Guilt and shame are often linked, but they aren’t the same. We often treat them like they are and this can weaken our relationships. It’s helpful to see that guilt is linked to what we have done or said, while shame is about how we think others see us. Shame is feeling unaccepted and like we don’t belong. Without overcoming shame we will always feel like we don’t deserve good relationships.
When I became a Christian I was told about the cross. Or should I say, the main interpretation of the cross for many denominations (in the west), namely that Jesus took the punishment we should receive because we have broken God’s law. Jesus became sin for us and has taken away our guilt.
Despite what I thought about myself, despite the insecurities, despite the self loathing, God would be there and never leave
This is true and important and biblical. This is something we all need to hear. But for me, looking back, the thing that really made an impact on me personally, was hearing about a God who loved me. There was a God who wouldn’t leave me no matter what happens.
Despite what I thought about myself, despite the insecurities, despite the self-loathing, God would be there and never leave. He knew me better than I knew myself and said: you’re part of the family.
This truth reverses the shame, which is different from dealing with the guilt.
Forgiveness Counters Guilt
Guilt is about doing, saying or thinking something wrong. It’s about breaking a rule or law. If we steal someone’s phone, whether we feel guilty or not, we are guilty. We have committed a crime. Guilt and feeling guilty is about the individual. ‘I’ have done something wrong.
A great thing about the Christian faith is that God says we are forgiven
A great thing about the Christian faith is that God says we are forgiven, we don’t need to be bound by punishment because we have a saviour who died for us. It’s an amazing truth.
Shame however, is better understood in relational terms.
Relationship Counters Shame
Shame is to do with feeling unwanted by others, feeling like we don’t belong. This may be because we have broken laws and feel guilty, or because we have insecurities and low self-esteem. But shame happens when we experience unworthiness and rejection in relationships, or think people will treat us in this way.
Shame is about believing we don’t deserve good relationships because we think that when people see us, they see all of the bad things, and we don’t deserve to be accepted.
Shame is reversed when other people continue to allow us to belong and relate in community
We wonder: will my friends, family, church family, see me with all of my flaws, mistakes, imperfections, and still say I can still belong? Am I still accepted no matter what? We may need to apologise for mistakes, we may disappoint them, we may feel like we don’t deserve to belong. Nevertheless, are still able to build relationships with them?
Shame is reversed when other people continue to allow us to belong and relate in community. (Read What I Wish I Had Been Taught About Love.)
We all struggle with shame to some extent. We believe we don’t look as good as our friends or the people we see in adverts. We aren’t as funny or clever as the person we work with. We clearly don’t love God as much as those other ‘super’ Christians. So we feel ashamed and undeserving.
Jesus Counters Shame and Guilt
So many people, even Christians in church, struggle to believe that there is no need for shame with Jesus. Yes there is a need for repentance, for learning to grow and do things differently, for learning from mistakes and loving God and others more. Yet shame, separation, and total rejection isn’t part of the Gospel.
When Jesus met Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), an outsider, who stole money from his own people, Jesus still befriended him. Jesus ate with him and said a relationship can happen despite the mess.
Relationships become weak when we let shame have the last say
When the woman was caught in adultery (John 8:1-11), Jesus reminded everyone that they are all guilty and no one is perfect. By doing this, they realised they were all outsiders. We all need to remember we shouldn’t belong, but God says we can anyway.
Relationships become weak when we let shame have the last say. When we believe we don’t deserve love or acceptance. When our insecurities and shortcomings have the last say. (Read After Your Arguments, You Don’t Walk Out).
Guilt needs to be dealt with. We do need to say sorry and ask God to help change us and change the way we relate to others. His cross deals with our mistakes and it also brings us into a family where we always belong despite our mistakes (Galatians 3:23-4:7)
Imagine if we didn’t let shame win, and reminded our friends, family, church family, spouses, girlfriends and boyfriends, that they belong, are accepted and wanted. The next time someone does something, or comes into our church and looks isolated and/or unconfident, we need to talk to them and let them know they can belong.
What do you think the link between guilt and shame is? Comments welcomed below.