Because they are not the same, they call for different responses.
Recently I was talking with a friend with professional training in psychology. We were discussing guilt and shame. My friend pointed out to me that although guilt can slide into shame, they are not the same thing. It is important to our well-being that we stay aware of the distinction.
One of the best expressions of the distinction is found in a book by Merle Fossum and Marilyn Mason, titled Facing Shame: Families in Recovery. They write: While guilt is a painful feeling of regret and responsibility for one’s actions, shame is a painful feeling about oneself as a person.* My friend put it more succinctly for me. He said: Guilt is feeling bad about something I have done; shame is feeling bad about who I am.
I find this distinction very illuminating. I have been one who has tended to confuse guilt and shame by assuming they were variations of the same emotion.
When we feel guilty, my friend went on, we feel that in our behavior we have violated a value that we ought to have respected. That value may have been set by our society and culture. Or the violation may have been against our own internal values. But the key point is our violation comes through our behavior.
As an example, let us say we tell a lie. We feel bad about our doing so. We believe we should honor the truth, but we have violated that value by telling a lie. We feel guilty.
In shame, however, we feel bad about what we are or who we are. We feel bad about our very being. I am bad, not just in my actions, but in the very core of my being. As a result, we can feel our very right to exist or to belong is called into question.
To continue my example of telling a lie, shame tells us that when we told our lie, we became a liar. That defines who we are. We are wicked in our very being. We are no longer worthy of being loved, accepted, or belonging.
Shame’s Bitter Fruit
The emotional consequences are, therefore, often much more substantial. On the one hand, shame can trigger low self-esteem that moves into acute depression. On the other, it can trigger violent rage, especially when the shame has been induced by a real or perceived act of humiliation.
Recently I was reading a news feature in a Sunday edition of The Washington Post.** It told the stories of six angry men who had participated in the white supremacist march on Charlottesville on August 12. It explored the long roads they had traveled in developing the hate they now espouse.
Each man’s story—and his road into hate—was different. But I noticed that they all shared one factor in common. All felt alienated from the wider society. And often that feeling of alienation had come to a head through experiences when they felt they had been bullied, sneered at, or humiliated.
In humiliation, someone in effect tells us that we are so bad we cannot be loved. That violation of our sense of goodness then bears toxic fruit: anger and rage. I know from my own experiences of being humiliated by others. If, however, we believe their negative assessment of our value, the violation can trigger deep depression. We are trapped in shame.
The Shamed Person’s Greatest Need
It seems to me then that if guilt and shame are very different, they may require different responses, especially if you are as I am a Christian pastor ministering to parishioners.
When dealing with guilt, I think we have an effective tool in the hallowed Christian practice of confession and absolution. A person acknowledges how he or she has violated a norm by his or her behavior. As a pastor, counselor, or friend provides some form of absolution, the penitent is set free to go back to daily life, freed from the emotional burden guilt brings.
The penitent may fall into the same negative behavior again, but the absolution assures the penitent that he or she can seek to do better the next time they are tempted to engage in the same negative behavior.
But I am not sure that the traditional tool of confession and absolution is the best response for healing shame. For shame is about more than just what one has done. It is about one’s very being. One feels contempt about one’s very being alive. That contempt may have been imposed by someone else or by one’s own self. And because we are not good in our being, we believe that we can never do anything better when we confront the same temptation to engage in negative behavior.
In dealing with shame, we have to assure someone that it is OK to be who they are, to be the unique creation of God that they are. We have to convey to them that they are of value; in short, that they are loved. They may have done wrong, but that does not mean they are rubbish just because they exist. Conveying that healing message may not be an instantaneous thing. It may require slow and patient work.
Jesus, Guilt, and Shame
Because of the insight that my friend gave me into the difference between guilt and shame, I find myself looking at several gospel stories in a new light.
In Mark 2:1-12, for example, we read the story of Jesus preaching in a house in Capernaum. Because of the large crowd surrounding Jesus, a group of men cannot bring their paralyzed friend close enough to Jesus for him to heal him. So they remove the roof above him and lower their friend on a stretcher.
