Shame Is Underrated

July 4, 2019 Mario Villella Discipleship

It seems to me that lately I've heard a lot of gobbledygook from Christians about the topic of "guilt and shame" and I wanted to write an article to help us makes sense of these things.

We live in a time and in a culture that is pretty much anti-shame. It seems that people think that it is mostly wrong to shame anyone for anything that they do, and we often counsel people who are ashamed to get over it and not feel ashamed anymore. You should pretty much never be ashamed, because shame is always and only bad.

And this kind of thinking has found its way into the Christian church. I've recently heard Christians talking in these same ways. Some people may even declare that there is never an appropriate occasion for the emotion of shame. For instance, this week I came across a post from a Christian blogger that begins with these words: "Shame has been around for a long time. We're familiar with it. But that doesn't make it good. Shame is never good for any reason. Shame is bad."

Ok, got it. Couldn't be more clear. Shame is bad. Always bad.

On another occasion, I heard a pastor doing a teaching on guilt and shame where he defined these two words this way:

Guilt: I did a bad thing
Shame: I am a bad person.

And then the pastor added, "one of those is from God and the other is not." As he went on, you could tell that he believed that the thing that he was calling "guilt" was the thing from God, but that "shame" well… that was the bad thing that was not from God.

My question is, how do we reconcile that with Bible verses like these?
"Were they ashamed when they acted so abhorrently? They weren't at all ashamed. They can no longer feel humiliation. Therefore, they will fall among the fallen." ~ Jeremiah 6:15
"And if anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take note of that person; don't associate with him, so that he may be ashamed." ~ 2 Thessalonians 3:14
The verse from Jeremiah seems to indicate that a lack of shame is bad for people, and the other verse (from the Apostle Paul) specifically instructs a group of people to shame someone. How can this be?

Well, part of the problem might be related to the definitions of words. There may be more to it than just that, but let me start there. So, firstly, I do not agree that the difference between guilt and shame is that one is about bad actions and one is about bad people.

If you check online dictionaries you'll see that guilt is the fact of having done something wrong. This is exactly how the word is used in a courtroom. A person is considered to be "guilty" or "not guilty." It has nothing to do with anyone's feelings; it's simply a determination of wrongdoing. If you committed the offense, you are guilty; If you didn't do it, you are innocent.

Shame, on the other hand, according to the dictionaries, is a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt. In other words, guilt is the fact, shame is the feeling.

So far so good; this fits with the way people use these words a lot of the time. The only hiccup is that the word guilt is sometimes used to describe the feeling of guilt… in other words, sometimes guilt is used as a synonym for the word shame. Someone might say "I feel so much guilt over this" rather than saying "I feel so much shame over this." And some of the online dictionaries acknowledge this and define guilt as a feeling in the second or third definition listed. So, that muddies up the waters a little, but not too much - because the reverse virtually never happens. The term guilt is sometimes used to describe the feeling of wrongdoing and sometimes the fact of wrongdoing, but shame is almost never used to describe the fact, and almost always used to describe the feeling. For instance, a jury would never say, "We declare the defendant to be ashamed!"

Once we've granted those normal dictionary definitions, I think it's obvious that shame is occasionally an appropriate emotion. It is not true that "shame is never good for any reason" or that "shame is not from God." It is actually appropriate to feel ashamed when one has become guilty of a wrongdoing.

For many of us, this is probably easier to see when we begin to think of people other than ourselves. People who never feel shame when they do evil things are not good people. Think about it: serial killers don't feel shame. Yes, they are guilty (of murder) but they don't feel bad about what they are doing. And that lack of shame is obviously a defect, not a feature.

In fact, there is an interesting section in 2 Corinthians where the Apostle Paul acknowledges that he had written an earlier letter (probably a letter in between 1 and 2 Corinthians, but we don't have it anymore) and that letter made the Corinthians feel bad. He wrote something (we don't know what) that caused them grief, but instead of apologizing for making them feel ashamed, Paul actually says that he rejoices because "your grief led to repentance." He also speaks well of this kind of grief when he continues with: "you were grieved as God willed" and "godly grief produces repentance." And all of this fits well with the words that we saw earlier – the words he used when talking to the Thessalonians: "…don't associate with him, so that he may be ashamed."

And that's why I wanted to write this article. Because when I heard that pastor claim that "shame is not from God" I thought, "Aw man. What a careless thing to say. People are going to read 2 Thessalonians 3:14 and they will be confused." What happens when these Christians come across a Bible verse that talks about shame like it is good, necessary, or helpful in some way… but then remember that there was a pastor who said that "shame is not from God." So, which is it?

Well, when in doubt, go with the Bible over the pastor. In this particular case, I think the pastor was not being very careful with the definitions of these words. But I think there's also more to it than that. I don't think this is merely semantics. But I'll get to that a little later. First let me address a couple of possible things that might be fueling this anti-shame movement.

