Dealing with guilt and shame

by | Jun 14, 2018

This essay was adapted from Dan Wu’s talk on “Dealing with guilt and shame” at our 7 March 2018 event. Watch or listen to his talk on our website.

Shame and guilt: key problems for us, but why?

Shame and guilt are very powerful and important concepts in life: you only have to chuck the words into casual conversation—“What are you ashamed of?” or “Is there anything you’ve felt guilty about lately?”—and you’ll feel the emotional intensity and awkwardness rise. In fact, many researchers suggest that one, or both, are the key problems in human experience and society. For example, Brené Brown of TED talks fame, calls shame “a problem of epidemic proportions”,1 while Freud’s research was devoted to (as one writer puts it) “the life-destroying dynamic of guilt”.2 According to the National Mental Health Commission, mental health problems costs the Australian economy more than $60 billion dollars each year.3 And while guilt and shame are by no means the only cause, many of the psychologists and pastoral care workers I have chatted highlighted them as central issues in their work.

All this suggests that guilt and shame are huge, persistent problems that we need to deal with. But we also seem pretty far from any satisfying solutions. Given all this, let me make a few initial statements on what I am and am not hoping to do in this article.

Firstly, we’re obviously not going to solve guilt and same completely: these topics are too massive and complex for us to be under any illusions about that. What I think we can do is clear away some of the confusion that often surrounds them, and also examine how the Bible’s teaching on guilt, shame and (I’m also going to suggest) honour gives us a foundational framework to not only understand, but even live well with them.

Secondly, a confession and a disclaimer: my background isn’t in psychology or counselling; I’m a biblical scholar and a theologian. If I can put it in a manner that, I think, works on so many levels with regard to this topic, I am neither a psychologist nor the son of a psychologist. It’s like merging Sigmund Freud with the prophet Amos. But it’s important for me to say that I don’t approach this topic with academic expertise in psychology. Why, then, am I writing on this topic? My engagement with shame and guilt has come through studying the Bible from an anthropological perspective, seeing it as a shame culture document rather than a guilt culture document. This arose out of my personal experience as an second generation Australian Asian—ethnically Chinese, but born here in Australia and affectionately known as an “ABC” (Australian Born Chinese) or a “banana”: yellow on the outside, white on the inside. But having one foot in each culture type, so to speak, I found this approach to biblical interpretation both fascinating and important. So that means my focus on shame and guilt has been more on patterns of cultural behaviour than on individual emotions, and that emphasis will come out in this article. But while the two disciplines are quite distinct in their foci and how they use the terms (in fact, sometimes with opposite meanings), they’re still tightly connected, and, as we’ll see, they can inform each other and, hopefully, us as well.

Thirdly, we’re going to cover a lot of ground across a range of topics and disciplines. When starting off on something like this, it’s helpful to have an idea of where we’ll eventually end up. So if you want a one-sentence summary statement of where we’re headed, here it is: “We deal with shame and guilt by receiving, then reflecting, and returning God’s honour—his love and faithfulness to us in Jesus”. That’s my basic answer to this topic and I’ve tried to be careful with each word in it. To see why I chose this particular formulation, let’s focus first on the problems to do with shame and guilt that I think this one-sentence summary answers.

a) Existential reasons

The first set of reasons why shame and guilt seem to be such problems for us are what I’ve called “existential” reasons: most commonly understood, shame and guilt are both negative emotions or experiences that we all have that are detrimental. They inhibit us from a sense of wholeness in some way. In other words, they make us feel bad about ourselves. Now I say this without triviality; our emotions are a very important, powerful, but complex aspect of our beings, and when they turn on us, they can be highly destructive—both to us and to those around us. This captures why, for many people, dealing with guilt and shame means trying to rid ourselves of them.

b) Social reasons

But guilt and shame not just problems for us as individuals; many analysts suggest our societal problems revolve around them as well. In 2015, Christianity Today published an article suggesting that the epidemic rise of things like cyberbullying and doxxing indicates that Western society is moving away from a “guilt culture” back to a “shame culture”—from the categories of right and wrong as the ethical standard in society to social inclusion or exclusion.4 Basically, loosed from the anchor of an absolute moral standard, we are now being led by the superficial, but tyrannical, whim of public opinion. And it is destroying us.

