The Difference between Guilt and Shame

In Charles Dickens’s classic A Christmas Carol, there is a powerful exchange between the Ghost of Christmas Present and Ebenezer Scrooge. Scrooge notices something moving near the foot of the spirit’s robe. When he inquires about the odd form, the ghost reveals two malnourished and miserable children grasping his ankles.

“Beware them both,” the spirit says, “but most of all beware the boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom unless the writing be erased.” When Scrooge asks if the children have no one to help, the ghost retorts with Scrooge’s own words: “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?”

The children are symbols of the effect of Scrooge’s selfishness. They glare at him with condemning eyes. Scrooge knows their accusations are well placed. Though their names in the story are Ignorance and Want, I think they can accurately be renamed Guilt and Shame.

“Spirit. Are they yours?” Scrooge asks. “They are Man’s,” the spirit replies. So it is with guilt and shame. They’re the children of humanity. They cling tightly to our side. They will not easily be shooed away.

They are nearly as old as time itself, born in the garden when Adam and Eve first rebelled, the offspring of forbidden desires.

The Day Guilt Was Born

Guilt and Shame were foreign to Eden before the rebellion. But as Eve wiped the forbidden fruit’s juice from her lips, these emotions fell over her like a dark shadow. Their silhouettes followed her until her dying day. She would be buried in their cold presence. And as Adam followed in his wife’s footsteps, two more shadows were born.

Guilt and Shame are conceived in rebellion. They resemble their parents: they have their father’s eyes and their mother’s smile. We can’t deny they are ours.

To live outside of Eden is to be intimately acquainted with them. We know them well, far better than we wish. We would love to part with them. But they won’t leave us alone.

Though Guilt and Shame are twins, born in the garden, only moments apart, they aren’t identical.

Though Guilt and Shame are twins, born in the garden, only moments apart, they aren’t identical. Guilt is usually tied to an event: I did something bad. Shame is tied to a person: I am bad. Guilt is the wound. Shame is the scar. Guilt is isolated to the individual. Shame is contagious.

When you violate God’s laws you feel guilt. But that emotion is quickly, nearly simultaneously, joined by shame. Guilt says, “You did something wrong.” Shame says, “That’s why you need to hide. You’re no good. You deserve to live in darkness. Come with me; I’ll lead the way.”

To liken Guilt and Shame to the children in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, Guilt is the girl and Shame is the boy. And as the ghost says, “Beware of them both, but most of all beware the boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom.” What Guilt begins, Shame is sure to finish. Doom is written on his forehead.

No one can share in your guilt, but many can share in your shame. The child whose father is imprisoned, the wife whose husband is unfaithful, the daughter whose mother is abusive—they all share in the shame. They feel their self-worth is lessened. Shame wraps its arms around their ankles tightly, allowing them to walk but never to run.

In this way, shame is far less logical than guilt. Guilt is connected to events that can be defined in objective journalistic categories: who, what, where, when, and why. But shame is far less concerned with details.

Living with Guilt and Shame

If we’re going to survive in the wild outside Eden, we need to learn to deal with both our guilt and our shame. We need solutions for addressing the facts of wrongdoing, our guilt. But we also need help navigating the emotional trauma we experience in the wake of our sins and the sins of others that spread to us. Both of these children, Guilt and Shame, will threaten our existence. But beware the boy.

As Christians, our guilt, in its deepest sense, is dealt with entirely when we are made right with God through trust in Jesus. This is what the Bible calls justification. It is a quick and decisive event that happens at conversion. But the process of applying the truth of the gospel to our lives—what the Bible calls sanctification—is lifelong and can be quite messy.

Shame will haunt us long after we deal with our guilt. But we cannot give in to its game. We must confront both our guilt and shame with the gospel of grace.

We must deal with our shame by reminding ourselves of how God has dealt with our guilt.

That’s why we must deal with our shame by reminding ourselves of how God has dealt with our guilt. Our guilt is objectively forgiven at the cross. In Christ, God has cast our sin as far as the east is from the west (Ps. 103:12). But shame will refuse to acknowledge our new identity. May we not let it have the last word.

The voice of shame will tell us that we are our sin—or that we are the sins of others. We must reorient our self-perception around the identity given to us by Jesus. We must counter the voice of shame with the gospel reminder that we’re whole, we’re new, we’re loved, we’re forgiven, and we’re adopted. Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ (Rom. 8:38–39).

As we rehearse these truths in community, we can begin to drown out shame’s shrill accusations with songs and sermons of an empty cross, an empty tomb, a new life, and a reigning King. So, yes, life in the wild is tough. But we have good companions, a reliable guide, and the hope of a better city (Heb. 11:16).

The Bible shows us that we can live well in the wild because we know Jesus is leading us through it. He is our Good Shepherd, whether walking beside still waters and green pastures or through the valley of the shadow of death (Ps. 23). And one day he will call us home, out of the wild.

from The Gospel Coalition Blog


Popular posts from this blog

Build and Use a Logos Bible Software Library for Free

FROM THE SEMINARIES: SWBTS 'flexible access' enrolls off-site students

State papers celebrate milestones, consider future