What to Do with Feelings of Guilt and ShameFeb 08, 2023
Sometimes we feel guilty without actually being guilty. We feel ashamed for things about which we need not feel shame. Why is there so much confusion around guilt and shame? Are guilt and shame ever useful, or good? Let’s explore the concepts of guilt and shame first, and then clear up the confusion surrounding them.
Guilt has two common meanings: The state of having done a wrong (e.g., he is guilty of stealing the stereo) and a painful feeling of self-reproach resulting from a belief that we have done a wrong (e.g., he felt guilty for not coming home for Christmas).
On one hand, the Bible always refers to guilt as the state, not the feeling. You won’t find Scriptures describing a feeling of guilt. the Bible describes a legal condition of guilt: “You have become guilty because of the blood you have shed” (Ezek. 22:4). “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).
As a judge pronounces a defendant guilty, God has declared us legally guilty. We have missed God’s mark of righteousness and need his solution, the Cross. By official pronouncement we are guilty for having broken the law.
On the other hand, feelings of guilt–as opposed to the state of guilt–are basically our consciences condemning us, telling us we’re bad. Guilt feelings are painful, often causing us to criticize and condemn ourselves even more. Guilt feelings usually result from a sense that our actions have hurt someone. We may feel guilty about needing attachment to someone and consuming their time. Or we may feel guilty for disappointing someone, or setting a limit with them.
Some people feel guilty about letting others down through their imperfections or flaws. Others may experience guilt when they show more talent or ability than another person. Still others feel guilty about simply existing, and taking up space on the planet There is no end to the things about which we can feel guilty.
Shame is a painful feeling of having lost the respect of others because of our own improper behavior.
Though similar to guilt, shame has a broader definition in the Bible: It is both a state and a feeling. Shame can be a state of being despised by others (Joseph wanted to divorce his pregnant fiancee, Mary, quietly to avoid her being publicly shamed) or shame can be a feeling (Adam and Eve, in their pre-sinful condition, felt no shame). Shame is a sense of being bad, a state of internal condemnation.
Some people distinguish between the two words by saying that guilt describes our self-condemnation for what we do, while shame shames us for who we are. You feel guilty for yelling at your child; you feel shame for being a bad parent.
Of particular concern to us is the fact that guilt and shame both describe a state of internal condemnation, a pervasive sense of badness about the self, delivered by the conscience. These feelings can be mild or excruciatingly painful.
Guilt and shame arise from different sources., For example, some guilt is an awareness of our judged state–the fact that we are born under the law and severed from grace (Rom. 1:20, 2:14–15). Some shame comes from experiencing our own badness, as when “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor. 1:27).
These types of guilt and shame are simply our emotional responses to the realities of our fallenness. They are good for us because they tell us that we desperately need grace, and they. Motivate us to look for help and forgiveness.
However, the guilt and shame that we are concerned with today comes from a different source. They derive from early socialization processes. The conscience serves as an internal parent to monitor and evaluate the goodness or badness of our behavior. When the conscience approves, we feel relief. When it doesn’t, we feel guilt and shame. This conscience-driven, environment-derived dynamic is what becomes a problem in spiritual growth.
Is Guilt Ever Good?
One good thing about guilt feelings: They can be a sign of spiritual growth. Many who are recovering from emotional problems have severe guilt attacks. Leaving the old ways and cleaving to new ideas and people activates their controlling consciences–which then rain down “You’re being bad” messages to stop the mutiny of biblical freedom. Such consciences are saying no to your freedom. A critical conscience wants to keep you a slave to its mandates. It wants you to obey its idea of goodness, not the Bible’s.
If you’re in recovery and beginning to address your true spiritual needs for attachment, responsibility, and forgiveness–and you’re getting beat up by your conscience–rejoice! You’re probably doing something right. Then find friends who will help you work through the feelings.
What Can You Do?
If you’re motivated by guilt or shame, you cannot also be motivated by love,. A strict, guilt-inducing conscience is not from God. Ask him for help in finding people who can move you from guilt and shame to love, and follow these steps:
- Own the guilt. It may have been built into you by too-strict relationships, but it’s now your problem, and you can do something about it.
- Get into a support system that is more concerned with relationships than “sin-busting,” a group that understand that “God’s kindness leads you toward repentance” (Rom. 2:14)
- Investigate where you learned the guilt messages.
- Become aware of your anger.
- Forgive whoever controlled you.
- Learn new information to reeducate your conscience, from the Scriptures and from books like this.
- Internalize new voices from your support group. Guilt isn’t resolved by simply retraining your mind. You need to replace critical voices with accepting ones.
- Don’t resist grief. Let others comfort and love you through the process.
“This is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything” (1 John 3:19–20).