Podcast episode 009: Understanding guilt and shame

by | Oct 11, 2017

Dan Wu grew up with one foot in an Asian “honour/shame culture” and the other foot in a Western “guilt culture”. So he was more than a little interested when he read that the Bible was supposedly a “shame culture” book and that we Westerners misread it from our “guilt culture” perspective. The result was a fascinating journey of scholarship into the meaning of honour, shame and guilt in the Bible.

In this episode of the CCL podcast, we talk to Dan about “honour”, “shame” and “guilt”, and how a fresh understanding of these three closely related ideas helps us understand not only the whole story of the Bible, but whole story of our Christian lives—whichever culture we happen to be from.

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Dan Wu: Well, you know, it is a bit, you know, experiential, bit personal. So I’m an Australian Asian or a—sometimes known as an “ABC”: Australian Born Chinese. And so I grew up, really, with a foot in two very different cultures: my Chinese heritage of my family, I guess, which is your classic non-western shame culture, and then I grew up in an Aussie context, though, and so very much raised in a western guilt culture. And so, in some ways, yeah, it’s just a way of me exploring, I guess, my own personal identity of “What am I?”

Tony Payne: That’s our guest Dan Wu talking about guilt and shame, and how different cultures often think about guilt and shame very differently. Now, whether you’re listening today as someone from an honour/shame culture or from a classic western guilt culture, or perhaps the more recent postmodern culture in which guilt and shame are just concepts to be avoided at all costs, whatever your stance and whatever your background, guilt and shame can’t be avoided, and we need to understand them and know how to deal with them. And that’s our subject in this episode of the Centre for Christian Living podcast.


TP: I’m Tony Payne and welcome to the Centre for Christian Living podcast, coming to you from Moore College in Sydney, Australia. Our goal in this episode, as in every episode, is to bring biblical ethics to everyday issues. And our issue today is something that we all experience—although in different ways: the realities of guilt and shame. And our expert guest today is Dan Wu.

Dan Wu: All right, I’m Dan Wu, I’m married to Chrissy, we have three young boys, and I teach here at Moore College—mostly in the Old Testament Department.

TP: Dan’s postgraduate dissertation was on guilt and shame, and to find out what he discovered in his research, I began by asking him just what is meant by “shame culture” and “guilt culture”.

DW: So this is basically one of the key characterisations of culture type in the world. And—they’re the main two. So there’s a few other ones you can think of, like a fear culture, or something like that. But the main two are a shame culture and a guilt culture.

I’ll start with a guilt culture. Basically, a guilt culture is pretty much a western culture. And the characteristics of it are basically we are motivated by an internalised sense of right and wrong—a conscience or guilt—and so we see ourselves as pretty much independent individuals, we have a sort of a moral system, which helps us to guide the way we live, what’s right, what’s wrong. But it really focuses on the actions that we take as individuals, and whether or not they’re right or wrong. And so, in that sense, the main motivator for us is whether or not this act will lead to me being guilty of something that I should be punished for, or whether, I guess, the flipside is, whether this is something I’m innocent of and therefore not worthy of punishment for. And so, things like conscience, individualism, that idea that you need to find, in a sense, what’s right for you—that’s all characteristic of western guilt culture.

TP: So the shame culture, by contrast—

DW: Yep.

TP: —is what?

DW: The shame culture by contrast is pretty much the opposite of that: so where a guilt culture person will think of themselves individually, independent of others—

TP: In relation to some standard of right and wrong?

DW: Ah, yes, so in relation to a standard of right and wrong, which really is inside you. So a classic shame culture classification would be someone who thinks of themselves really in a very interconnected way with others. And so, one of the contrasts that the two cultural classifications use is individualism vs collectivism. So whereas a western person will see themselves as a sort of a discrete individual by themselves, a shame culture person sees themselves as intimately tied to everybody else around them.

