Similarities and differences of shame and guilt, with implications for Christian ministry

While there are certainly similarities between shame and guilt, the differences are enormous. There are big implications for how we bless the peoples of our sin-sick world.

I’ve just begun reading Shame and Guilt, by June Price Tangney and Ronda L. Dearing. Shame researcher Brené Brown, Ph.D., says this book is the “most comprehensive review of the current research literature on shame and guilt.”

Here’s a summary. Below is a quote from Shame and Guilt, page 25:

Features shared by shame and guilt

  • Both fall into the class of “moral” emotions
  • Both are “self-conscious”, self-referential emotions
  • Both are negatively valanced emotions
  • Both involve internal attributions of one sort or another
  • Both are typically experienced in interpersonal conflicts
  • The negative events that give rise to shame and guilt are highly similar (frequently involving moral failures or transgressions).

Key dimensions on which shame and guilt differ

Focus of evaluation
  • SHAME: Global self:
 “I did that horrible thing”
  • GUILT: Specific behavior:
 “I did that horrible thing
Degree of distress
  • SMAME: Generally more painful than guilt
  • GUILT: Generally less painful than shame
Phenomenological experience
  • SHAME: Shrinking, feeling small, feeling worthless, powerless
  • GUILT: Tension, remorse, regret
Operation of “self”
  • SHAME: Self “split” into observing and observed “selves”
  • GUILT: Unified self intact
Impact on “self”
  • SHAME: Self impaired by global devaluation
  • GUILT: Self unimpaired by global devaluation
Concern vis-à-vis the “other”
  • SHAME: Concern for others’ evaluation of self
  • GUILT: Concern with one’s effect on others
Counterfactual processes
  • SHAME: Mentally undoing some aspect of self
  • GUILT: Mentally undoing some aspect of behavior
Motivational features
  • SHAME: Desire to hide, escape, or strike back
  • GUILT: Desire to confess, apologize, or repair

Here is a beginning reflection on the implications for Christian ministry:

Shame tells us: “I did that horrible thing”
, whereas guilt tells us:
 “I did that horrible thing.

Simply stated, shame is about who I am; guilt is about what I’ve done. It follows, as stated above, that shame is generally more painful than guilt.

Could it be that the cure for guilt is not nearly as urgent and transformative as the cure for shame? Could it be, that when we teach God’s Word with a focus on guilt—while ignoring the pathology of shame common to all of humanity, that we are, by default, withholding that which most deeply heals the human soul?

The data presented by Tangney and Dearing indicate that shame has far more pathological (negative and sick) effects on people than does guilt. Their research found that shame motivates people to “hide, escape, or strike back”. In striking contrast, guilt motivates people to “confess, apologize, or repair.

Simply stated, shame is more likely to lead to hurtful behavior, whereas guilt is more likely to lead to healing behavior.

Could it be that when we present the gospel of Jesus Christ solely as the cure for our guilt—and ignore the biblically-based truths and principles which address the problem of our shame—we are not just truncating the gospel, we are withholding the most crucial truths necessary for the transformation of the people of God?

Many mission and culture leaders recognize that Majority-World peoples have as their pivotal cultural value—honor and shame. Could it be that when Christians present the gospel of Christ to Majority-World peoples in a way that only addresses humanity’s guilt before God, that resistance to the message of Christ’s Gospel is actually appropriate?

“Appropriate resistance to the Gospel”? I know that sounds weird. But consider what it would be to have as your constant, every-day drama—the avoidance of, or cure for shame, along with the pursuit of honor. This is your very life and identity. Your life is moving in a deep, powerful river whose current is honor and shame.

Would not people living and moving in this river of honor and shame inherently know some things? Wouldn’t they instinctively get it—that the supposed Good News which only solves the problem of guilt—is not really deep enough, powerful enough, good enough—to rescue them from the deepest danger of their heart—that being the anxiety of shame?

Contrast this with the Good News which also solves the problem of shame! Imagine if the Atonement of Jesus Christ was not only presented as the solution to the problem of guilt, but also as—the covering of our shame and the restoration of our honor before God. See Luke 15:11–32. Wouldn’t this be more attractive? Wouldn’t this more likely be a treasure worth dying for?

Presenting the gospel of Christ in such a way that the message includes both the removal of our guilt and the covering of our shame is especially wisewhen sharing with people whose pivotal cultural value is honor and shame.

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.
(Matthew 13:44-46 ESV)

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