were not meant to be treated like this, but you can still enjoy a happy Christian life and if you get married, be the spouse you need to be and enjoy the gift of sex that God intended to be enjoyed.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

This is the answer from Network Member Marc Lambert

There is a lot going on in this question, so rather than writing a small book in trying to answer each point and question I want to try to address the general principle that gives us the framework from which this issue should be thought about.

 While I have never been on the receiving end of abuse, sexual or otherwise, I was bullied quite a bit as a child. Now please, anyone reading this who has been abused, please do not think I am belittling your experience by equating it to my schoolyard troubles. That is not my intention. However, victims of abuse and victims of bullying often fall back on the same internalization of their experience and come to believe that it is something about them that caused it to happen.

 This never happened with me. I am not a psychologist nor an expert in abuse counseling, but it seems to me, reflecting on my experience, that I had two key elements that lead me to not see myself as deserving of this mistreatment or that somehow the pain I endured reflected on my value as a person … and one of those elements was

  1. the realization that the person doing the bullying was simply a jerk, and their bad actions towards me was all on them. It said nothing about me, but it spoke volumes about them. The other element was
  2. an understanding that I as an individual was intrinsically valuable and they could not take that away from me.

 In Christian theology we get both of these elements, and one of the keys to understanding the first one (1) is Original Sin and Total Depravity. The notion of sin and depravity is all about us and God. Any judgment or punishment or whatever that we deserve has to do with our violation of God’s law. We are criminals. Or rebels. Or whatever picture you like. The point is that our sinfulness or depravity does not speak to our value as a person. Only our judicial relationship to God. Saying that our sinfulness bears a relationship to what is suffered at the hands of an abuser would be like me thinking that my being bullied was due to me disobeying my dad and going somewhere I wasn’t supposed to be. The two have nothing to do with one another.

But what we do learn from the sinfulness of mankind is that the perpetrator of the abuse did not do it because of anything the victim did or deserved. Just as my bullies bullied me out of a brokenness and sinfulness inside of them (and I was just the unfortunate target where they found their outlet), the wickedness perpetrated by an abuser is a result of their sinfulness and depravity. There is nothing the abusee did to bring it about or deserve it. The tragic events happened because the abuser’s brokenness and sinfulness. Not because of anything to do with the one whom they abused.

The second element is also found in Christian theology. Like the other side of the coin, (2) Christianity teaches that we are made in God’s Image. That we bear an inherent dignity and value. That we are “fearfully and wonderfully made”. That God is so concerned with us that the Bible tells us that each hair on our heads is numbered. It says that not a single sparrow falls from the sky that God isn’t aware of, and much more than that He cares for us. This Biblical idea of intrinsic human value is the very basis of all the civil rights movements of the last few centuries. The very idea that people should not be divided and discriminated against based on sex or ‘race’ is grounded in the very notion that all mankind, all individuals, are created by God with intrinsic value and dignity. It is where we get the notion of a right to life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness. When God commands capital punishment for murderers, it is exactly because of the extreme high value of human beings having been made in His image that is violated.

When we take these two ideas in concert, people do evil because they are sinful (not because you somehow deserved it), and that you are intrinsically worthy and valuable, I cannot think of a more healing and comforting view of reality than this for people who endure pain at the hands of others. It was this very understanding of life that made me able to weather the wave of mistreatment I received for years as a child and young adult. Because I knew that I was loved and valuable, and that any wrongdoing was because of their wickedness and not a reflection on me.