Guilt and Shame are NOT Synonyms   Leave a comment

For 15 years, I worked as an administrator in a social work setting. I was not a social worker, I was a paper-pusher who helped social workers. We had a lot of great conversations about my faith and their take on faith in general.

Christians, I upheld our “brand” well. They (mostly) came to understand that I am sane and reasonable. Over the years, some of them would come to me to ask if I thought a client’s religious beliefs were pathological religiosity or true faith. My coworkers came to understand that they lacked the knowledge to truly evaluate that distinction.

One subject we might have discussed a couple of hundred times was the difference between guilt and shame and their place in the Christian self-analysis.

Shame and guilt are words used synonymously in our society, but they really aren’t the same work. You can figure that out by looking at their opposite.

  • Guilt’s opposite is innocence or moral purity.
  • Shame’s opposite is honor and glory

Hosea 4:7 – “I will change their glory into shame”.

Philippians 3:19 – “They glory in their shame.”

Both shame and guilt include falling short of some standard, which is subjectively experienced as feeling unacceptable and wrong or bad. Guilt is violating a rule, law or commandment. It fits solidly into a moral or legal framework. But shame is more difficult to define.

We can feel shame and guilt at the same time. If I tell a lie, I am guilty of lying. I may also feel guilty for telling the lie because I know that lying is wrong. I might also feel shame because I thought I was a strong enough person to tell the truth.

Shame and guilt may also diverge from one another. I may admit that I broke a rule or a law (and hence by guilty), but I may not feel shame for what I have done. For example, when I speed, I am  guilty of a traffic infraction, but if I am on the Parks Highway at midnight on a clear summer’s night, I’m not risking anyone’s life, so I don’t feel shame.

Conversely, people shame for things that are morally irrelevant. For example, many people feel shame about their bodies. Body issues are morally neutral and yet we can experience extreme and painful shame over them. I am personally ashamed of my singing voice because it is awful, but I’ve broken no law or moral rule when I belt out a tune on the hiking trail. Although I am not guilty of violating a moral or legal standard, I feel shame.

The third relationship between guilt and shame is in opposition to each other. We can feel shame for doing the right thing or sense a certain glory in doing the wrong thing. The Bible warns Christians not to be ashamed of Christ. We usually don’t recognize the psychological implications of this. Believing and being identified with Jesus Christ is the most morally right thing we can do, yet we can feel ashamed for doing it.

The fact that guilt and shame can function independently or in opposition to each other show that they point to two different system or standards of evaluation. Guilt and innocence deal with morals, rights and wrongs. Shame deals with models — our sense of what is heroic.



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