c) Theological reasons

The third reason why shame and guilt are such key problems for us is because the Bible tells us they are: Romans 3:23 says, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”. In many ways those two barriers to relationship with God—sin/transgression and failure/falling short of his glory—map onto the categories of guilt and shame. I recently read two Christian articles that described shame and guilt powerfully in this way: “Sin produces in us two awful tumours: guilt, and shame”5 and

[Guilt and shame are] the children of humanity. They cling tightly to our side. They will not easily be shooed away … 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.6

So for Christians, there’s theological problems to do with shame and guilt, which is why you have Christians who know they’re saved once for all by Jesus, but who still struggle with these things and the insecurity they bring to their relationship to God.

d) Terminological and conceptual reasons

The fourth set of reasons is a little different from the first three, but I think they’re actually the most critical to grasp if we want to deal with guilt and shame well. These are terminological or conceptual reasons. If you scanned the literature in both psychology and anthropology, the overwhelming impression you’d get is that almost nobody can agree on exactly what shame and guilt are. The result is discussion about them is thoroughly inconsistent and often downright confusing. Have a look at the following quotes:

[S]hame is a focus on self, guilt is a focus on behaviour. Shame is, “I am bad.” Guilt is, “I did something bad” … Shame is highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence … Guilt is inversely correlated with those things. [It’s] incredibly adaptive.7

So basically shame is bad, but guilt is good and can bring positive change. But then consider this from a prison mental health worker’s observation that guilt’s focus on behaviour in rehabilitation was useless if inmates showed no personal remorse:

[O]ne cannot rehabilitate a population that has no shame for aberrant behaviour … in an increasingly violent society where external controls are breaking down, shame may be the best hope … because it is the ultimate internal control.8

So now shame, rather than guilt, is the thing that brings positive change. So which one is it? Is shame bad and guilt good? Or is it the other way around? I thought they were both negative and detrimental!

Or how about these two quotes specifically on the nature of shame:

Shame is closely related to guilt, but there is a key … difference. No audience is needed for feelings of guilt … Not so for shame. The humiliation of shame requires disapproval or ridicule by others.9

So shame requires an audience, whereas guilt does not. But then consider this from another author: “One can certainly feel shame when alone—that is, shame does not require an actual observer or audience”.10 So, shame doesn’t require an audience. Well, does it or doesn’t it? I’m very confused. I think I may need counselling myself!

This is, perhaps, the key problem we have in dealing with guilt and shame—just understanding clearly what we mean by each one, how they relate to each other, and our experience of them. Now each of those authors do try and resolve these apparent contradictions in different ways. But can you see how this swirl of different, often opposing, definitions can hamstring us from the start? How can we deal with guilt and shame well when we can’t even figure out what they are?

How do we deal with shame and guilt?

So I want to start by unravelling this confusion. I’m going to present some brief coverage of research in each field and then highlight the strengths and weaknesses, as well as some helpful new contributions in each area. And then I’ll try to put forward a more consistent and helpful model of shame and guilt that, for me, tries to take account of it all.

a) Unravel the confusion and clarify the concepts

I. Shame and guilt in psychology

Our contemporary understanding of shame and guilt springs largely from Sigmund Freud’s work in the late 19th and early 20th century. It’s largely his theories that lie behind the wide range of definitions around at the moment. But probably the most dominant popular psychological understanding of guilt and shame was expressed by Brené Brown in her now-famous TED talk. Her view can be summarised as follows: guilt occurs whenever an internalised moral boundary is touched or transgressed, and is accompanied by the fear of punishment—essentially doing what you ought not to do. So guilt is about how a person acts. Shame, on the other hand, occurs when an ideal sense of self fails to be reached, and it is accompanied by the fear of exclusion or rejection. So in contrast to guilt, shame is not being what you ought to be (usually in the eyes of others); it’s about who a person is. In Brown’s terms, guilt is “I’m sorry; I made a mistake”, whereas shame is, “I’m sorry, I am a mistake”. See the distinction? It’s about behaviour versus being; what I do versus who I am; punishment versus rejection; guilt versus shame.

So that’s probably the dominant definition in psychology at the moment. I think it’s very powerful and, in some ways, very helpful. But as we’ll see when we look at it more closely, it’s also incredibly problematic.

