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Guilt vs. Shame: Why Definitions Matter

Last Updated: October 28, 2020

Luke Gilkerson

Luke Gilkerson has a BA in Philosophy and Religious Studies and an MA in Religion. He is the author of Coming Clean: Overcoming Lust Through Biblical Accountability and The Talk: 7 Lessons to Introduce Your Child to Biblical Sexuality. Luke and his wife Trisha blog at IntoxicatedOnLife.com

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
  • Comments on: Guilt vs. Shame: Why Definitions Matter
    1. Mark Murphy on

      A very helpful post, Luke. For some time I have been dissatisfied with the popular definitions of guilt and shame in the recovery community. Thanks for pointing to a sound, biblical understanding of these useful terms.

      Reply
      • Luke Gilkerson on

        Thanks, Mark. I think it is so important to be accurate about this, especially because guilt and shame are experiences that are so close to the heart of the cross. If we preach that Jesus took our shame and guilt, we need to know exactly what it is that he took. This is vital.

    2. Rose on

      Thank you! Recently, I was discussing the idea of shame and guilt with a fellow Christian. The other person felt that guilt and shame were biblically the same thing and that both were negative because of Christ’s redeeming grace. Your blog gives another helpful perspective.
      Please keep writing…blessings!

      Reply
      • Luke Gilkerson on

        Thanks, Rose. Yes, it is clear from the Bible that shame and guilt are meant to be vehicles to move us toward grace. Persistent guilt and shame, despite belief in the gospel and repentance, is not healthy, but guilt and shame in an of themselves are necessary in a world full of sin.

        It is like the pain we feel when we touch a hot stove: The pain itself is a signal to move your hand, and is therefore a good thing. But the pain is also, in a sense, not the ideal. We weren’t meant to live in a world of pain and sin. We are destined for a world without pain. But in the meantime, pain is a necessary defense mechanism against hurting ourselves more.

    3. Thomas Edward on

      Good definitions. Also we must recognized the context in which the definitions are being used especially when working with believers who are survivors of sexual abuse. Although many have what I term a ” false guilt” the shame from how others view them and their perception is very real and often played out in congregations as survivors are unconsciously relegated to a status of second class Christian because of the abuse. Just sharing my experience and the reality of what often can take place. Treated and abandoned like criminals and reaping the effects although not really guilty and have nothing to be ashamed.
      Thank you.

      Reply
      • Luke Gilkerson on

        Right. Just as there is shame vs. guilt, there is also healthy shame vs. false shame. It is right to feel shameful about an offense committed, because it pushes us toward reconciliation. It is not good to feel shame about an evil done to you as if you are the criminal.

    4. Shae on

      This really hits home for me! Thanks for this insightful post!

      Reply
    5. Manfried Mann on

      I am not a religious person. In fact I only made that decision in prison when all the people around me were turning to God. But I am very spiritual and I also think that you have hit the nail on the head in this article. I hope more people see this and heed this before they have stepped over the line too much to be even bothered about guilt and shame. I am telling my story so that people do take notice.

      Reply
    6. Jennifer Navarro on

      Luke please expand the following thoughts: “We weren’t meant to live in a world of pain and sin. We are destined to a world without pain.” The question I want to ask: If this is the case, why is it that our Lord Jesus Christ suffered, died on this our earth, and that He has spoken, “My Kingdom is not of this world”. Please expand the meaning of chasm: “Between the rich man and the beggar there is a chasm, one cannot cross.”

      Reply
      • Luke Gilkerson on

        Good questions, Jennifer.

        1. When I say we weren’t meant to live in a world of pain and sin, I am referring to our original design. We were created in a garden without the stain of sin, pain, death, or shame.

        2. When I say that we are destined to live in a world without pain, I am referring to the new world Jesus is going to recreate when he returns (Revelation 21-22). When Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world,” He is using the word “world” in the sense of “the world system” with all its sinful values. The word “world” (Greek kosmos) is used many different ways in the Bible, similar to how English words can have different definitions based on the context. Jesus’ kingdom is not built on the values of this world as we know it, but when He returns to renew the earth and resurrect the dead, this world will be fully transformed into His kingdom.

        3. I’m not sure what the chasm in Jesus’ parable has to do with this topic, but I’ll answer as best I can. The chasm is a gulf between those who go to place of rest at Abraham’s side and those who go to Hades. There is debate among theologians about the location of this place of rest.

    7. Paul deland on

      Yes. All yes’s!!. There is good guilt. Bad guilt. In my listening of myself & others there is good guilt and bad guilt.I could have done better., I chose not to. (Good guilt) No prior knowledge of choice, yet a bad thing happened. (Powerless bad guilt..i could not have stopped it)
      Shame is the same. Good shame and bad shame. Examples: Feeling ashamed in the eyes of Jesus is (bad shame)…..for he bestows mercy constantly God does not make junk”. Good shame……similar to guilt. I cheated on me. I went and done wrong on me, where I knew better!!