And that leads to very very different motivations and forces. So whereas a guilt culture person—a western person—will be motivated by their internal conscience, a shame culture person will be much more motivated by the opinions of others around them. And so it’s far more social, far more collectivist, and rather than right and wrong, the way you figure out what you should be doing is really by this issue of how will it be perceived by others? Will they accept me for it? Will they, sort of, honour me for it? Or will they denigrate me? Will they exclude me for it? And that force is what people call “shame”.

TP: So this would be connected—so my Asian friends talk to me about loss of face and how important loss of face is in the culture.

DW: Yes.

TP: Same concept?

DW: Yeah, absolutely. So, face, really, is your appearance before other people. And so, in an Asian culture, face is very very important. In fact, it’s almost everything. If you lose face, you pretty much have lost all value and meaning. But if you gain face, then you advance in society and you win honour, you gain elevation in society—that’s really the goal of life.

TP: So those two conceptions of what guilt and shame are, as they’re conceived today—as a description of those two kinds of cultures—

DW: Yep.

TP: —how did that then play into what you ended up researching in the Bible?

DW: So what I did was I found this article with a footnote in it that had a reference to the Bible being written from a shame culture perspective, not a guilt culture perspective, and I thought, “Well, that’s actually really interesting to think through: to what extent we’re feeding in these cultural assumptions into the way that we read the Bible?” And the two perspectives really result in looking for different things in the text. And so whereas a guilt culture reader might look for things like “Where’s the right and wrong in the passage?”, “Who did the right thing?”, “Who did the wrong thing?”, “Where is the moral basis of these sorts of actions?” A shame culture perspective person is much more looking for “What are the cultural forces at work here?”, “What is being communicated in terms of who’s moving up in the social world/who’s moving down in the social world?” and “How does that motivate the characters to do what they do?” That sort of thing.

So it’s a really interesting way to look at the Bible, I think, and so what I did was I then started looking for a book that had lots of—there’s shame-type language in it, and that book ended up being the Book of Ezekiel. And so what I did originally was to think through, “Okay, what I need to do is clear out this whole guilt culture preconception and read it from this lens of honour and shame. What would someone who is attuned to those sorts of things and who operates on those dynamics—what would they actually see, hear, feel in the text when they read something like Ezekiel?”

TP: Cool. So … what did you find?

DW: [Laughs] Well, what I found was I couldn’t really do it! And so I tried, and I tried starting to read Ezekiel from this perspective. But what I found was I couldn’t sustain it. Because—I chose Ezekiel because, out of all the biblical books in the Old Testament, there’s a particular concentration in Ezekiel of honour and shame terms and concepts. So in terms of shame stuff, you know, Ezekiel’s very very striking, because of his use of things like “defilement” and “disgust” in his prophecies—“humiliation” and “degradation” and lowering of social status—so lots of shame-type language. And his prophecy also revolves very clearly around the glory of God—that God’s name will be elevated and honoured in the eyes of the nation. And so it’s a really good candidate for this sort of cultural perspective.

And so my thesis title originally was, “Honour and shame in Ezekiel”. But as I started down the track of delving deeply into the text of Ezekiel, I kept on coming across not just shame and honour language and concepts, but also guilt language and concepts all the way through. And so there was lots of actions about—sorry, lots of language about people’s actions, their internal motivations, the law that they had broken and the punishment that that warranted—classic language that we as western evangelicals would be used to running into. And so, I thought, “Well, I can’t do one in isolation from the other.” So I started to think, “Well maybe I need to have a look at not only how each scheme kind of operates, but how they work together.” And so the thesis became “From honour and shame in Ezekiel” to “Honour, shame and guilt in Ezekiel.”

TP: So you found that the categories you’d gone to the Bible with—this classic sociological descriptions, really, of different forms of culture—didn’t quite match what you found there—

DW: Yep.

TP: —that it was a more complex picture. What did you end up concluding, then, about honour and shame and guilt in Ezekiel?

DW: Ah, yeah, as I went through, what I found was you just couldn’t hold the two categories apart. You couldn’t even hold the two cultural schemes apart and independent of each other. You couldn’t even see them as coexisting separately. You really had to figure out how do they actually work together? How does shame and guilt operate together, and what do both of them have to do with the concept of honour?

