Shame vs. Guilt

Shame Depends on How We Believe We are Viewed by Others Due to our Behavior; Guilt Involves the Awareness of Having Done Something Wrong.

YOU MAY HAVE NOTICED that many people use the words shame and guilt interchangeably. This is regrettable because, from a psychological perspective, they actually refer to different experiences. Guilt and shame sometimes go hand in hand; the same action may give rise to feelings of both shame and guilt, where the former reflects how we feel about ourselves and the latter involves an awareness that our actions have injured someone else. In other words, shame relates to self, guilt to others.

Looking first to the dictionary definitions, we see the following:

  • Guilt. A feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime, wrong, etc., whether real or imagined.
  • Shame. The painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonorable, improper, ridiculous, hurtful, etc., done by oneself or another.

As noted before, in everyday language people tend to use these words more or less interchangeably. From a therapeutic perspective, the distinction can be most important and useful. Many people crippled by shame have very little capacity to feel guilt, for example. In order to feel guilt about the harm you may have done to somebody else, you must recognize him or her as a distinct individual. A person who struggles with interpersonal relationships, or who has a mental illness—such as attachment disorder, borderline personality disorder, or bipolar disorder—might not feel true guilt even if he or she were to use that word to describe a feeling.

Many people who display narcissistic behavior often suffer from profound feelings of shame, but have little authentic concern for other people; they don’t tend to feel genuine guilt. The lack of empathy found in narcissistic and other personality disorders makes real guilt unlikely since guilt depends upon the ability to intuit how someone else might feel.

When shame is especially pervasive, it usually precludes feelings of genuine concern and guilt from developing; the sense of being damaged is so powerful and painful that it crowds out one’s feelings for anyone else. In such cases, idealization often comes into play. Other people are then viewed as perfect, “the lucky ones” who have the ideal shame-free life we crave. Envy may be at the root of these thoughts.

SHAME

Shame says, “There’s something inherently wrong with me that isn’t wrong with everyone else.” It tells you that you’re worthless and incapable. Therefore, you must find some way to prove your own worth. At its worst, shame says, “I am outside the love of God.” A person with a shamed sense of identity reads the Scriptures and usually feels condemned. Unfortunately, far too many believers are feeling dirty, worthless, ashamed of themselves; convinced their offenses are beyond the reach of the cross. Having such a poisonous attitude about yourself can lead to belief that you are unclean and therefore unworthy to approach God and have the living and intimate relationship that He wants to have with you. Shame prevents us from intimacy with God because it makes us feel unworthy and distant from Him.

Shame causes us to make statements like this:

  • I often think about past failures or experiences of rejection.
  • There are certain things I cannot recall about my past without feeling guilt, shame.
  • I seem to make the same mistakes over and over again.
  • I feel inferior.
  • There are aspects of my appearance that I cannot except.
  • I am generally disgusted with myself.
  • I feel that certain experiences have basically ruined my life.
  • I perceive myself as an immoral person.
  • I feel that I have lost the opportunity to experience a wonderful life.

Healing from shame involves learning to get our sense of value and significance from God. We need to get out from behind the secrecy of this idea that we are unsalvageable because shame is grown in secrecy. Remember, we’re only as sick as our secrets. We have to start counting our blessings and develop a grateful spirit.

GUILT

There are some significant differences between guilt and shame. Guilt is what takes place when a person realizes their failure. The source of guilt—”conviction,” if you prefer— is the Holy Spirit. To be sure, true guilt is a good thing. It helps us judge our behavior against the laws, it allows for restitution, punishment, and making amends. It allows us to pay for what we have done. False guilt involves sin we’ve repented of and asked for God’s forgiveness, but where the devil still pushes us to feel unreedemed. He wants us to see ourselves as the sum of all our bad behaviors and nothing more.

With guilt, we are motivated to confess. Get it out in the open. Find a way to make amends for our actions. Shame, however, wants us to internalize. Stew in our complete badness. Feel horrible about who we’ve become, while forgetting who we now are in Christ. The goal of guilt is ultimately forgiveness. Shame would rather we feel pain and total condemnation. The end result of dealing effectively with guilt is freedom and growth. The point of shame is, quite simply, bondage. Someone who takes ownership of his or her guilt has the potential of giving their body over to God as a living sacrifice. We become open to doing good. Sharing our testimony. Preaching the Good News. On the other hand, shame owns and controls us. The cycle of shame leads to anger, bitterness, resentment, self-hatred, and depression. There is no peace with shame.