II. Shame and guilt in anthropology

The terms found their way into anthropology in the now classic contrast between shame cultures and guilt cultures. Also, springing from Freud’s definitions, anthropologists suggested that nations can be described in terms of whether their social dynamics spring from guilt or shame—that is, whether its people operate on an internalised (or individualistic) moral code (conscience, or guilt), or on an externalised (or collectivistic) set of social expectations and sanctions (shame). As Ruth Benedict puts it in her classic work on the differences between post-WWII Japanese and US cultures, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, “True shame cultures rely on external sanctions for good behavior, not, as true guilt cultures do, on an internalized conviction of sin. Shame is a reaction to other people’s criticism.”11

To help you get a feel for what this difference looks like in practice, here’s a table summarising them that I found online:12

GUILT CULTURE Other people believe I didn’t do it: Other people believe I did do it:
I believe I didn’t do it: No problem. I protest my innocence and fight the accusation.
I believe I did it: I am expected to feel guilty regardless. I am guilty and am punished.

(or honour/shame culture)

Other people believe I didn’t do it: Other people believe I did do it:
I believe I didn’t do it: No problem. I am shamed and dishonoured by their belief.
I believe I did it: No one knows, so I am not shamed. I am guilty and am punished

Now the important thing to note here is that guilt and shame are not so much (as in psychology) two emotions within an individual, but two types of collective social dynamics and motivators. In a guilt culture, the key determinant is the individual: what matters is if I believe I did the wrong thing, no matter what others might think. In a shame culture, the key determinant is the group: if they believe I did it, I am shamed and dishonoured, regardless of whether of not I believe I did it. From this basic framework, you get the more fully formed polarised values for each cultural dynamic: guilt/innocence, shame/honour, and sometimes people add a third: fear/power.

I’ve found in my own experience and also in my discussion with others that this difference in how the terms are used in psychology versus how they’re used in anthropology—emotions versus social structures—is one of the major reasons why being clear on what we mean by guilt and shame is so difficult. So let me try and crystallise how the anthropological model uses the terms honour, shame and guilt, to clear things up a bit.

“Honour” is what a shame culture is built around, and it is basically “social esteem” or “social value”. In principle, it’s an abstract idea—one’s place (or the place of one’s group) in the social pecking order. However, since in (so-called) collectivistic cultures what matters is externalised, not internalised, this “place of honour” is expressed concretely—in rituals, rewards and symbols that indicate where you stand in the community. These signs are usually tied to specific basic human social realities. As one major scholar puts it, honour is, “socially proper attitudes and behavior in the area where the three lines of authority, gender status, and respect intersect”.13

“Shame” is the opposite of honour: it is the loss of social value. Here we need to be especially careful to define what we mean, because shame tends to be the most confusing term. In this anthropological model, “shame” does not refer to an individual’s emotion (“What I feel inside”); that is almost irrelevant in a collectivistic externalised society. Shame is about your lowered place in the social pecking order, and, like honour, it is also expressed concretely: there are other rituals, material losses and symbols that indicate a person or group has lost social value and should now be related to (or not related to) on this basis.

Shame is also the opposite of guilt, but again, not in terms of two different emotions: instead, it’s two different approaches to social motivations—what drives people in their actions in society. There are some cultures in which people operate largely by what we would call “individual conscience” or “guilt”—a private, internal moral framework of right and wrong that guides actions and decisions, but a framework largely independent of the opinions of others around them. This is “guilt culture”—Western culture. In contrast, there are other societies where people operate by what we would call “social expectations” or “shame”—the perceptions of others concretised by the public rituals and sanctions designed to maintain the social hierarchies of the community. This is “shame culture”—non-Western culture.

Now just before we move on, I also want to note how this anthropological approach to guilt and shame has impacted our understanding of the Bible. Over about the last 50 years, there’s been an increasing recognition that contemporary biblical interpretation and Christian theology has come almost exclusively from a Western, individualistic, guilt-culture viewpoint. But the problem is the Bible is not a modern Western document; it is an ancient Near-Eastern one. In other words, it’s not an individualistic guilt culture document, but a collectivistic shame culture document. And if that is so, then perhaps Western evangelicalism, with its focus on individual salvation and the cross as punishment for guilt, has been misinterpreting the shame-based Bible all along. So when you think of verses like Hebrews 12:2 (Jesus “endured the cross, despising the shame”) or 1 Corinthians 10:31 (“So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God”), suddenly a guilt/innocence paradigm might seem a little inadequate as the flag bearer of biblical understanding, whereas an honour/shame paradigm might be more appropriate. (In fact, some theologians are calling on Western evangelicals to do just that.)