And so putting all this together, I started to think, “Well, rather than seeing it as a contrast, I need to see these terms as somehow fitting together in such a way that sometimes you can’t even tell the difference between the two.

I think it really became clear to me one time—I was watching a lecture that someone who was studying this shame culture perspective on the Bible and was really into it, and they presented a lecture and their opening illustration for the lecture was they raised the issue of—it was a western context, and they raised the issue when your parents disciplined you, what did they do when you’d done something wrong? They said, “Well, if you’re a westerner, your parents made you feel guilty.” And then he said, “But if you’re not a westerner, then they didn’t make you feel guilty; they shamed you”. And I was sitting here listening to this lecture as an Australian Asian, thinking, “Well, which one applies to me?” My parents didn’t do two different things; they just did the one thing. But I could see how both actually fit.

TP: How the punishment that your parents might have meted out to you both made you feel that you’d not measured up to a standard—

DW: Yes.

TP: —i.e. guilty, and made you feel embarrassed and/or ashamed—

DW: Yeah, that’s right.

TP: —at the same time—

DW: Yeah, that’s right.

TP: —in one action.

DW: Yep, yep. And so I thought to myself, “Well, if that’s the case, then maybe we need to think about the whole thing very differently.” And then that led me to think, “Well, before we—in order to do that, what we need to do is actually figure out what exactly are we talking about? What is guilt? What is shame? And what’s going on—and what is honour?” So what are the basic ideas and how do they work together, and how do we do it in a way that doesn’t lead us down these sort of self-contradictory paths?

TP: Now you know an interview is going pretty well when the interview subject starts asking the questions for you. And that’s what Dan, of course, has just done: he’s asked the next question we all want to know, and that is, “What is the difference between guilt and shame? Is there a difference?”

Before we hear his answer, I just want to remind you that Dan is speaking on this subject—dealing with guilt and shame—at our next Centre for Christian Living public event. It’s on October 25th at Moore College at 7:30pm. If you get over to our website—that’s ccl.moore.edu.au—you can find out all the details and you can purchase your tickets.

But back to the question that Dan has so helpfully posed for himself.

DW: “What is guilt? What is shame? And what’s going on—and what is honour?” So what are the basic ideas and how do they work together—

TP: So, what’s the answer?

DW: What I ended up concluding was that there is a distinction between them, if you want one. It was beautifully summarised in a book that I read: the real difference is between—it’s a point of emphasis, really. So take the statement, “I should not have done that.” Basically guilt says, “I should not have done that.” Shame says, “I should not have done that.” But that’s pretty much as far apart as you can get them. Because when you think about it, at the end of the day, you can’t really separate who we are from what we do. The two have a—such a close connection to each other and inform each other so much that to try and hold one against the other or apart from the other, it’s almost impossible to do. And so likewise with the guilt and shame, I think.

TP: What you’ve just expressed is also true about what is right and what is good. Those are two ways of talking about things that happen in the world, or things we might do—whether something is right or wrong, or whether something is good or evil. You respond to right and wrong by obedience; you respond to good and evil by aspiring to or desiring or wanting the good and avoiding the evil.

DW: Yep.

TP: But they’re not alternatives; they’re two ways, very often, of talking about the same act or the same conclusion.

DW: Yep.

TP: And it strikes me that what you’re saying about guilt and shame is very much what ethicists say about the nature of our ethical action:—

DW: Yeah.

TP: —you can describe your ethical action as it being about our character and virtues, or about the things we do and the decisions we make about what we do.

DW: Yeah, yeah, I—and I think that’s exactly what I’m trying to say. Thanks, Tony! And that also brings into play the concept of honour, then. Because I think, you know, if you wanted a clean definition of guilt and shame, I think in the end, it actually all flows from the concept of honour. And so basically, I think the anthropologists have it right here—that honour is basically social value. So when you get a group of people together and they sort of operate and do pretty much anything, in that context, there’s going to be some sort of value system that works. So, you know, you think about a sports competition, that’s very clear: what’s the honour? Well, if you lift up the trophy at the end of the competition, that’s pretty much—the value of the sports comp is who gets to lift the trophy at the end.

