Friday, September 20, 2013

Guilt And Shame

I’ve been reading a lot recently about guilt and shame. Most of what I’ve been reading relates to societies in general and how one society might be “guilt based” and another “shame based.” Many of these articles sought to use these terms to describe the difference between Western societies (generally, “guilt based”), and Eastern societies (especially Islamic, which are more “shame based).
Here’s a quote taken from the TorahBytes blog:
Guilt is the result of breaking a clearly defined law or rule. Guilt is usually accompanied by a fear of punishment at the hands of an authority of some kind. Taking a cookie when your mom or dad told you not to may result in guilt. A judge determines guilt based on whether or not you have broken the law. A person is either guilty or not. If found guilty, then a sentence of some kind would be given.
Shame is not so straightforward. Shame often comes from a deep internal sense of having done something unacceptable due to a sense of failure to measure up to certain standards or expectations. Guilt may be included, especially if a rule or law is broken, but not all rules carry the same level of shame and a rule doesn't need to be broken to experience shame. Shame is present when there is a perception that our behavior is such that we don't deserve to be accepted by those with whom we have relationship. That relationship could be family, friends, community group, work place, school, and so on. Shame often leads to a desire to hide from others. Embarrassment often comes from a sense of shame. (
What I’m about to describe is woefully general in nature, but I think it will give you some sense of what guilt and shame do to us, and how they are handled.
Guilt is essentially a law-based problem. One breaks a law and is judged to be guilty. Punishment of some kind follows guilt, and is also determined by law. When a person is guilty, the problem is resolved, as far as society is concerned, by the exercise of punishment. Thus in the United States, for example, under our legal system one is considered innocent until proven guilty. Once guilt is determined, punishment is determined. It might require serving time in jail, or payment of a fine, both, or even serving house arrest or performing a certain number of hours doing community service. Once the punishment has been met, the guilty person can pretty much move on (this is not completely true, but it is generally true).
Shame is something altogether different. A guilty person may or may not feel any sense of shame, and a shamed person, though also guilty, may take a much longer time to recover and move on, even though legally the guilt has been dealt with by punishment. Shame is more related to the relationship we have with others. It is almost always experienced more intensely, more emotionally than is guilt.
In guilt-based societies, once the punishment has been satisfied, people tend to move on and recover. When they don’t, it’s usually because there’s also an element of shame involved. But in shame-based societies, there is really only one way to recover, and that is to have one’s “honor” restored. Shame destroys one’s personal honor. Shame simply kicks a person down, and causes others to look down on them, think less of them, trust them less, and consider them “unworthy.”
Interestingly, these concepts show up when trying to reach people with the gospel of Jesus, or to teach them biblical truths. Western societies are almost totally consumed with guilt. So to us, we want a Jesus who “pardons” our sins, removes our “guilt”, and “redeems us” in the sense of freeing us from the guilt and consequence of our sins.  Eastern societies are often puzzled by this because they operate on a “shame-based” concept. They need to hear that Jesus takes away their shame, restores their honor, and elevates them once again to a respected, honorable state of life. If you’re a Westerner, that last part won’t resonate with you as much as what I said about guilt.
Here’s a great exercise, especially for those who use a computerized Bible study program. Run a quick concordance search for the words, “shame” and “ashamed”. Go spend the several minutes it will take to read all the verses. You’ll likely be quite surprised at how much the Bible says about shame, and it’s connection to sin and our standing with God.
Do the same thing with the words, “guilt” and “guilty”. Spend the minutes it takes to read those passages too. The result is quite interesting. Westerners weren’t altogether wrong after all. “Guilt” and “guilty” are words frequently associated with sinners and people whose relationship with God is amiss.
I suggest that there is something here we must learn. It’s not a one or the other thing. It’s not the case that we should choose guilt over shame, or shame over guilt. The Bible teaches that sinners who disobey God are both guilty and shamed.
Here’s the good news. Jesus takes care of both problems. Sinners are guilty of violating God’s law. Jesus redeemed us by paying the price of forgiveness. But sinners are also shamed by their sin, but Jesus restores us to honor by removing the very cause of our shame and making something out of us we could never be on our own.
We need to deal with these issues of guilt and shame because in real life, they are often found together. Guilty people are shamed by their sins. It is here that preachers often fail people the most. If we preach a message that emphasizes the removal of guilt, we leave people knowing that Jesus died for their sins, but they may live out their lives burdened by shame. Or they may have only a vague sense that God forgives in some legal sense, but they never leave their life of sin because shame isn’t significant to them. Either way, we leave them with only part of the good news. The whole good news is that Jesus removes our guilt, and covers our shame. We need to explore this more!
I think Ezra had it right:
and I said, “O my God, I am ashamed and embarrassed to lift up my face to You, my God, for our iniquities have risen above our heads and our guilt has grown even to the heavens. — Ezra 9:6 (NASB95)
So did Paul have it right:
11 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, 12 instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age, 13 looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus, 14 who gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds.  — Titus 2:11–14 (NASB95)

Jesus will remove both your guilt and your shame. Now that’s some good news.