III. Gains and dangers (… and more gains) in the study of shame and guilt

i. Gains in psychology

So that’s just a brief taste of where things are up to regarding what people think about shame and guilt. But what do we do with all this?

Well, I think there’s lots we can benefit greatly from in each area. In terms of psychology, there are two basic benefits: firstly, as I raised in the introduction, I think our emotions are a very complex, powerful, but sometimes neglected aspects of our beings—especially in Sydney evangelical circles. But when you think about it, the Bible is replete with examples of people of faith being overwhelmed by their emotions—whether in joy and praise, or in grief and turmoil (e.g. the Psalms). And so I think the Bible welcomes us to dwell on and understand our emotions as best we can so that we can discipline and direct them towards living for God.

Secondly, the psychological distinction between shame and guilt—who I am versus what I do—is an important distinction, which is recognised in philosophical discussions of the relationship between act and being. How does what I do relate to who I am? That’s a very important question, and psychology swims in those waters.

ii. Dangers in psychology

At the same time, I think there are several dangers, or weaknesses, in the psychological research on shame and guilt. The main one, as I’ve said already, is the confused definitions. But secondly, even if you do try to adopt one definition and stick to it, it’s hard to find one that actually works.

So, for example, Brené Brown’s definitions of shame and guilt are rhetorically very powerful and seem to make good sense. But her definitions have come under serious fire both for basically being little more than positive self-talk, self-esteem-ism, as well as having huge logical gaps. If shame is always damaging and destructive and can’t bring about positive change, then how come Paul can rebuke the Corinthians with, “I say this to your shame” (1 Cor 6:5)? Also, when you think about it, don’t we want some capacity to be able to say, in the right circumstances, “I am ashamed of myself”, or “You ought to be ashamed of yourself”? Such statements are not about excluding and rejecting, but about trying to bring ourselves/them back to our/their senses so that we/they can be included in healthier patterns of relationships again.

So I’d argue that it’s possible for shame to be just as restorative, positive and adaptive as Brown claims guilt is. And vice versa: guilt can also be as destructive a force as Brown says shame is. So there’s something fundamentally faulty in her model, because when you press it a little bit, it collapses. The same can be said for most psychological formulations, hence people keep writing articles on why no one can agree exactly what guilt and shame are.

iii. More gains in psychology

But thankfully it’s not all bad news: there have been some very helpful new contributions. I want to highlight one: In Defense of Shame: The faces of an emotion by Julien A Deonna, Raffaele Rodogno and Fabrice Toroni. As the title of the book implies, the authors defend shame as a necessary and, in fact, beautiful part of our emotional makeup. They draw a key distinction between the shame you feel and the act of shaming that brought it on. In other words, they ask, “What was it that made you feel shamed?” This leads to their conclusion that the emotion of shame itself isn’t the problem; rather, it’s being shamed for irrational or immoral reasons. That’s why shame has been understood—or misunderstood—to be completely negative and undesirable. The problem is not the emotion; the problem is when it occurs due to damaging reasons.

To demonstrate this, the authors develop Aristotle’s idea of prospective shame, where you use the emotion to imagine future situations that would result in you being disgraced. They conclude that this notion of shame is actually a vital tool in life—both for avoiding such situations, but also for constructing positive parameters for a flourishing life. That is, if you have the right value system in place, shame helps you walk towards what is admirable and good, and keep off the path that will lead to disgrace and ruin. Or it will help you recognise when you have gone off track and point you back in the right direction. The authors conclude: “[shame can be seen as] a full-blown virtue, as long as we endorse … the values that sustain it”.14

I think that this is so insightful and helpful. Basically what they’re saying is that shame is, in and of itself, a morally neutral category; it’s just an emotional reaction to failing to reach an ideal. What determines whether it’s a good or a bad thing in any case is the particular ideal/values (whether external or internal) that caused it. If those values are immoral, pathologically irrational or detrimental to positive relationship, then shame is definitely negative and destructive. If you have been constantly judged for your appearance and made to feel ashamed of the body God lovingly created for you, that is awful. But if the values that cause you shame are virtues, then shame, and especially prospective shame, is both positive and essential to life. If I treat you poorly or abusively, I should be ashamed of myself. If I come to my senses and feel that way, or are made to feel that way by others, that’s not a bad thing; that’s a good thing. So as long as the values behind it are virtues, shame is positive.