But from that sense of value flows a whole sense of, well, “What is good?”, therefore, which leads to and builds value or honour, and “What is evil?”—that which diminishes value or dishonours. And then—but that also then leads to, well, how do you express that? And so that leads you to the idea of, well, there are certain actions which will tie into social value—that is, will elevate your honour, and there are other actions which will decrease your social value.

And so there is that interplay between you set up what is honoured in a certain society, and then you figure out what, therefore, devalues you in society, and you associate certain acts with that devaluation. And they become, then, what is good, what is evil, what is right, what is wrong.

TP: So you looked at all this in Ezekiel, and began to see this interplay.

DW: Yep.

TP: But that must have pushed you beyond Ezekiel to the message of the Bible as a whole and the place of Ezekiel in the Bible as a whole.

DW: Yep.

TP: What sort of resonances did you see for these ideas in the rest of the Bible and the Bible’s big story about God and us?

DW: Yeah. Well, I found as I looked at it more, that it just became more and more tied into the central message of the Bible. And so one of my favourite theologians is Jonathan Edwards, and he wrote a famous tract: The End for Which God Created the World. And so really it talked about, well, why did God create in the first place? What is the purpose of everything? And his conclusion was from the Bible and also from his own kind of systematic thinking that the purpose or the end for which God created the world was his own glory. And so basically what that means is that the Bible story is about how God establishes and completes his honour in the creation that he has made pretty much to honour him. And so the glory of God—the honour of God—is actually central to the Bible itself.

And so immediately that ties in this whole area of study into what’s going on in the Bible. And to that extent, then, I want to go agree, yes, the Bible is written from an honour/shame culture perspective, because it is all about the honour of God, and that every—everything in creation ought to elevate God and celebrate God as the be-all-and-end-all of everything. And so Ezekiel ties in very very naturally because his emphasis is on God establishing his honour.

So boiling—boiling it all down, here’s my best definition so far: that basically honour is what is socially valued amongst a people group. And so it’s what they ascribe to, what they aspire to, and what determines what is good and evil, what is right and wrong. So that’s honour: social value.

Shame is really—the basic definition, I think—the best definition of shame: it is a failure of an ideal—a failure to reach an ideal. And obviously that ties very neatly into the idea of honour—that is, if honour is the ideal, then shame is some sort of failure to reach that ideal.

And then finally, you’ve got guilt, which, I think, is basically some sort of concrete indication that tells you that ideal has been failed. So it’s almost the concrete expression of shame is guilt.

But that’s how I see the three concepts tying in together. But it’s all determined basically by what you think is valued in that group is what starts it all.

TP: Perhaps it’s no surprise, but we seem to be zeroing in on some of the biggest central themes of the whole Bible. It’s only a short step from talking about shame and guilt and honour to talking about glory—not only God’s glory in himself, but our falling short of his glory, as expressed in that most famous verse in Romans 3:23:

DW: “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” And so there, I think, you have the three concepts all put together. So “all have sinned”—there’s been concrete breaches that tell you that an ideal has been lost, and that, then, is expressed in “and fallen short”—so there’s shame there. “Fallen short” of what? “The glory of God”. And so there is an ideal that is set by God—the glory of God—there is something that actually establishes what is of true value and significance that the world operates around, and that has been lost. And the way that it’s been lost, or the way you know it’s been lost, is through sin. And so that’s how I see the three operating together in the story of the Bible.

And I think once you do that, you can sort of plug the story of the Bible into that scheme, and it feels really natural. That is, when God created, he created for his glory. And there’s a passage in Exodus 33 and 34 where you actually get explained what does that mean? What specifically is the glory of God? Because when you think about it, the idea of honour is social value; that’s actually a pretty vague idea. You actually need a concrete thing: what is the thing that is valued?

