Shame is more pathological than guilt—here’s why, and why it matters

shame vs guilt pathologyShame is more pathological socially

I was stunned. In my learning journey about honor and shame I knew I had to read extensively. And as I got into the first chapter in the book by Tangney and Dearing, Shame and Guilt, I was not prepared to discover this stunning truth:[1]

Guilt is about what behavior; it’s about what I’ve done.

But shame is about being; it’s about who I am.

Consider, for example, this sentence: I did that horrible thing.

The guilt-prone person says, “I did that horrible thing.” My behavior was bad.

But shame is different. The shame-prone person says, “I did that horrible thing.” The emphasis is not on my behavior, but on my core identity—hence, I am bad. Tangney called this “global devaluation”[2]—the idea is that one’s whole identity is corrupt, not just one’s behavior.

Tangney and Dearing unpack the significance of this in society. It’s based on more than 40 years of university research. Over and over again, the research points to this fact:

Guilt is more likely to lead to healing behavior.

But shame is more likely to lead to hurtful behavior.

With guilt, there is a “desire to confess, apologize, or repair”. But with shame, there is a “desire to hide, escape, or strike back”.[3] This is what the research showed—forty-plus years of research, again and again.

Here’s how Tangney and Dearing describe  the difference.

The tension, remorse, and regret of guilt causes us to stop and rethink, and it offers a way out, pressing us to confess, apologize, and make amends. We become better people, and the world becomes a better place.

In contrast, shame appears to be the less “moral” emotion in several important regards. When people feel ashamed of themselves, they are not particularly motivated to apologize and attempt to repair the situation. This is not an emotion that leads people to responsibly own up to their failures, mistakes, or transgressions and make things right. Instead, they are inclined to engage in all sorts of defensive maneuvers. They may withdraw and avoid the people around them. They may deny responsibility and blame others for the shame-eliciting situation. They may become downright hostile and angry at a world that has made them feel so small. In short, shamed individuals are inclined to assume a defensive posture rather than take a constructive, reparative stance in their relationships.[4]

Shame is more pathological spiritually

From a theological and spiritual perspective, we believe as Christians that our guilt and condemnation before God as sinners is a vitally serious matter (John 3:18). Thus, we offer the gospel of Jesus Christ—forgiveness of our sins and hope of eternal life—as a cure for humanity’s condition of sin and guilt.

But the Bible says much more about sin. Sin is a more expansive and more personal problem than being guilty of breaking God’s laws. Consider just three verses in Romans 1,  2, and 3:

For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened (Rom 1:21).

Here in Romans 1, sin is not defined as breaking God’s laws, but as dishonoring God’s Person. Therefore, sin is not abstract; it is a personal problem. Consider also …

You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law (Rom 2:23).

In this Romans 2 passage, Paul is addressing Jews and says that, yes, sin is “breaking the law”. But Paul amplifies the seriousness of sin by saying that in breaking the law, they “dishonor God”. God’s people were dishonoring God’s Majesty. Sin is disregarding God’s royal Kingship and regal authority. In an ultimate sense, we can rightly say that sin is shame.

One more verse—it’s one that many Christians are familiar with.

for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23)

Once again, sin is not defined as breaking God’s laws, but as something more expansive, personal, serious: falling short of God’s glory.

Here’s why this matters

Of course, humanity’s guilt before God is real. But the shamefulness of sin—its dishonor toward God—makes sin worse than we think. It’s not merely a violation of a divine moral code. Sin dishonors the One who is God Most High over all the universe, the holy King of all creation—the very Person who made us to enjoy him and live for his glory.

Moreover, when we consider the fact that shame is more pathological than guilt in society—that is, shame produces more harm, more pain, more moral disease, more violence, more fractured families, more international conflict, more bloodshed—we are left with a compelling need:

Since shame is more pathological than guilt—both socially and spiritually—we must learn to communicate the gospel of Christ as more than a cure for sin-and-guilt, but also as a cure for sin-and-shame.

Yes, the atonement of Jesus Christ is the solution to the problem of guilt and condemnation from God. But what if the atonement was also the covering of our shame and the restoration of our honor before God?{5]

Wouldn’t this be more attractive for persons and peoples who are saturated by the cultural value of honor and shame—including multitudes in the Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim worlds?

Wouldn’t this be a more global gospel?

 This blog post is excerpted in part from my book, THE GLOBAL GOSPEL: Achieving Missional Impact in Our Multicultural World.

1. June Tangney and Ronda Dearing, Shame and Guilt (New York: Guilford Press, 2002), 25.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid., p. 180.
5. How the atonement of Christ overlaps with ten different honor/shame dynamics is the subject of Section 3 of my book, The Global Gospel.

Leave a Reply