Guilt & Shame: What Is Their Role in the Life of the Believer?

Dr. Ken Boa was an invited guest speaker at GraceLife Church in Pineville, NC (near Charlotte), on May 9, 2018, where he spoke on “Guilt and Shame: What Role Do They Play in the Life of the Believer?” The talk was a part of the church’s In Question series, of which Ken has been a frequent speaker. The discussion, moderated by Michael Stewart, included questions from the audience.

Prefer reading? Read an edited excerpt of the transcript below.
Recordings from other In Question talks with Ken are here in audio format.


Edited Transcript (Excerpt)

Stewart (MS): What’s the difference between guilt and shame?

Ken Boa (KB): Shame is often associated with an Eastern orientation (as in, a shame-based culture, where “saving face” is highly valued), whereas guilt is more often associated with a Western mindset. However, both play a role in every culture. Shame is typically more about being (one’s identity) while guilt is about doing (one’s actions) and the ownership of wrongdoing. Both can work in powerful ways in a person’s life, even in concert with each other, affecting the person on multiple levels.

MS: Guilt and shame creep into everyday life in ways we don’t always realize. In Curt Thompson’s book The Soul of Shame, he speaks of an example of a time when his wife said something to the effect, “You’re not going wear THAT, are you?” And immediately he went from the thought, “She thinks I’m too stupid to know how to dress myself,” to, “She thinks I’m stupid, period.” Thompson comments, “Who knew that shame could exploit a pair of Dockers?”1 What’s really going on in an instance like this?

KB: The meta-message, or message behind the message, becomes important. The presenting problem is almost never the actual root problem. This conversation, and the argument that it precipitated, was about more than clothes.2

“Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.” (Genesis 2:25)

“Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves. … But the Lord God called to the man, ‘Where are you?’ He answered, ‘I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.’” (Genesis 3:7, 9–10)

MS: We see the story of shame in the earliest chapters of Scripture; in describing the first couple, Genesis 2 focuses not on the fact that they’re full of joy, free of worry, intelligent, or free of defect, but on the fact that they were “naked and not ashamed.” What do you make of that?

KB: This is huge; it’s the very last verse before the Fall. Just a few verses later, after their disobedience, we see Adam and Eve hiding because of their nakedness, and God asking, “Who told you that you were naked?” (Genesis 3:10). This becomes a major motif from Genesis to Revelation—the idea of being naked and clothed. Now they tried to hide and cover themselves with fig leaves. But it was inadequate, as all our human mechanisms for hiding from God are. You can’t hide from omniscience.

The divine solution for Adam and Eve, the solution that worked, wasn’t fig leaves but the first sacrifice. God Himself offered that first sacrifice, using the skin of the animal to make them adequate clothing, thus pointing to the truth of Hebrews 9:22 (which runs throughout Scripture): “without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.”

Our attempts to cover ourselves and hide from God will always fall short. Only He can overcome both our shame and our guilt. And it’s important to note the presence of both of those, shame and guilt, in the Fall.

Our attempts to cover ourselves and hide from God will always fall short. … You can’t hide from omniscience. —Ken Boa

MS: Two other effects we see at the Fall are fear and blame. How are those related?

KB: Fear and blame are often present alongside shame and guilt. The Scripture says Adam and Eve were “afraid” (3:10), so they hid themselves. They were afraid of the encounter, of exposure—they know something awful had happened, that something had changed in their relationship with the living God. An inner darkness had come that they didn’t want to reveal. They went from close fellowship—walking with God in the cool of the Garden—to facing the consequence of their disobedience: they would “surely die.” (Death means separation, not annihilation, and separation or alienation from God is what first occurs here in Genesis 3. That first, vertical alienation resulted in three other alienations: from ourselves, from others, and from the created order.)

In addition to fear, there was blame. Notice the sequence: God speaks to the man, then the serpent, then to the woman, and then to the man again. And what does Adam say? He blames not only his wife but God: “the woman whom You gave to be with me” (3:12; italics added).

Audience Question: How do we, especially those from traditional church backgrounds, avoid shaming one another, including those who do not look or act like us?

KB: The ultimate exemplar is always our Lord. Jesus found common ground without compromise. He was accused of being a “friend of sinners.” He hung around with the dregs of society—the publicans, the tax collectors, and the prostitutes. Jesus often approached the last, the least, and the lost—the people who would almost be an embarrassment to know. He frequently used a Samaritan (as the “good guy”) in His parables. He would touch lepers without Himself being contaminated.

The woman at the well in John 4 is a prime example. For Jesus to even speak to her was anathema on three levels: as a rabbi, he was not supposed to speak to a woman in public; more than that, she was a Samaritan woman (Samaritans and Jews were enemies); and third, she was not just a Samaritan woman, but she was a woman of ill repute even among her own people.

