guilt shame and fear
May 23, 2024

The Prodigal’s Hope Through Guilt, Shame, and Fear

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“Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.” (Luke 15:18–19)

John took heavy steps toward Harvest USA’s building. His socks didn’t quite match because he’d left home in a hurry. Weary, he greeted his support group leader with a handshake as he came in and hesitantly sighed. It had been a long week. Joining that night’s meeting was particularly hard—the past few days had been marred with sexual sin.

Then the leader asked, “How are you doing, brother?”

Though simple, the question laid a crushing weight on John’s heart. Feeling lost, he confessed, “I did it again even though I’m sick of it; I am a worthless human being.”

Guilt.

Shame.

Fear.

In one sentence, John accepted his current state as his forever identity. Like the prodigal son in Luke 15, John rightly acknowledged his guilt—but that led to a sense of sickening shame and hopeless fear, undermining his God-given worth as a person. John’s declaration of worthlessness was the result of sexual sin. We must acknowledge that this pain is real and intense. Suffering is inevitable when we understand our sin in light of God’s truth and grace.

Guilt, Shame, and Fear in a Debased Mind

But what do we make of guilt, shame, and fear? Is there anything positive about them? Whenever sin strikes, bodily unrest is connected to the heart’s angst. We are body and spirit, so the repercussions of sin always strike the whole person. The sexual struggler can be left disoriented in thought and deed as his consciousness wrestles with self-judgment at that moment of sin. 

Strugglers silently burdened by guilt, shame, and fear may conclude:

I am a dirty person for doing this—a lost cause.

Nobody gets to tell me what I should or should not do. I define my path and desires.

Nobody knows who I truly am. And I’ll take my secrets to the grave.

Such guilt-led, shame-saturated, and fear-driven responses to sin contend for the place only God should have in our hearts. They all make too much of self. By refusing to accept God’s Word, they proclaim one’s own honor rather than God’s.

When the heart is callous toward the gospel, a person’s conscience will err by not proclaiming God’s truth and grace in that moment of sin, leading them to fall into more profound despair. This despair gratifies the self and suppresses the truth.

Guilt, Shame, and Fear in a Redeemed Mind

Instead, the heart that proclaims God’s truth and grace in the face of sin finds hope. The Spirit enables this heart to reorient the impact of guilt, shame, and fear in one’s life toward a redeeming path of humble dependence on Christ.

To proclaim God’s truth, we must answer self-focused lies with what God says is true. 

I am a dirty person for doing this—a lost cause. No! Christ has clothed me in his righteousness and Jesus promises to keep me to the end. How can I be a lost cause when Jesus died for our sins? (See 1 Cor. 15:3–4; Eph. 4:20–24; John 10:28)

Nobody gets to tell me what I should or shouldn’t do. I define my path and desires. No! Jesus is my Maker—he knows what’s best for me and tells me that he alone can provide fullness of joy and direction. (See John 14:6; Col. 1:15–17; Luke 12:4–7;  Ps. 16)

Nobody knows who I truly am. And I’ll take my secrets to the grave. No! The Lord knows me better than I know myself—he knows my darkest secrets. He calls me to run to him in confession, to delight in his deep knowledge and love for me, and to lean on my brothers and sisters as we walk in the light. (See Ps. 139, 51; Luke 12:1–3; Eph. 5:8–9, 13–21; James 5:15–16; 1 John 1:5–10)

Like jars of clay, believers submit to and are molded by the perfect work of the Spirit who sanctifies sinners (Heb. 10:14), showing that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. Through him, we remember that our sufferings in the path of obedience proclaim God’s rule. They produce an eternal weight of glory (2 Cor. 4:7–18). And, through persevering faith, a God-ward conscience is nourished by the cross of Christ.

Thus, guilt, shame, and fear can invite God’s grace and mercy to flourish in the heart of the sinner who embraces Christ. The good fruit, as Tim Keller wrote, is to realize that “the gospel is this: We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.”1

The Prodigal, John, and You

“But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.” (Luke 15:22–24)

Though enveloped in guilt, ashamed of who he’d become, and fearful about returning home, the prodigal son in Jesus’s parable was met by his father with forgiveness and compassion. His guilt, shame, and fear informed his repentant heart, prompting him to return to the one place where he had a glimmer of hope. He realized life in abundance could be found only in his father’s home.

Remember John—burdened by guilt, shame, and fear? We encouraged him each week to return to the support group, where he heard the gospel. Whenever he’d show up we’d remind him, “Hey, you took a step of faith here!”

His sins reminded him of his guilt, his struggles led him to be ashamed, and the process of repentance made him fearful. But, little by little, I witnessed John surrendering his heart to the Lord who, by the Spirit, led him to take each step in faith. By God’s grace and mercy, John saw the destination of all guilt, shame, and fear in the world: the redeeming cross of Christ. I pray this will be your lasting hope, too. May the redemption we have in Christ be a light to your path as you walk through the narrow gate that leads to eternal life.

  1. Timothy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God, Penguin, reprinted 2013, 44. ↩︎

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Yohan Huh Prudente

Director of Men's Ministry

Yohan is the Director of Men’s Ministry for Harvest USA, overseeing the direct ministry to men. Yohan grew up in South Korea and Brazil with missionary parents who labored with church plant ministries. He graduated from Westminster Theological Seminary and lives with his beloved wife, in the greater Philadelphia area.

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