Now that obviously raises the key question “What do you think is a virtue?” We’ll get there in a little while. What I want to do now is to extend this thesis on shame to both guilt and honour. Just as shame/failure of an ideal is inherently neutral and needs the content of the ideal to be evaluated as positive or negative, so it is with guilt/transgression and honour. Whether feeling guilty is good or bad also depends completely on whether what you feel guilty for is legitimate or not. Likewise, living by honour can be either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on what you think makes up honour. The concepts themselves are all quite neutral; they all need filling by particular values in each context to determine how to assess them.

iv. Gains in anthropology

Let’s turn now to anthropology. One of the main benefits research into shame cultures and guilt cultures has shown is how important the concept of honour is for people groups across the world, including in the biblical world.

Secondly (and related to this), the emphasis on social sanctions within these cultures highlights the emphasis they place on relationships—particularly patterns of right relationship, which the Bible obviously shares. After all, one of the main ways we Sydney evangelicals talk about salvation is “Having a right relationship with God”. So honour/shame cultures might thus inform us individualists helpfully what that means and what it looks like.

Thirdly, honour/shame studies can help us better understand (and therefore better and more humbly engage with) people from cultures quite different to our own. In practice, many missionaries have found this strand of study very helpful for cross-cultural ministry.

Finally, if the Bible was written in an ancient shame culture, then the cross-cultural benefits of my second point extend to our biblical engagement and interpretation as well.

v. Dangers in anthropology

Unfortunately, however, and like in psychology, there are also deep problems in the anthropological study of shame and guilt. In fact, “deep” is an understatement; I think a more accurate word would be “catastrophic”. In his book on shame in ancient Greek writing, Douglas Cairns basically torpedoes the shame culture/guilt culture divide, by pointing out the simple fact that it doesn’t work either in definition or in practice.15 He analyses Ruth Benedict’s foundational The Chrysanthemum and the Sword and starts with her basic definition:

True shame cultures [Japan/Non-West] rely on external sanctions for good behavior, not, as true guilt cultures do, on an internalized conviction of sin [the US/West]. Shame is a reaction to other people’s criticism.16

Then Cairns just basically reads through Benedict’s book and shows how, at every point, it’s not only self-contradictory, it also demonstrates the exact reverse of what it’s meant to: as Benedict tries to outline the vast contrast between Japanese and US cultures, she actually demonstrates “how both acute concern for the opinion of one’s fellows, and the capacity to act on the basis of internalised standards are instilled by [Japan’s] emphasis on honor, status, and reciprocal obligation”.17 In other words, the Japanese Benedict studied (like pretty much every human across the globe and throughout history) are not just driven by external social sanctions, but also, at the same time, by internal, private moral convictions.

When I think about my experience growing up with Chinese parents, I can see that Cairns is exactly right: we kids were expected to conform to familial and social norms—that is, external social sanctions. But of course, my parents’ hope and goal was that we would imbibe their ethical framework ourselves so that it became internalised and self-motivating. But that’s a guilt culture thing, not a shame culture thing.

In addition (just in case you had any doubt remaining), Cairns points out one more devastating blow to the whole shame culture/guilt culture divide by pointing out that after her analysis, Benedict herself had to conclude that Japanese society was not a true shame culture, but “a shame culture with an admixture of guilt”.18 In other words, the very work intended to show how vastly different a shame culture was from a guilt culture actually ended up concluding that a shame culture is pretty much a guilt culture as well. So like psychology, a polarised distinction between shame and guilt cultures sounds great in theory, but in practice, it’s virtually useless. Cairns summarises by saying that the most you can say about the difference between shame and guilt is a slight shift in emphasis—from “I should not have done that” (shame) to “I should not have done that” (guilt).19

vi. More gains in anthropology

Now again, despite these deep flaws in the anthropological formulation of shame and guilt, anthropology has raised some helpful new insights. I’ve got two main ones.

Firstly, newer studies on so-called honour cultures have highlighted the importance of what’s called the PCR—Public Court of Reputation. Basically, what is honoured is so varied across different cultures, you can’t just plonk an assumed meaning on the term “honour”; you’ve got to figure out what the term means in specific contexts. The way you do this is by observing an elite group in the culture—a group who basically get to determine and oversee what honour is and who gets it. But the thing is, there’s usually a whole stack of these PCRs in society, all competing to have their take on honour at the top of the pile. For example, think of an ancient Roman city with Epicureans and Stoics, arguing about who really has the best way to live, plus you’ve got Christians in there as well: they’re all competing to make their view of honour dominant and determinative for society. So I hope you can see already how applicable this is—not only to so-called honour cultures, but to our so-called guilt culture too. Think about how some of our recent political debates on key social issues were conducted: doesn’t the idea of different PCRs, with their respective views of what is honourable and what is shameful, competing to make their view dominant and determinative for society, just fit the bill perfectly?