Well, if shame is so good, then why do so many people act like it's bad? Good question - I think there are (at least) two reasons for that.

The first reason is that there are people who do wrong things who don't want to feel bad about it. Shame is a painful feeling, so they try their best to not feel it at all. And, of course, to believe that nothing is shameful and that no one should feel ashamed ever… well, those beliefs are very helpful when you are trying to whisk away those pesky feelings.

The second reason is that there is such a thing as "misplaced shame." Maybe that's not the perfect word for it, but I haven't come up with a better one. What I mean by misplaced shame is when people feel shame over sins that have been forgiven (and the shame is no longer necessary, as the sin has been turned away from and the guilt has been pardoned) or when people feel shame about sins that they didn't commit.

Many Christians can wallow in shame for sins that Jesus has already forgiven them for – sins they have repented of and and from which they have been released. There is no reason to act condemned if God has declared you "not condemned." (See Romans 8:1) Forgiveness is a fantastic solution to shame! It's much better than denying it or calling it unnecessary.

Additionally, sometimes people feel shame for sins that they didn't commit, but rather sins that were done to them by someone else. I've heard many times about rape or abuse victims who feel shame because they were abused. This seems to be a normal and natural reaction. But it probably could be considered to be something more like humiliation rather than shame the way we are defining it here. If shame is a painful feeling that stems from the guilt of the person feeling the shame - the victim does not need to feel any shame! The perpetrator is the guilty one, not the victim. And I'm sure there are many occasions where a victim needs to be reminded, "This was not your fault."

My point here in this section is that just because there are some situations where these feelings related to guilt are not appropriate, that doesn't mean that shame is never good for any reason, and that no one should feel shame ever! That seems to me to be an overreaction to misplaced shame.

But there's one last issue. I think there's a theological problem wrapped up in some of this, too. I want to be clear that I don't think this problem about how we talk about guilt and shame can be fixed simply by being more careful with using proper definitions.

So, let's go back to the definitions the pastor I referred to earlier was using:

Guilt: I did a bad thing
Shame: I am a bad person.

Remember, this was followed up with an explanation that guilt is from God and shame is not.

Again, I disagree. And this time the disagreement isn't related to definitions of the words! Even if you remove the words that are being defined, I still don't believe that "I did a bad thing" is good and from God while "I am a bad person" is bad and not from God. I don't believe the Bible makes this distinction, and yet, I hear this distinction a lot.

"You're not a bad person. You just did a bad thing." I don't know how many times I've heard someone say this, but it troubles me that within the past couple of years I've heard it from two different pastors on two different occasions: "We need to tell people that they aren't bad. They just did some bad things."

That is not the position of the Bible. Jesus once said that "from within, out of people's hearts, come evil thoughts..." After that, Jesus listed several evil things (murder, pride, theft, greed and others) and after this list of sins he said, "all these evil things come from within and defile a person."

James takes the same position. In James 1:14 he says, "But each person is tempted when he is drawn away and enticed by his own evil desires."

Sinners are not good people who do bad things. They are bad people. They do bad things because they are bad people. And we are all sinners. Sin comes from inside of us. Sin is not some weird outside thing that is foreign to us, and occasionally gets on us (like bird poop) when we are not watching out for it. No, sin stems from the inside of us. It is in our nature. We are, by nature, under God's wrath, wrapped up in our fleshly desires (see Ephesians 2:3). Sin isn't something so separate from us. Someone once said it like this, "God doesn't send sin to hell. He sends sinners to hell."

And sinners are the only kind of people there are. We are all bad people in need of God's forgiving and transforming grace that is only available through Jesus' death and resurrection.

The truth is that we all sin. The fact of this sin means that we are guilty. This guilt produces shame. And this shame is helpful for two reasons:
  1. If we are not followers of Jesus, our shame can push us to seek out the Savior. Shame can motivate us to repent of our sins and to seek forgiveness from Jesus, our great Redeemer. He then removes our shame by removing our guilt. This is such good news!
  2. Even after we have placed our faith in Christ, there still seems to be appropriate situations for shame. Yes, we are not condemned for our sins because Jesus paid for them… and yet there is still a bad feeling that we should have when we sin that motivates us to keep turning from it. The passage from 2 Corinthians that I quoted earlier was written to believers. Paul was glad that the Christians in Corinth felt bad and repented: "godly grief produces repentance." Also, the 2 Thessalonians passage that I referred to earlier also seems to be directed toward believers in Christ. Right after the words, "don't associate with him, so that he may be ashamed" Paul follows up with "Yet don't treat him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother." It seems that shame can be something that helps us as Christians turn away from our sins.
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Mario Villella

Lead Pastor & Elder

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