Guilt vs. Shame: Why Definitions Matter

Among counseling ministries and recovery groups it is popular to distinguish between guilt vs shame. Feelings of guilt and shame, they say, are distinct experiences, though often related. Here’s the popular distinction:

Guilt is feeling bad about what you do. Shame is feeling bad about who you are.

There are several reasons why I believe this popular distinction is incomplete and unhelpful.

Good Intentions

Making a distinction between guilt and shame is important because they are distinct terms.

Often the motivation behind this popular distinction is to invalidate a sense of hopelessness about our sin. “Yes, you have done wrong, and yes others have hurt you,” they say, “but you are not beyond hope. You can change.”

In other words, the popular definition of shame is aimed at helping us stop defining ourselves by our relationship to sin. You are not merely the sum of your worst habits. You are not the dirty person someone abused. You belong to Christ.

I agree 100%.

Better Definitions of Shame and Guilt

However, shame is broader than just our self-identity. It has to do with our relationships.

The very word, “shame,” carries a relational tone: it is a feeling of humiliation, disgrace, or embarrassment. Christian counselor David Powlison gives a much better understanding of guilt and shame:

Guilt is an awareness of failure against a standard. Shame is a sense of failure before the eyes of someone.

In other words, guilt is about disobedience to a law or code, but shame is how I perceive others see me (or how I see myself).

Guilt and Shame: True vs. False

Powlison goes on to define the difference between true and false guilt. If I know I should treat people with kindness and patience, and instead I am continually irritable and I lose my temper, I should feel guilt. This is true guilt.

But if I have four preschoolers at home and I believe photo teams from House Beautiful should be able to show up at any moment to a spotless house, I might feel guilty because my house looks like an EPA disaster site. Here is a case of false guilt because I’m failing to live up to an artificial standard.

There can also be both true and toxic shame. If I have sinned against God and offended Him, or if I have sinned against another and hurt my relationship with them, I should feel a sense of shame. Shame is a healthy heart-response to the fact of a torn relationship.

If, however, my sense of shame does not reflect reality, then there is a problem. If I have not actually done anything to incur someone’s disfavor, but I believe I have, this could lead to false shame. Or if I wrongly believe that my actions have led to an irreparable breach, then I might react to my sense of shame by hiding myself—much the same way Adam and Eve did in the garden after eating the forbidden fruit (Genesis 3:7-8).

Don’t Give Shame a Bad Name

The problem with the popular distinction between guilt and shame is that it gives the impression (intentionally or unintentionally) that shame is always or nearly always bad. This is not how the Bible speaks of shame.

Biblical authors often use the threat of potential disgrace or shame as a motivation for right behavior (Luke 14:9; Romans 1:24-26; 6:21; 1 Corinthians 11:6,14; 14:35; Ephesians 5:12).

Shame, in and of itself, is not a bad motivator. In fact, “shamelessness”—being so hard-hearted that one carouses in broad daylight—is a sign that something is seriously wrong  (Romans 1:27; 1 Corinthians 6:5; 11:6; Ephesians 5:12; Philippians 3:19; 1 Peter 3:16). An awareness of how our sins make others see us is a healthy quality. It is what Paul calls “walking properly” (Romans 13:13; 1 Corinthians 14:40; 1 Thessalonians 4:12), living in a manner of decency and seemliness, with an awareness that my actions impact those around me.

We do not sin in a vacuum, but rather our sin impacts our communities and thus impacts our place in those communities.

You are worse than you think you are.

When we say, “Shame is feeling bad about who you are,” often the implication is that there’s nothing actually wrong with who you are. This also flies in the face of Scripture, which not only labels our actions and attitudes as sinful, but labels us as sinners.

It is true that united to Christ, my identity and relationship to sin has changed. Paul said of his sinful habits, “I do the very thing I hate… It is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me” (Romans 7:15b,17, emphasis added). But this did not mean he drew a distinction between being and doing, for in the same breath he said, “Wretched man that I am!” (Romans 7:24).

The difference for Paul was this: the very sins that used to cause a sense of toxic guilt and shame no longer did, because Paul ruthlessly trusted in the sufficiency of Christ’s work on the cross. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). Why? Because “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (5:1).

In other words, when we tell people they shouldn’t feel bad about who they are, we limit the glory of the gospel. The truth is, Jesus didn’t come to save good people who do bad things. He came to save bad people who wanted nothing to do with God. As the late Jack Miller used to say, Cheer up! You’re a worse sinner than you ever dared imagine, and you’re more loved than you ever dared hope.”

Photo credit: 13975275@N00