The Day Guilt Was Born

Shame and guilt did not exist initially in the Garden of Eden. But no sooner had Eve defied God and taken a bite of the forbidden fruit, these emotions fell over her like a dark shadow. Their silhouettes followed her until her dying day. She would be buried in their cold presence. And as Adam followed in his wife’s footsteps, two more shadows were born. Guilt and Shame are conceived in their rebellion. We are painfully acquainted with them today. We would love to part with them, but they won’t leave us alone. Although these two emotions are related, they aren’t identical. Guilt is typically linked to an event: I did something bad. Guilt says, “I made a mistake; please forgive me.” Shame is tied to a person: I am bad. Shame says, “Please forgive me, I am a mistake.” Guilt is the wound, whereas shame is the scar it leaves. While guilt is seeing what you’ve done, shame is seeing yourself as a complete failure because of what you’ve done. Guilt allows us to look at the sin (the offense). Shame involves focusing on a deep-seated sense of self-denigration.

Shame and False Guilt Create Strongholds

If we continue to ruminate on our past failures, it will wear us down spiritually. Satan takes over, aiming at getting us to see a distortion of who we are—especially who we have become through Christ. Satan wants us to look at our past failures so much that we begin to see ourselves as nothing but failures! He doesn’t want us to see who we truly are. He’d rather keep us thinking about all the bad behavior until all we see when we look in the mirror is a dirty sinner. The complete opposite of who and what we really are in Christ.

In fact, shame is one of those things the Bible speaks of as an imagination that must be cast down. 2 Corinthians 10:4-5 says, “For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ.” An imagination is an image in your mind that is inaccurate. If you see yourself as a failure, when you’re actually a washed-in-the-blood child of God, you’ve fallen victim to an imagination that must be dealt with.

Shame is very destructive to relationships—especially with God. There is a good reason Satan wants us to feel like failures and dirty sinners who cannot be redeemed. Feeling that way keeps us from confidently approaching God’s throne and having an intimate relationship with Him. Scripture tells us that God wants us to draw near to Him with a clean conscience that has been freed from dead works. We’re not expected to forget the wrongs we’ve done, especially if such behavior led to dire consequences, such as broken hearts and destruction of relationships. Hebrews 9:14 says, “How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God” (NIV). Timothy speaks of this “pure conscience” (see 2 Timothy 1:3).

Shame and false guilt are based upon deception, which is the opposite of truth. So how are we supposed to worship God in Spirit and truth if there are imaginations hanging around in our minds that are contrary to the truth? But how do we defeat or overcome these bear traps? First, we need to stop dwelling on our past failures. Are you ignoring them? Am I? Not really. When we dwell on them as if they’re not forgiven and forgotten by God, we are ignoring the lie that our sin has not been adequately dealt with and washed away. In other words, we are actually meditating on ghosts! Sins that no longer exist. Micah 7:19 tells us, “You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea” (NIV).

We must deal with our shame by reminding ourselves of how God has dealt with our guilt.

Disassociate, Don’t Disavow

Why do you think God wants us to be new creations? Because He wants us to no longer be in bondage to our past. We’re to disassociate ourselves with the people, places, and things that were a part of our sinful past. Paul succinctly writes, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here” (2 Corinthians 5:17, NIV). Psalm 103:12 says, “…as far as the east is from the west, so far he has removed our transgressions from us.” Not only are we to accept that our sins are forgiven, we need to leave them there and press forward toward the things God has for us. Philippians 3:13b-14 says, “…forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (NIV).  God has been merciful toward our unrighteousness, and says “…their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more” (Hebrews 8:12).

Coming from a past history of active addiction, and involvement in 12-step programs, I can’t help but refer to the following words contained in the Ninth Step Promises: “We don’t regret the past, nor wish to shut the door on it.” This is especially applicable in recovery. I recall hearing from an old timer at a meeting years ago, “…we have to get to the point where we stop seeing our past as a liability and start seeing it as an asset.” Whether we’re working with others in recovery or sharing our testimony with unbelievers, our past experiences—good or bad—are tools, indeed assets, for helping others. This is a practical application of the doctrinal concept that we have become a new creation through our faith in Christ Jesus.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

Because we were designed by God to feel guilt, we all should have the capacity for it. But sometimes we are not clear about its underlying motivation. If your fear of getting caught is greater than your desire to heal your relationships, then you are suffering from an unhealthy guilt and it is likely to be with you for a long time. Trust me, I’ve been there. Shame feels bad as well, but it is different from guilt. Shame is the painful feeling of disconnection from others that comes from feeling defective. You may think you feel bad because of things you have done, but shame is a bad feeling that you have about yourself, and you had that feeling long before you committed any of the things you think caused it.

