10 Things You Should Know about Shame and Guilt1
Shame and guilt are often confused in people’s thinking. What are they, and how do they differ? More important still, how might we be set free from the debilitating effects of shame? Here are ten things to keep in mind.
(1) Shame is the painful emotion that is caused by a consciousness of guilt, failure, or impropriety, that often results in the paralyzing conviction/belief that one is worthless, of no value to others or to God, unacceptable, and altogether deserving of disdain and rejection. As you can see, shame and guilt are not the same thing.
Guilt is the objective reality of being liable to punishment because of something we’ve done. Shame is the subjective feeling of being worthless because of who we are. As someone said, it’s the difference between making a mistake and being a mistake. Feeling guilt when we sin is a good and godly and healthy response. So we run to God and seek his forgiveness. But feeling shame when we sin is a bad and destructive response that compels us to run from him for fear of his disdain and contempt.
(2) Shame can lead to a variety of emotions and actions. It leads to feelings of being not just unqualified but disqualified from anything meaningful or of having a significant role in the body of Christ.
People enslaved to shame are constantly apologizing to others for who they are. They feel small, flawed, never good enough. They live under the crippling fear of never measuring up, of never pleasing those whose love and respect they desire. This often results in efforts to work harder to compensate for feeling less than everyone else.
(3) Shame has innumerable effects on the human soul. Those in shame have a tendency to hide; to create walls of protection behind which they hunker down and hope no one will see the true you. They are terrified that their true self will be seen and known and rejected by others. So they put on a false face, they adopt a personality or certain traits that they think others will find acceptable. They are convinced that if someone were to see them for who they really are, they’d be repulsed and disappointed. So they are led to be less than their true self. They deliberately stifle whatever strengths they have. They say to themselves: “Whatever I do, don’t be vulnerable. It’s dangerous.”
(4) We must be careful to differentiate between justifiable, deserved, and well-placed shame, on the one hand, and illegitimate, undeserved, and misplaced shame, on the other.
When our actions, attitudes, or words bring dishonor to God we justifiably and deservedly should feel ashamed. There are other actions, attitudes, or words for which we should not feel ashamed, even though they may expose us to ridicule, public exposure, and embarrassment.
Misplaced or unjustifiable shame is often mentioned in Scripture. Here are four examples.
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom. 1:16).
We should feel boldness and courage in proclaiming the gospel. If people mock us and mistreat us because of our vocal and visible declaration of the gospel, we should not feel any shame. After all, the gospel is the power of God to save human souls. The non-Christian world may think we are weak and silly, but the gospel is powerful and true.
“Therefore, do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God” (2 Tim. 1:8).
If you feel shame when the gospel is made known or when you are identified and linked with someone who is suffering for having made it known, you are experiencing misplaced or unjustifiable shame. Christ is honored and praised when we boldly speak of him and willingly suffer for him.
“Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name” (1 Pet. 4:16).
Being maligned and mistreated solely because of your commitment to Christ is no cause for shame. In fact, it serves to glorify God. Thus, shame is not determined based on how we are regarded in the minds of people but rather based on whether or not our actions bring honor and glory to God.
“Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor [shame] for the name” (Acts 5:41).
To be arrested and stripped and beaten and exposed to public ridicule is a shameful experience. But the apostles did not retaliate. The willingly embraced the feeling of shame because it ultimately honored God.
(5) Often the Bible speaks of behaviors or beliefs that ought to induce shame in a person’s heart.
“For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (Mark 8:38).
In other words, when we refuse to obey the exhortation of Jesus to be humble and meek because we fear that people will laugh at us for it, we should feel ashamed. When we fail to strive to live a life free of sexual immorality and the world congratulates us for not yielding to an “outdated” view on morality, we should feel shame.
“I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers, but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers?” (1 Cor. 6:5-6).
“Wake up from your drunken stupor, as is right, and do not go on sinning. For some have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame” (1 Cor. 15:34).
In both cases their behavior is bringing disrepute on God. They have dishonored him and thus should justifiably feel shame. Two other texts that speak of well-placed shame are:
“But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed?” (Rom. 6:21).
“If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed” (2 Thess. 3:14).
(6) We wage war against the lies that bring shame by fighting for faith in the forgiveness of God. In other words, belief in the truth of the gospel is the power to overcome shame.
The prostitute who anointed the feet of Jesus with ointment and wet them with her tears had much of which to be ashamed. She was a “sinner” and an outcast. But Jesus pronounced that her sins were forgiven and told her to “go in peace” (Luke 7:36-50). Jesus overcame her shame by promising that her sins were forgiven and that she could now live “in peace.” She could have chosen to believe the condemnation and judgment of the other guests, and remain mired in shame. Or she could choose to believe that Jesus had truly forgiven all her sins. The way to wage war against the unbelief that we are not truly forgiven is to trust the promise of Christ.
The solution to sin in our culture is to celebrate it, brag about it, join in a public parade to declare your pride in it. Thus, people tend to cope with the pain and weight of guilt by simply declaring that the behavior in question isn’t bad after all. It’s actually quite good and will contribute to my sense of identity and flourishing in life. As someone said, “By denying sin, they attempt to take away its sting.”
But the solution for shame isn’t celebration or denial but forgiveness. The message of Scripture is that you are probably far worse than even you can imagine, but that you are far more loved than you could ever possibly conceive. You can’t solve your struggle with shame. Only Jesus can. And God’s immeasurable and inconceivable love for you was demonstrated and put on display by his sending of his Son Jesus to endure the judgment you deserved.
Some of you think that the solution to your shame is to try harder, do more, obey with greater intensity. Sometimes you are tempted to create even more rules and commands than are found in the Bible and by legalistically abiding by them all you hope to suppress or diminish or perhaps even destroy your feelings of inadequacy and shame and worthlessness. No! The solution is found in only one place: the cross of Christ, where Jesus took your shame upon himself and endured the judgment of God that you and I deserved.
(7) We overcome the crippling power of shame when the Holy Spirit strengthens us to trust and experience the reality of God’s immeasurable love for us in Christ.
“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:14-21).
The Holy Spirit is directly responsible for making possible our experience of feeling and rejoicing in the love God has for us in Christ.
(8) We break free from shame when the Holy Spirit awakens us to the glorious and majestic truth that we are truly the children of God.
“For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom. 8:15-16).
“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God” (Gal. 4:4-7).
Notice that in both texts the experiential, felt assurance of our adoption as the children of God is the direct result of the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts.
(9) We win in the war against shame when, by the power of the Spirit, we turn our hearts to the unbreakable promise of Christ that nothing can separate us from his love.
“But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me. Follow the pattern of sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you” (2 Tim. 1:12b-14).
Here we see that Paul overcomes the tendency to be ashamed by trusting the truth of God’s promise that he will guard him. It is “by the Holy Spirit” that we find the strength to guard the good deposit of the gospel. “The battle against misplaced shame,” says Piper, “is the battle against unbelief in the promises of God.” As Paul elsewhere says, “everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame” (Rom. 10:11).
(10) When we are made to feel shame for something that we didn’t do, we conquer its power by entrusting our souls and eternal welfare to the truth and justice of God.
“But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore, do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God” (1 Cor. 4:3-5).
In other words, explains Piper, “for all the evil and deceitful judgment and criticism that others may use to heap on us a shame that is not ours to bear, and for all the distress and spiritual warfare it brings, the promise stands sure that they will not succeed in the end. All the children of God will be vindicated. The truth will be known. And no one who banks his hope on the promises of God will be put to shame.”