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.
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.