Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre accurately describes shame as “a hemorrhage of the soul,” that is, a painful, unexpected, and disorienting experience. It is often linked to some painful incident—sin that has been done to us rather than by us. Shame has the power to steal our breath and smother us with condemnation, rejection, and disgust.
Guilt, on the contrary, occurs due to sins actually committed. It is based on the concrete fact of the human condition: God made us and requires us to be perfect (Lev. 19:2; Matt. 5:48), but because of original sin, we have all broken his commands. We stand guilty because of something we have done.
Shame is a painfully confusing experience—a sort of mental and emotional disintegration that makes us acutely aware of our inadequacies and shortcomings, and is often associated with a shrinking feeling of failure. It can be simultaneously self-negating and self-absorbed: “All day long my disgrace is before me, and shame has covered my face” (Ps. 44:15).
Guilt results from the fact that we are sinners who cannot pay the moral debt incurred by our failure to keep God’s moral obligations, whether in thought, word, or deed. Because of guilt, most people seek grace. Yet because of the sin of others, they encounter the trauma of shame, a sense of isolation, and feelings of worthlessness.
Because these two are often tied together so intimately, it is difficult to separate them. The main difference between guilt and shame is the distinction between a judicial verdict that flows from behavior that is objectively wrong and the inner sense of unworthiness that is often rooted in trauma. One is fact; the other is a lie wearing the skin of truth. Both find their solution in Christ.
Guilt comes because we have violated God’s good and wise commands. Because of that violation, we deserve the subsequent rejection by God. However, God turned his wrath away from us and toward Christ on the cross. In the resurrection, God turns our eyes away from our sins and directs them to Christ. This means that the gospel is not just negatively stated—no more guilt, no more condemnation, no more wrath—but is also positively declared. In Christ, we are loved, accepted, innocent.
The Bible uses many emotionally charged words to describe shame: reproach, dishonor, humiliation, and disgrace. Additionally, there are three major images for shame in Scripture: nakedness, uncleanness or defilement, and being rejected or made an outcast. In the great exchange, Christ took on our nakedness and defilement as he was rejected and crucified like an outcast; and we were clothed in his righteousness, cleansed of all sins, and adopted into the family of God.
We can have assurance and confidence in relating to God. The foundation of these promises to us in the gospel—the certification and guarantee of them—is that the Son of God bore in his body all our punishment, guilt, condemnation, blame, fault, corruption, shame, nakedness, uncleanness, and rejection so all the benefits of his sacrifice and resurrection are given to us freely.
Adapted from Justin Holcomb, “The Difference between Shame and Guilt,” Modern Reformation, March/April 2017. Used by permission.
Justin Holcomb is an Episcopal minister (serving as the Canon for Vocations in the Diocese of Central Florida) and teaches theology at Gordon-Cowell-Theological Seminary and Reformed Theological Seminary. You can find Justin on Facebook, Twitter, and at justinholcomb.com.