TP: Glory in itself is one of those vague concepts in many people’s minds, because what is glory? It’s splendour, it’s brilliance, it’s the outshining of something that’s incredibly majestically—

DW: Yeah.

TP: You start running out of words—what is it again? What is glory? How do I understand God’s glory? ’Cause you’re saying the same thing.

DW: Yeah, that’s right.

TP: How do you anchor what that glory looks like?

DW: Yeah. One of the key ways that we fill out the idea of glory and honour is in Exodus 33-34. And there, this is pretty much straight after the—Israel’s failure in the desert, worshipping the golden calf and really introducing a serious threat to their relationship with God. Moses speaks to God after he assures Moses that he will continue to go with the people. Moses, seeking some assurance, says, “Show me your glory.” “Show me the money”, you know, that sort of thing! “Show me your glory.” And it’s really interesting what God answers in the very next verse, because he says, “I will cause all my goodness to pass by you.” It’s really surprising. And so, basically, what God is saying there is that his glory is seen particularly in his goodness.

And then, in the interaction that follows, where God actually does stick Moses in the cleft of the rock and passes by and proclaims his name, the specific content of God’s goodness—that is, his glory—then gets articulated in, really, boiled down into these two key characteristics of God, in chapter 34 verses 6 and 7—that God is gracious, compassionate; he is full of love and faithfulness. And those two characteristics really define what is the glory of God that the world is made for.

And so Jonathan Edwards (bringing him back in) has this beautiful illustration of a light source like the sun and a mirror. And he said, “That’s like God and creation.” So God is like the source—the sun. He is the source of light. He is the source of glory. And he makes the world so that he can pour forth his glory into it. And if you feed in Exodus 33-34, what that means is that God made the world to be filled with his love and faithfulness. And so he creates in order to express his goodness to his creation. But what happens then is the process doesn’t end there, because God, having poured his goodness, his love and faithfulness into creation, creation is meant to receive that from God and then reflect it around and return that to God as they live out his love and faithfulness in the world and live in thanks and praise to him, the creator and giver.

And so the picture of creation in the Bible is this beautiful portrait of God pouring himself out in love and faithfulness to the world, and then we living it out and returning to him love and faithfulness. And so there’s this beautiful rebounding growing love and faithfulness that is meant to characterise God’s world.

When you think about this image, I find it so powerful, because I think, for me, it captures what’s going on when we talk about sin. So obviously Genesis 3, sin is introduced to the world. But the fundamental thing that happens is actually that Adam and Eve fundamentally don’t break a rule; they turn away from God. And so what happens if you think about the illustration there is that if the mirror turns away from its light source, the mirror has no light of its own. And so once it turns away from its source of light—its source of glory—it becomes dark and twisted away from its original purpose. And so that’s what we see there: that is, I think, what is—what shame is specifically in the Bible—that is, we have turned away from God, and so, ripping ourselves out of that relational orientation towards him, we start to, in a sense, lose that love and faithfulness that we were made for.

And the way that you tell that that’s happening is by those concrete actions that actually show you how broken love and faithfulness—and that really is the specific sins that the Bible talks about. And that’s why sin is directed primarily towards God, but also has impact on those around us. It all kind of flows out of the glory of God that the world was made for.


TP: So much of the story of the Bible revolves around love and faithfulness—about God’s steadfast love and faithfulness to his promise, our rejection and loss of love and faithfulness, and God sending his Son, whom John’s Gospel describes as being “full of grace and truth”, which are two other words, really, to describe love and faithfulness. A Son whose death appeared to be the most shameful act, but in fact was the supreme and glorious act of love and faithfulness.

But what of our lives now? What if we’re experiencing guilt and shame now?