Guilt and shame are strong emotions that we need to acknowledge and deal with before our relationships will go well. To manage guilt, we must do things differently. Being honest about wrongdoing, repenting of it, and seeking forgiveness are things we can do in response to guilt. To deal with shame, we must actually be different. That is, we must be vulnerable and experience what it is like to share our feelings honestly with others in ways that change us and help us be a better person.

All of us walk around with some degree of shame. We can’t talk ourselves out of it, or even have someone else explain to us why we shouldn’t feel it. No one can be cured of shame, but we all can experience healing. When we are courageous and vulnerable enough to open ourselves up to God’s grace, we will experience what it is like to feel complete acceptance down to our very core. Courage, vulnerability, and acceptance heal shame. And experiencing that with God heals it in the most powerful way.

God forgives you; you must learn to forgive yourself.

 

 

“No More” by Josh Wilson (Lyrics)

Oh I know it all to well
Every inch inside this cell
I’m a prisoner of the choices I regret
The debt’s already paid
And the bail’s already made
So why do I keep coming back again?
God I’m done with holding on to sins that you have saved me from
I’m ready to let go of who I’ve been

No more guilt, no more shame, no more thinking I can’t change
Who I was is dead and gone, who I am is moving on

Saved by grace held by love because of what your cross has done
You pulled away the prison doors
Hallelujah God
I am condemned no more

So I step out of the night into your burning light
Where my past and all its shadows disappear
You say that I am yours forever
You call me saint instead of sinner

No more guilt, no more shame, no more thinking I can’t change
Who I was is dead and gone, who I am is moving on

You pulled away the prison doors
Hallelujah God
I am condemned no more

Drive the dark doubt away
Melt the clouds of sin and sadness
Fill me with the light of day

No more guilt, no more shame, no more thinking I can’t change
Who I was is dead and gone, who I am is moving on

You pulled away the prison doors
Hallelujah God
I am condemned no more

Is Shame a Bad Thing?

Shame says, “There’s something wrong with me that isn’t wrong with everyone else.” It tells you that you’re worthless. Therefore, you must find some way to prove your own worth. In its worst expression, it says, “I am outside the love of God.” A person with a shamed sense of identity reads the Scriptures and usually feels condemned. Far too many individuals feel dirty, worthless and ashamed of themselves. As a result, they feel unclean and therefore unworthy to approach God and have the type of living and intimate relationship that God wants to have with them. Shame prevents intimacy with God because it makes us feel damaged and distant from Him.

Is there a difference between shame and guilt? Yes. Guilt is what takes place when a person realizes his or her failure. True guilt is actually a good thing. It helps us to judge our behavior against the laws. It allows for retribution, punishment and amends. It allows us to pay for what we’ve done. False guilt, which is what Satan throws at us, is where the sin has been repented of and forgiven, but the devil still wants us to feel guilty or to see ourselves associated with our past offenses. Satan uses false guilt to rip apart the lives of believers.

While guilt focuses on what we’ve done, shame is determining our self-worth negatively because of what we’ve done. Guilt is looking at the sin. Shame is looking at ourselves. If we allow ourselves to dwell on guilt, however, it can lead to shame. Meditating on false guilt creates strongholds. If we constantly think about our past failures and offenses, it tears us down spiritually. The picture we develop of ourselves becomes distorted.

Shame is one of the things the Bible speaks of as an imagination that must be cast down. 2 Corinthians 10:4-5 says, “For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds; casting down imaginations and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ.” An imagination in this instance is a picture in your mind that is incorrect. If you see yourself as a failure when you’re actually a blood-washed child of God, you’ve got an imagining that needs to be dealt with!

Shame is very destructive to our relationship with God. There is a good reason Satan wants us to feel like failures and dirty sinners. Feeling that way keeps us from confidently approaching God’s throne and having an intimate relationship with Him. The Bible tells us that Jesus shed His blood on the cross so that we can be forgiven of our sins and offenses.

The Father wants us to draw near to Him with a clean conscience that has been freed from the memory of our evil ways. Hebrews 9:14 says, “How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God.” Even the Apostle Paul, once the chief of sinners, made it clear that he was serving God from a clear conscience. 2 Timothy 1:3 says, “I thank God, whom I serve from my forefathers with pure conscience, that without ceasing I have remembrance of you in my prayers night and day.” Obviously, Paul understood that he was forgiven by God, and that he was no longer a persecutor of Christians. His past behavior did not define or enslave him.

Worship is an intimate way of expressing our love and gratitude to God. The Bible is clear that we should approach the Father with a clear conscience that has been purged of sin. Shame and false guilt are based upon deception, which is the opposite of truth. How are we supposed to worship God in spirit and in truth if there are imaginings hanging around in our minds that are contrary to the truth? Remember John 4:24, which says, “God is a spirit: and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth.