But the ease with which you can apply so-called honour culture dynamics to so-called guilt cultures leads to the second helpful new insight: you might think that the weaknesses of the shame culture/guilt culture distinction mean that the whole model is useless and that there are no shame cultures or guilt cultures. But I think it’s better to say that all cultures are both honour/shame cultures and guilt cultures. I read a great article noting this exactly:20 just as Japan, the so-called shame culture, had plenty of guilt culture dynamics built into it, so the US and Australia—so-called guilt cultures—have plenty of honour dynamics built into them. From the brands we wear to the kind of car we drive, where we were educated, the location of our office, who we rub shoulders with, and which sports team we support, we Westerners are saturated with social and honour concerns. When you think about it, in light of the Bible’s teaching that we are all inherently relational beings, this makes perfect sense. I found this table on the internet that illustrates this perfectly in a hilarious way:

Anglo-EU translation guide

Now, this is obviously something of a caricature, as well as being slightly racist. But what’s really fascinating is how this table is conceptually almost identical to the Asian notion of “face”—doing or saying what will maintain the stability of social relationships, rather than exactly what you think at the time. In other words, the same—or very similar—cultural dynamics that characterise a classic (so-called) honour-shame culture are just as prominent and foundational in a classic (so-called) guilt culture. And when you realise that all cultures operate on all three dynamics—that is, that honour, shame and guilt are present in all societies—there’s great value in research on honour culture. What marks the difference between cultures (and they can be very different) is not that one operates on guilt and another on honour and shame, but rather the particular values that determine what honour, shame and guilt are in each one.

A similar thing can be said for individuals: there is the same set of dynamics in us that variously interact with the dynamics of our society around us. That’s why you can be shamed by society for something, but feel no shame individually—because you subscribe to a different formulation of honour, shame and guilt. Alternatively, that’s also why peer pressure has always been as powerful a force in guilt cultures as it is in shame cultures. We are social beings; it’s no wonder that, despite our philosophical individualism, deep down, we really do care deeply what other people think of us.

IV. Putting things back together: proposing a more consistent, useful model

Let me try and put it all back together in a more consistent model of understanding. I think the analysis we’ve just done demonstrates that one of the key things that is so confusing in these discussions and understandings of shame and guilt is that you pre-load the terms with specific content, values, associations and assumptions, but you use the terms as if they’re the pure concept. So in Brené Brown’s case, I think she’s taken one form of an emotion (a painful, personal response to an illegitimate sense of failure being imposed on you, which results in further detrimental effects on you) and used that as the base concept of “shame”. But all the exceptions and contradictions this results in leads to death by a thousand conceptual and logical cuts. So I think we need to try and peel back everything we can and return to first principles—use the gains in research in both psychology and anthropology to construct a more robust model, able to handle the varieties of phenomena (individual and social) the words can be used to label.

I think the place to start is honour, which is basically the concept of an “ideal value”, personally or socially. Again, it’s morally neutral—until you work out the moral value of the thing you are valuing in the situation. Shame is not quite the direct opposite of honour; that would be dishonour. But it’s pretty close. Shame is really a failure to reach an ideal—which, in this case, is whatever you think is honourable. Guilt is very closely related to this: it is the concrete things that signify that you have breached or broken the boundaries of acceptability in light of what you think is honourable. For me, this is the model that accounts for the variety of definitions you run across, but also tries to avoid their weaknesses and pitfalls.

Let me give you two quick examples of how I think this works well, using the terms in a range of different settings, both trivial and serious. I love fishing. Say I go fishing, and when I come back, you ask me, “How’d you go?” I say, “Didn’t catch anything.” You say, “Oh, that’s a shame.” Now, by this, you don’t mean, “You are an awful person who is of absolutely no value, and I want nothing to do with you.” (Or at least, I hope you don’t!) You just mean that there was an ideal: I go fishing; I catch a fish. I failed in that ideal, so that’s a shame. It’s just a disappointment. You’re trying to empathise with me/include me. But the shame here so trivial and non-moral, it barely impacts anything. But if I bought a fish from the fish shop on the way home and lied—told you I caught it when I didn’t—that would be closer to moral shame and guilt.