DW: One of the books that I read that really impacted me most was a book called In Defence of Shame. And the authors pointed out that shame has largely a bad name, as does guilt—that is, they’re negative things and we want to be rid of them. So they really latched onto this idea that shame in particular is not—doesn’t have a moral value in itself; it’s neither good nor bad. What it depends on is the values that lie behind it—whether they are actually worth subscribing to—worth, you know, putting yourself under or not. Because what they’re trying to do is, on the one hand, they’re trying to help people to avoid feeling that weight of negative detrimental shame, which is often quite unnecessary and illegitimate. And, on the other hand, they want people to still see, no, there is a place for saying, “Yeah, I’m ashamed of what I did”—that there’s a rightness to feeling that. And if we just say, “No, shame is something bad that you’ve got to get rid of”, you actually deny that aspect—that healthy aspect of shame.

And so they went back to the idea that, actually, shame in and of itself is neither here nor there. What it depends entirely on is who’s asking you to feel shame and what are they asking you to feel shame for? And they said, “If the values that people are asking you to feel shame for are illegitimate, then that’s going to result in detrimental damaging shame. But if the values of people asking you ascribe to are actually legitimate and healthy, then it’s a—shame is a beautiful thing. It is a beautiful thing to have shame and to know, yes, I have done this, therefore I have failed. There’s a real benefit to that: that can actually help you deal with things in a healthy way. And so, I’m sure you can think of classic instances where shame and guilt have been used as weapons, and they—they really are very very damaging in that respect.

And yet, there is another sense in which pain is not always bad. And sometimes in order to truly be restored and healed, or in order to actually truly grow, there may be times where we have to recognise, yes, I’ve done the wrong thing, or I have been the sort of person that I ought not to have been. And that actually can lead you to seek a healthy way of overcoming those things.

And I think when it comes to the Bible’s view of dealing with guilt and shame, the main perspective that it presents is, at the end of the day, Romans 3:23, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace.” So guilt and shame in the Bible ought to drive us to the cross of Christ, where we see the love and faithfulness of God overcoming all our failures and bringing us to God—not in our own efforts—not in our own strength—not even in our own reaching an ideal; we continue to fail, and we will always fail until Jesus returns. But it drives us to the grace of the cross, where once for all, Jesus took everything that we have done and everything that we are that has fallen short of God’s glory, nailed it to the cross so that our relationship to God is restored and we are reoriented towards the glory for which we were made.


TP: If you want to hear more from Dan Wu on guilt and shame and honour, come to our next Centre for Christian Living event. He’ll be speaking on that subject. It’s on October 25th at 7:30pm here at Moore College in Sydney. Go to our website, which is ccl.moore.edu.au, for all the details and to purchase tickets, and to find out about the livestream, where you can be part of the event virtually if you can’t make it with us on the night.

If you want to read something more about this subject, our book special for this month is hot off the presses: it’s Ray Galea’s new book, From Here to Eternity: Assurance in the face of sin and suffering. Simon Manchester has written a little blurb on the back of the book that says this:

What do you get when you take a chapter full of significance and treasure (that’s Romans 8) and have it taught by a pastor full of grace and honesty (that’s Ray Galea)? You get this terrific book that will benefit everyone who is seeking answers and assurance. God has impacted so many through Ray’s ministry, and he will surely help many more through this wise and loving book. It breathes pastoral reality and comfort.

It sounds like a book worth reading! And if you want to get hold of it, go to matthiasmedia.com.au/ccl and you can find Ray Galea’s book From Here to Eternity: Assurance in the face of sin and suffering available there.

Well, that’s about it for this episode of the Centre for Christian Living podcast. I do hope you’ve enjoyed this episode and that you’ll subscribe to the podcast so that you can get every episode. You can do that, of course, at iTunes or at Stitcher or Overcast or SoundCloud, or wherever you like to get your podcasts. And as you do so, I hope you’ll leave us a review or a comment so that others can hear about the podcast as well.

Do also check out our website: that’s ccl.moore.edu.au. You’ll find lots of other resources there, including articles, audio, video from our past events, and so on. I’m Tony Payne. Thanks for being with us. ’Bye for now.


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