By the same token, we’re called to extend grace, to be welcoming even if we don’t agree with a person’s behavior or beliefs. We’re to be winsome, defined more by what we’re for than by what we’re against. (This is in contrast to how the media often paints Christians.)

MS: The Scriptures teach us that we have incurred Adam’s guilt. A common objection is, “How is that fair? Why am I guilty for someone else’s sin?”

KB: The same principle that condemns us—imputed sin or guilt (put into our account)—is the same principle that God uses to save us (imputed righteousness, put into our account by Christ). The apostle Paul said it this way, “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned … much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:12, 15). Although we have the imputed guilt of Adam, Jesus on the cross achieved a double imputation for our benefit: He imputed our guilt to Himself and His righteousness to us. It’s a mystery too great for any human to think up; only God Himself could’ve dreamed up this solution!

The bottom line is this, if God were fair, we’d all be condemned. Justice means getting what we deserve. You don’t want to ask for that; you want to ask for grace, which is better than what we deserve.

MS: To what extent is sin a biological problem, passed down from generation to generation?

KB: It’s no accident that our Savior entered the world by a virgin birth. This was the only solution to the awful dilemma of imputed guilt. There are generational curses in the sense that abhorrent behaviors can be passed along within families; as with all sin, the breaking of its curse can happen only through the new birth.

It’s important to remember, though, that we’re all victims and we’re all agents. We’re not only a victim of others’ sin; we also commit sin ourselves. What we now observe in the world is the consequence, the blast, of the Fall; there’s a distortion being carried on from generation to generation. And the only way of overcoming it is by Jesus Himself.

Audience Question: Can it ever be good to feel guilt and shame?

KB: It’s good to feel guilt and shame only insofar as it drives us to Jesus. We don’t want to be like those in the song “Gee, Officer Krupke” from West Side Story: “I’m depraved on account I’m deprived!” We’re not only victims but also agents, and we should admit our guilt, acknowledging our spiritual poverty before God. That kind of guilt is good. But if you wallow in it, that’s not healthy. The new identity God gives us in Christ overcomes the shame. The forgiveness of sin overcomes the guilt of sin.

Audience Question: How can we move forward free of guilt and shame when we’ve committed a “great sin,” especially one that hurt someone else deeply (such as infidelity)?

KB: It’s a process, not an event. If you’ve acknowledged yourself as an agent of destruction in another’s life, you can now beat yourself up so much that you can have a higher standard of forgiveness than God Himself provides. God forgives you, but now you can’t forgive yourself. This narrative keeps oppressing you. Like grief, forgiveness of oneself and of others is a process. And the intensity and duration is directly proportionate to the awfulness of the experience.

Like grief, forgiveness of oneself and of others is a process.

Remember, too, we can only do what’s within our own control. If you’ve done wrong, acknowledge it. If the other person refuses to forgive, that is not your problem. “If possible, so far as it depends on you,” Paul wrote, “be at peace with all men” (Romans 12:18). Once you have acknowledged guilt and asked forgiveness, it’s unproductive and unbiblical to wallow in shame and guilt, regardless of how the offended party has responded.

MS: What should a person do who can’t shake a lingering feeling of shame or guilt, even after taking steps toward confession and forgiveness?

KB: Community is important. We come to faith as individuals, but we grow in community. Other people are never the source of our significance, security, and satisfaction, but they are often a means God uses to mete out His grace and forgiveness in our lives. It’s important to have somebody with whom you can be brutally honest. Naming a sin, and confessing it to another, causes it to lose sway.

Dr. Curt Thompson, in his book The Soul of Shame, points out that this act of moving toward others when we feel ashamed is counterintuitive. But for those who are in Christ, the narrative of guilt and shame is a false narrative; it loses its power when we embed ourselves in God’s story—the grand, true narrative—that we know began well and will end well.

The One who knows you best loves you most. —Ken Boa

Remember, the One who knows you best loves you most. It’s impossible to grasp this kind of love. It’s not something we can merit or achieve, and it’s beyond our understanding. The love of God is causeless, ceaseless, and measureless. He chose to love us. As His image-bearers, we each have tremendous value, and that dignity in Christ is what enables us to overcome the estrangement—from God, ourselves, and others—wrought by our guilt and shame.

Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.
(Hebrews 10:22 NIV)

Footnotes

  1. Curt Thompson, Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 49.
  2. By the same token, we need to avoid overanalyzing. Not every message has a deeper meaning beyond the surface. It’s like the two psychiatrists who encounter each other on the sidewalk; one says to the other one, “Good morning,” and the other walks away, wondering to himself, “I wonder what he meant by that?” So we can overanalyze others’ comments, too.