How do we defeat or overcome shame and false guilt? First, we need to stop dwelling on our past failures.  We are meditating on something that no longer exists! If our sins are in the depths of the sea, then why are we still thinking about them? Micah 7:19 says, “…He will have compassion upon us; He will subdue our iniquities; and will cast all [our] sins into the depths of the sea.” We need to stop focusing on the problem (which has been dealt with), and begin to praise God for the solution to the problem, and think about how we have been washed clean from our sins! Instead of meditating on a lie, begin to meditate on the truth in God’s word. Psalms 51:7-12 says, “Purge me…and I shall be clean: wash me and I shall be whiter than snow. Make me to hear joy and gladness; that the bones which you have broken may rejoice. Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God: and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence; and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of your salvation; and uphold me with your free spirit.”

We have to dissociate ourselves from our past. Here is an important thought: Why do you think God wants us to be new creations? Because he wants us to be separated from our past. 2 Corinthians 5:17 says, “Therefore, if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature. Old things are passed away. Behold all things are become new.” We are assured in Psalms 103:12 that “…as far as the east is from the west, so far has God removed our transgressions from us.” Now that our past sins have been forgiven, we need to leave them in the past and press on toward the things that are of God. Philipians 3:13 says, “…this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before [me].” Not only are we to forget our past, God Himself has chosen to completely forget our sins as well. Hebrews 8:12 says, “For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities I will remember no more.”

When we operate from a place of shame, we make statements such as I make the same mistakes over and over again. I am inferior. I am an immoral person. I am damaged goods. I am worthless. I have lost the opportunity to experience a complete, wonderful life. Healing from our shame involves learning to get our significance from God. Shame is grown in secrecy. Remember, we are only as sick as our secrets. We have to stop living in the past and begin to count our blessings. And we must increase the amount of time we spend in worship and prayer.

There are some significant differences between guilt and shame. The source of guilt is the conviction of the Holy Spirit that we have done something wrong. This is a good thing. Shame, on the other hand, attacks our very identity. I am a bad person. I’ll never amount to anything. With guilt, we are motivated to confess. We want to get it out into the open. Maybe even make amends for our actions. Shame, however, wants us to internalize our feelings. It wants us to keep secrets. To feel bad to our core. The goal of guilt is to experience forgiveness. Shame wants us to feel pain. The result of guilt is freedom and growth. The point of shame is bondage. Someone who takes ownership of his or her guilt has the potential of having their life changed by God. On the other hand, shame “owns” us and controls us. The cycle of shame leads to anger, bitterness, self-hatred and depression. There is no peace with shame.

Though we can certainly feel our shame before people, our deepest shame is before God. People who feel worthless tend to doubt that anyone, especially God Himself, could tolerate them for very long. They quickly doubt their connection with the King of kings. Our best strategy is to remember that God has a particular affection for all things deemed loathsome by others. You must begin by being connected to Him. This is the only true way to deal with shame. Passivity, the most dangerous symptom of shame, must not have the last word. Those who are hopeless tend to avoid and deny.

Far too many of us today are feeling dirty, worthless and ashamed of ourselves. As a result, we feel unclean and unworthy to approach God. Shame stops us from having the kind of living and intimate relationship that He wants to have with us. Shame makes us feel distant from God. It makes us filthy as rags. Untouchable. Outcast. A hopeless cause. Face it, shame makes us feel like a piece of dirt. Shame is very destructive to our relationship with God.

There is a good reason why Satan wants us to feel like failures and dirty sinners. Shame keeps us from being effective as believers. When we buy in to the lie that we are ruined and hopeless, we tend to forget about prayer and worship. We are convinced that God wants nothing to do with us. The Bible tells us that the blood of Jesus was shed so that we can confidently approach our heavenly Father. Worship is an intimate way of expressing our relationship with God. The Bible is clear that we should approach God with a clean conscience that has been purged of sin. In fact, Hebrews 10:2 tells us, “For then would they not have ceased to be offered? Because that the worshipers once purged should have no more conscience of sin.”

When you are touched by God, you are changed in an instant. Zap! But unfortunately it can take some of us quite a while to catch up to what Jesus has done for us. Think of shame at the center of our old nature. It dictated how we related to “clean” people. Our task today is to learn how to live life from a new perspective regardless of vivid memories of our past. We have to believe God. We have to believe in that new nature which has been imparted to us at the time of our conversion. We have been transported to a place that is far better than we could ever imagine. It is time to shed our guilt and embrace our new life in Christ.