      Reply
    8. Mary Beth on

      I just finished the book, Daring Greatly, and the author makes the distinction , shame= I am a bad person, and guilt = I did a bad thing. If you believe in original sin, then both are true. If not, why would we need a crucified Christ?

      Reply
      • Luke Gilkerson on

        Exactly. That’s the point I’m making here. That definition of shame is not grounded much in Scripture.

    9. Barbara Rice on

      Wow you nailed it! It is the very truth of these things that move us to repentance and into a full relationship with God.

      Reply
    10. Lauren on

      Love this! Thank you!

      Reply
    11. Luisa Viglini on

      This is my experience: After gearing the Gospel and being invited to say the sinner’s prayer I was told I was a child of God hence ” saved”. However after attending a Bible believing and teaching church for about a year I would hear of how one’s life would change . I could not relate to the applications of what was considered ” victories ” To me sin was nothing but spilled milk and there was no crying over it. it was only after understanding that my anger had not been considered si when acted upon it that I realised that acknowledging anger and being ashamed of sinful outbursts
      was not the same. I also realised that there is a difference between conviction from the Holy Spirit is good because it exposes the dirt in the house and then the next step is that of gladly asking His help to clean it up and not dirty things up again as opposite to being under condemnation which worsens my condition by making me want to lie to myself some more as well as to others.
      When I realised that I had lied to myself and God about my anger problem I felt the kind of shame that drew me out of my self deceit to the light and hope of the Gospel. For this reason I do not understand how some people do not use shame to improve themselves when confrontations take place. Aren’t confrontations necessary to help us see what we are really like so we can own up to
      Our condition and through repentance for our self deceit, with God’s help, we can begin to put off
      I have a problem with someone who might want me to believe that they are saved and that I am responsible for forgiving their admitted immorality but who have never shown any display of shame
      both at the time of salvation nor anytime thereafter. Please help me sort this out!! I feel caught between a rock and a hard place on this issue and I am asking God to send me some help.
      Could it be you?!! – ( I gave sought help many times already from many sources but I am not satisfied ) Thank you!!!
      Their immorality ( which I should by God’s standards )
      and let us God show us what to put on?!!

      Reply
      • Chris McKenna on

        HI Luisa – it is difficult when we don’t see any remorse to know for sure. But, it’s not up to us to force people to feel a certain way. I often remember Romans 12:18, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” I do my part, which is to forgive (70×7 times if I have to), and then turn them over to God. It might have been shame that helped point you back to repentance and God, but how He might work in them, whether by shame or some other mechanism, is up to Him.

        Chris
        Covenant Eyes

    12. Kristin on

      Just what I needed to read. That quote at the end is priceless! Thank you for sharing…very helpful.

      Reply
    13. Timothy Dunson on

      We must also remember however how the enemy uses shame against us. He likes to focus on The Who much more so. I think the holy spirit’s job is to convict us when we have true guilt. Satan however uses shame to destroy our image of ourselves and ultimately our image of God that is his glory. Therefore destroying relationships between each other and with our God. As a practical and therefore a spiritual matter we are wise to focus on the forgiveness of our sins and the forgiver. It’s when Satan and our sin nature causes us to focus on our shame and therefore on ourselves and our value and our worth Scatta focusing on the goodness of God. One who has a thankful heart and an honest heart with God and others is one who lives with power and joy. It is important to understand the origins and functions of Shame and guilt it is just as important if not more important to understand the character of the god who sent his son pay for all of it and to free us from the bondage of Shame and guilt.

      Reply
    14. David Hugh on

      Thank you for this post, given the human tendency for avoiding guilt, (or shame), o think that it’s important for me to recognize appropriate guilt. Just like pain from a burn lets me know when something I’ve done might want to be avoided in the future.
      I was however concerned when I read the post on the link below… It seems to contain some truths, and I am having a tough time reconciling the two disparate views.
      Maybe I am just not understanding, or perhaps something else is amiss?
      I’d appreciate any insights you may have.

      https://healingfromgod.com/difference-between-conviction-guilt/

      Thanks again
      David

      Reply
      • David on

        David, the article you referenced has a wrong definition of guilt. Guilt is from God, not from Satan.
        Rom 3:19  Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. 
        Guilt is a legal term. It has to do with the relationship to the one wronged or offended.Paul tells us that God gave the law so we would know we had sinned. God gave us a conscience that causes us to realize our guilt before Him so that we would realize our sin and repent and turn to Him for forgiveness and reconciliation. All sin is ultimately against God. Our tendency, like Adam, is to blame others to try to get rid of the guilt, but that only brings more guilt. God says repent, confess and be cleansed of our sin. That is the only way to the true peace of God reigning in our hearts.
        Satan may bring “guilt feelings”, causing us to “feel guilty” when there is no true guilt, trying to keep us defeated and discouraged and hiding from God. But God, because of His great love, desires a relationship with us and sends the guilt to draw us back to Himself.

    15. Judy Granberg on

      Thank you. Am teaching a Bible class on this, and needed this differentiation from a Biblical perspective vs. the secular, so very helpful. Blessings.

      Reply

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