Guilt and Shame
I thought this would be a good time to go back into the recesses of history and bring up a topic that was taught in my church quite a number of years ago, now. That is, as the title of this post suggests, guilt and shame. I still recall several of the distinctions that Pastor Ray from Desert Breeze Community Church made regarding these two topics. It is those distinctions that I’d like to go over.
First, we’ll need to distinguish between the ideas of guilt and shame themselves. Next, we’ll further break down guilt into two different forms of guilt. Once we make these distinctions, there may not be so much in the way of new information or knowledge. Rather my aim is to provide a somewhat more complete understanding of these ideas.
Guilt and shame are, in a sense, two sides of the same coin. Guilt is about something one has done while shame is about who one is. So, if you have done something that is wrong (whether you believe in objective morality or not) than you would be “guilty” of doing whatever it was. Now, keep in mind that this is only one illustration. There is more to it than simply that.
As I said, if you have done something that would be considered wrong, you would be guilty. This has little to do with whether or not you feel guilty. That’s where the aforementioned break down comes in. You see, there is such a thing as true guilt and also such a thing as false guilt. While it may seem counter intuitive, true guilt may sometimes be accompanied by “guilty feelings” and sometimes not. On the other hand, false guilt always is accompanied by “guilty feelings.”
For example, if a young man steals something from a local store, he is objectively guilty of theft. While he may be guilty, he may not experience feelings of guilt. Perhaps he justifies the action somehow or he feels as though he “deserves” it. In that type of case, he will not “feel” guilty, though he is.
False guilt occurs when someone “feels” guilty but actually isn’t. This often happens when we are tempted to do something wrong and we beat ourselves up for merely being tempted. Although we cannot control the fact of temptation, we can control our response. But even when you do control, and resist, temptation, you can sometimes still feel guilty for having such thoughts or desires. This is false guilt. You’ve done nothing wrong and, in fact, have done something righteous in resisting temptation. Yet you feel false guilt.
The other side of the coin is shame. Shame is often more difficult to deal with. When you do things, right or wrong, the attribute of “rightness” or “wrongness” is outside of our self. Not so with shame. Shame is about who we are. Shame is what makes us feel as though we are unaccepted, not good enough, unintelligent, unworthy of love or respect, etc.
This can be very serious. After all, it is far easier to change what we do than it is to alter who we are. And while guilt can be described as “true” or “false,” it seems that shame is always false. I say that, of course, coming at this from a Christian world-view. From that point of view, we are never unacceptable, never unworthy. God loves each and every one of us.
Sure, shame may seem real from the naturalistic world-view or from the human perspective. Mainly because we may be unaccepted or unworthy according to the standards of fallen Man. From that standpoint, shame seems like a true thing. We are unaccepted. But not by the One who matters most. Not by God. From where God sits, all shame is false shame.
Have you ever felt false guilt or shame?
Grace, love and peace.