Many people don't put much thought into the difference between guilt and shame. Most assume the two are interchangeable. Although they are very similar, it is essential to know their differences, especially when it comes to understanding how the Gospel of Jesus Christ frees us from both guilt and shame.
Here is what you need to know about the difference between guilt and shame, and what the Bible says about each one.
What is Guilt?
Guilt is feeling bad for what we have done when we have not met an expected standard. If I speak harshly to my husband although I've commuted to treat him with love and kindness I may experience guilt.
It’s important to note that not all guilt is unhealthy. There is a healthy level of guilt we experience to signal that we may need to change certain actions. As with the previous example, guilt experienced from speaking harshly to my husband will hopefully motivate me to apologize and change my behavior.
2 Corinthians 7:10 tells us: Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. (NIV)
We are all guilty of not meeting God's standard. But just feeling guilty for sin is not enough to cleanse us of our sin and rid us of guilt. Jesus Christ did that for us on the cross. When we accept Jesus Christ into our lives not only are our sins forgiven, but we also take on the righteousness of Christ. 2 Corinthians 5:21 tells us:
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (ESV)
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What Should Our Response Be to Guilt?
Our response to healthy guilt is repentance. To turn from our sin that leads to guilt and turn to Christ who covers us with His righteousness.
As I've stated, there is a level of healthy guilt which means there is also unhealthy guilt. Unhealthy guilt occurs when we feel bad for not meeting standards that are not from God but from man. Those are standards we were never meant to or expected to meet. This is also called false guilt. False guilt occurs when we don't meet the fabricated standards we make up ourselves.
If I feel guilty because my house does not look Pinterest perfect, this is false guilt. Pinterest is not the standard that God is calling us to. The standard God wants us to meet is His, which calls us to a holy life that loves Him and others.
On the other hand, godly guilt and sorrow leads to repentance. When confronted with legitimate feelings of guilt, believers ought to do the following:
1. Confess their sin to God.
2. If the sin is against a brother or sister in Christ, confess that sin to the person we have wronged.
3. Ask for God's forgiveness, and when applicable, ask our brother or sister in Christ for forgiveness too.
4. Recieve God's forgiveness and love, understanding that God has indeed forgiven you through Christ Jesus.
5. Commit to turning from the sin for good, and ask God to strengthen you in order than you might not sin in such a way again.
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Bible Verses on Guilt:
Psalm 32:1-5 – “Happy is the person whose sins are forgiven, whose wrongs are pardoned. Happy is the person whom the Lord does not consider guilty and in whom there is nothing false. When I kept things to myself, I felt weak deep inside me. I moaned all day long. Day and night you punished me. My strength was gone as in the summer heat. Then I confessed my sins to you and didn’t hide my guilt. I said, “I will confess my sins to the Lord,” and you forgave my guilt.”
Psalm 103:7 – “[A]s far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.”
Proverbs 28:13 – “Whoever conceals their sins does not prosper, but the one who confesses and renounces them finds mercy.”
John 3:17 - “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn it, but to save it.”
Job 11:6 – “And that he would tell you the secrets of wisdom! For he is manifold in understanding. Know then that God exacts of you less than your guilt deserves.”
1 Timothy 1:15 – “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.”
What is Shame?
Where guilt has to do with feeling bad about what we do, shame is feeling bad about who we are.
When I say, "I feel bad for yelling at my kids," this is guilt.
When I say, "I'm a bad mom," this is shame.
We can experience both guilt and shame at the same time, and many times we do. Shame, however, is more relational. It has to do with feeling like a failure in the eyes of others and how we perceive ourselves.
Because shame is relational, we can experience it as a result from our own actions and the actions of others. We may feel shame even when we have done nothing wrong but because of the wrong done to us by someone else. Shame says, "because this happened to you, you are now bad," or, "this bad thing happened to you because you are bad."
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How to Live Free from Shame:
We can live free from shame because Jesus took on shame for us. In Hebrews 12:2 the Apostle Paul says we should look "to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (ESV)
Jesus shows that just because something bad happens to you does not make you bad. As Jesus went to the cross to finish His work here on earth, we are told he despised the shame of the cross. He was rejected by his friends, disrespected, mocked, and worse yet He did not allow shame to stop Him from completing His work because of "the joy that was set before Him."
Jesus sets us free from shame because He took on the shame that belonged to us and covers us when we place our faith in Him or as Romans 10:11 says: Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame. (ESV)
Now, in Christ, we are not defined what the bad we have done or the bad done to us. Our identity is in Christ, and we are made new. 2 Corinthians 5:17 says: If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away, behold, the new has come.
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Bible Verses on Shame:
Isaiah 50:7 – “But the Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame.”
Hebrews 2:12 – “Looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”
Psalm 34:4-5 – “I sought the Lord, and he answered me and delivered me from all my fears. Those who look to him are radiant, and their faces shall never be ashamed.”
Romans 10:11 – “For the Scripture says, ‘Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.’”
1 John 2:28 – “And now, dear children, continue in him, so that when he appears we may be confident and unashamed before him at his coming.”
Romans 5:4-5 - “Endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
Isaiah 61:7 - “Instead of your shame there shall be a double portion; instead of dishonor they shall rejoice in their lot; therefore in their land they shall possess a double portion; they shall have everlasting joy."
Christina Patterson is a wife and stay-at-home mom with a passion to encourage women in the love of Jesus Christ and the truth of God’s Word. When she is not folding laundry or playing blocks you will find her with her head deep in her Bible or a commentary. She holds her masters in Theology from Liberty University and is the founder of Beloved Women, a non-profit providing resources and community for women to truly know who they are in Christ: His Beloved. She blogs at belovedwomen.org.
Originally published Thursday, 08 March 2018.