Jesus heals the man, but before releasing the paralysis, he forgives the man of his sins. The story suggests that the paralysis is in some way tied to a sense of guilt that the man has because of some wrong he has done. Absolution of his wrong behavior sets the man free. As a result he regains his mobility. I see this story as one purely about guilt and its effective release. We encounter no sense that shaming has played any role in the paralyzed man’s plight.
It’s another matter, however, in the story we find in John 7:53-8-11. Here we have again a story about someone who has done wrong, in this case, a woman caught in adultery. Some scribes and Pharisees drag her out in public and place her before Jesus, demanding what Jesus thinks should be done with the woman. Should she be stoned to death as the Law of Moses requires?
Their actions are a public act of shaming for the woman, presumably in front of a crowd consisting only of men. She may not have been literally naked, but she must have felt emotionally as if she were. She would then not only have been terrified for her life, but also feeling deeply shamed.
Such acts of public shaming have often happened in the history of the church. It was a common practice in the early church for notorious sinners to be brought before the bishop and condemned publicly in front of the assembled congregation.
They would then be barred from participation in the Eucharist for a specified period of time. They might also be required to follow a particular program of penances. But whatever the specific requirements, the effect was to bring them into shame in front of the community.
The Catholic practice of private confession was introduced in the early Middle Ages in an effort to provide a more compassionate way of dealing with sin. It made the confession of sin and absolution a private affair between the penitent and the priest, not in front of the whole assembled congregation.***
In effect, Jesus forgives the act of sin when he tells the woman to “go, and do not sin again.” But what is going on in this story is a more powerful response on the part of Jesus to the public shaming of the woman. When he tells the crowd, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her,” he addresses their shaming ploy head on.
It works. Each man in the crowd slinks away, so that Jesus is left alone with the woman. He then says to her, “Neither do I condemn you: go and do not sin again.” The woman’s dignity as a human being has been affirmed. She is set free again to be, to be who she is as a child of God.
The Father’s Response to the Prodigal Son’s Shame
Finally, it seems to me that we watch an amazing example of the healing of shame as we read the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32. Here a man’s younger son demands his inheritance which he then squanders in a foreign land. He is reduced to poverty, but also disgraced by his circumstances. He as a Jew is reduced to feeding pigs.
It induces a profound sense of shame. As a result, he resolves to return home, but not to request to be re-installed in the family. Just to be enlisted among his father’s hired servants. He feels he no longer deserves to be regarded as a son. Instead he deserves to be an outsider to the family, and so he confesses as he meets his father.
But amazingly the father does not condemn his son for his failures nor consign him to servanthood. Instead, full of compassion, he runs to his son, embraces him, and kisses him. He dresses him in fine garments, and throws a banquet for him. The son is re-installed as a son.
The rationale the father gives is: …let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.
The response of the father to the son’s profound sense of shame is to communicate as strongly as he can that his son is loved. He is still his son, and always has been, despite his disgraceful behavior. What is most important to the father is not the forgiving of his son’s guilt, but the healing of his son’s shame.
I find these gospel stories so powerful because they suggest that expressions of forgiveness alone may not be enough when we are dealing with deep-seated shame. Healing shame requires something more. We need to know that we are loved.
This adds a whole new layer of meaning for me to what the apostle Paul says in Romans 5:8: …God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. God loves us even before we repent of any wrong we have done. That, I believe, is the key to the healing power of the gospel.
* Fossum, Merle A and Mason, Marilyn J. Facing Shame: Families in Recovery. W.W. Norton, 1986. I actually encountered this quotation in the article on Shame in Wikipedia.
** McCoy, Terrence, Six angry men and their long roads to hate, The Washington Post, August 20, 2017. Front page.
*** Historians attribute the introduction of private confession into the church to the influence of Celtic Christians and their practice of anamchara (soul friendship), a practice in which spiritual friends mutually confessed their sins to each other and received absolution.