There has been a lot of talk about and research on the ideas of guilt and shame in the last several years. Brené Brown in particular has done a wonderful job of opening up the conversation on this uncomfortable, messy, and often misunderstood topic. The basic idea that Brown works with is that guilt is a feeling attached to behaviour (that a person has done something wrong; this is an emotion akin to remorse), whereas shame is a feeling attached to identity (that there is something wrong with a person themselves). This idea of shame based in identity was first proposed by Helen Block Lewis in Shame and Guilt in Neurosis (1971). Brown offers this distinction:
I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection (http://brenebrown.com/2013/01/14/2013114shame-v-guilt-html/).
While this is a very compelling distinction, and one which I in fact share (in part), it is of course based in secular psychological research. The question for the Christian then ought to be, “What might the Bible say about this distinction, if anything?” At the very least, does it contradict any of the claims of Scripture?
Regarding guilt, in the Bible the term is always used in reference to some action, something done or even left undone. A sin has been committed, and the person or people can both experience the feeling of guilt and have entered into the condition of being guilty. It is an emotion and a state. This agrees with the distinction offered by Block.
Shame, however, seems categorically different. The overarching biblical sense of the word is ????. It is hard for someone to make you feel guilty; but being put to shame is more manageable. You may not even feel guilt about a perceived wrongdoing, but people around you can make you feel shame. It is less easily “gotten over” or dealt with, like guilt may be. Thus I think in general the action/identity dichotomy of guilt and shame does not seem to be in conflict with Scripture.
That being said, is there a difference in how guilt and shame function within the Christian framework? The action/identity theme is helpful, but need to be nuanced.
The person who does not profess belief in Christ can feel both guilt and shame. Whatever his or her moral framework or lack thereof, only sociopaths are exempt from these emotions. But if shame is based in selfhood, how does shame function in the life of the non-believer. The Bible declares that are people are created in the image of God and still bear that image, whether slightly marred or nearly unrecognizable through the degradation of sin. Being that God is our creator, he is also the source of our soul and thus our identity. He is the only one with authority to tell us who we are and who we ought to be. From a biblical point of view, then, shame is the result of our not living into the identity we have in God. Shame actually points to something that is true. Shame says “there is something wrong with you.” Yes, there is! It is sin and unreconciled relationship with God. One way to look at it is that guilt is the result of one sin; shame is the accumulated effect of a sin-lifestyle. In biblical terms, the non-believer carries the identity “sinner,” to which a feeling of shame in a natural and appropriate response. Now if that is where the feeling of shame stayed, it would serve as a way to reorient ourselves to God who can deliver us from shame. However, Satan quickly grabs hold of our shame and twists us. The message of the Gospel is that God loves us and wants relationship with us, our feeling of shame notwithstanding. But Satan tells us a lie: “There is something wrong with you. How could God possibly love you? Satan uses our shame to implicate and lie about God’s nature. But as the Holy Spirit is active in a person’s life, he or she will see the lie for what is it and will flee to a God who loves as the only remedy for shame. Neither guilt nor shame can be dealt with apart from God.
So then a person becomes a believer, but you don’t have to be a believer for any length of time to know that shame doesn’t end. To what ought we to attribute this? A few things. Some feelings of shame are entirely illegitimate. As with all things in Christian faith, the Bible stands as our guide. If we have made a profession of faith, God is pleased with us and we have entered eternal life (Rom 10.9-13). The Spirit we received when we confessed our faith assures us that we are children of God (Rom 8.14-17). The Devil tries his old tricks with shame because they worked before, but in Christ that kind of shame need no longer have a hold on us.
But there is still a role for shame. It actually starts with guilt. We sin, either by commission or omission, either deliberately or unconsciously, and we experience guilt as the Holy Spirit brings it to our minds. As we mature in the faith, we keep shorter accounts with God and go to him to ask for forgiveness and reconcile with others as necessary. But there are times when we live sins unaddressed, and perhaps more sins pile on. As I said above, guilt is the result of one sin; shame is the accumulated effect of a sin-lifestyle. Which means that what begins as a guilt related to a single sin becomes shame, and we recognize something wrong within us — not that our identity stands as sinner any longer, but that the way we are acting does not match up with the new identity of redeemed person, holy one, that we receive in Jesus. Again, shame by itself stands as the road sign telling us to do a U-turn and head back to God. It is a recognition that things are not as they should be, that they are not well with our soul. But again, the Devil can come along and twist it and make us think we have lost our privilege place before God or are somehow no longer worthy of his love, as if how we act would ever determine God’s love for us. So here is where I differ from Brown’s assertion that “shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.” While I believe the first part, I do not believe the bold therefore is inherent to shame: that is the accretion of the Enemy. God desires always to connect with his creatures.
This may seem like hair-splitting, but here’s why I think it matters. To Brown, shame is at best unhelpful and at worst incredibly damaging, and therefore ought to be categorically rejected. However, if the biblical vision of two different identities that the sacrifice of Jesus allows people to choose between, is true, then shame serves a useful purpose insofar as it helps steer people toward that choice. It is a reminder for the non-believer and the wayward believer, that something is wrong and out to be address. If we reject shame out of hand, we discard a valuable tool that helps us navigate the faith journey by pointing us back toward obedience in Jesus. Because Jesus is the only one who has authority to speak into existence my new identity as saint, he is the only one who can properly deal with guilt and shame. It cannot be done away with by ignoring it. We do not actually have the power to justify ourselves and therefore end our own shame. If shame must necessarily be bad, we think positive thoughts or repeat a mantra or go to counselling until it goes away, instead of submitting the feeling to God in prayer, and the God can remind us the shame is false because it is based on our forgetfulness of our new nature in Christ, or whether it is a genuine remind that we are not living into that new identity. We actually circumvent the conviction of the Holy Spirit. We still have guilt available to us, but that is often attached to a specific action that we would name as bad, whether illegal or not. If we have no moral conviction or principle around it, we are not likely to feel guilty, and guilt isn’t something other people can easily impose on us. We also have the feeling of embarrassment, but that depends on being discovered in something — so no discovery, no embarrassment — or it is usually related to something trivial that is not necessarily morally wrong, just not something you are supposed to do, according to social norms: burping, picking your nose, or forgetting to call a person you said you would. So where does that leave us? How might we expect to feel if God were trying to get our attention on something that you might not consider morally objectionable and that no one else knows about? If there is no guilt or embarrassment attached to the action, there could be an surprisingly feeling of shame that points you toward an incongruity between your current actions and your new nature as saint wrapped up in the Christian worldview.
I say we need to keep shame but remind ourselves that the tendency that it evokes in us to run and hide and not seek connection, is in fact an aberration of the Enemy, not the real emotion that is hardwired into us to indicate we are not living into all we can be in Christ. In some senses I don’t actually care what anyone calls it. My concern is that we don’t label a certain feeling as bad or evil and then reject out of hand the whisperings of God’s Spirit to our own as he leads us in love in the way of Christ.