Now for the other extreme: take honour killings in certain cultures. For some, this is one of the most paradigmatic and negative examples of an honour culture, as opposed to a guilt culture. But when you take into account that, actually, the ethical standards in those cultures are very highly developed (just along different lines), it’s much more accurate to say that in this cultural system, it is not only shameful to dishonour your parents by marrying a non-Muslim, it is morally wrong—so wrong, it is a severely punishable offence. Now, we may disagree vehemently with the practice (and I hope you do), but it’s not because it’s from one culture type (shame) and we’re from another (guilt); it’s because the honour values that generate that morality differ from the honour values that generate ours.

So I think that this formulation of honour, shame and guilt, and how they relate to each other, works better with how we use the terms in various settings. It explains why they can be both internal and individual, and external and social—why they can be completely trivial or utterly serious, or highly emotional or barely emotional at all—why sometimes they can seem absolute or longstanding, and other times, totally relative or recent—why shame can easily refer to “acts”, and guilt can just as easily refer to “being” and “identity”—why exclusion is often a form of punishment—and, ultimately, why guilt and shame can both be so “good” or so “bad”. The shape is consistent across all situations—ideal, failure, concrete expression of failure. What determines their impact on us, and whether they help us or harm us, is the specific content that comprises them in each context, and how these different contexts (or PCRs) impinge on us.

b) Examine the Bible’s use of shame and guilt (and honour)

I. Survey the range of use

That was a very long lead-up, but I hope you see why I felt it necessary so that we’re all on the same page. What I want to do now is turn to the Bible to see what value system of honour, shame and guilt—the ultimate PCR, that is, God—says should be dominant and determinative for us.

But I’m going to skate over the survey of the Bible’s honour, shame and guilt vocabulary, and the themes in salvation history.21 Basically, the biblical terms for honour, shame and guilt cover a similar range of meaning to what I’ve already outlined: you can have good honour, bad/false honour and trivial honour; non-moral shame (e.g. Judges 3:25), emotionally abusive shame and legitimate shame; and “guilt” can mean an actual transgression, feeling guilty, or just something twisted away from its purpose, whether moral or physical. So the meanings are pretty broad.

II. Trace the themes through salvation history

But this breadth is funnelled and focussed towards the main subject of the Bible—that is, the glory, or honour, of God. The Bible uses the same terms for both and says that in the end, God’s glory is what creation—and especially the gospel—is all about. So as we’ve seen in 1 Corinthians 10:31, we are meant to do all things for the glory of God. Honouring God is what life is truly about. It’s what creation was made for. Likewise, the gospel—the cross of Christ—is all about Jesus being the expression of God’s glory and honour: “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Furthermore, the gospel is also about God elevating Jesus to the name above all names—the top of the pile—the one to whom every knee will bow and give ultimate honour (Phil 2:5-11).

III. Align our understanding (and experience) of shame and guilt with the Bible

So this is the view of honour (and therefore shame and guilt) that God’s people should seek to align our understanding with. It determines, conditions and constrains our understanding and experience of all the other honour systems in which we participate.

i. God’s honour as the foundation of understanding shame and guilt

But remember: honour is a neutral concept, so saying we should live for God’s honour is not enough. We need to fill the concept with the content of what is actually meant when we talk about “God’s honour”.

The Bible obviously talks a lot about God’s honour or glory, given that it’s the central topic of Scripture. God’s glory is tied to his power and worth—his splendour and beauty—his reputation and rule. But the thing that lies at the heart of it all, and ties all the rest together, is, perhaps, a little unexpected: it’s revealed for us in a key episode in Israel’s wandering in the desert in Exodus 33:18ff in the aftermath of the Golden Calf incident. Even though that is resolved, Moses, presumably still exasperated with the people, asks God to show him his glory as a sign that God is still with them. God’s answer is striking: “‘I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name “The Lord”’” (Exod 33:19). What is fundamentally the glory and honour of God? It’s not his power or riches; it’s his character—his goodness—which is then defined for us in Exodus 34:6-8, when God passes by Moses and proclaims his name: “‘The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness’” (Exod 34:6). These two terms—God’s love and God’s faithfulness—become a summary of who God is at heart and what he deems is of ultimate value: love (fierce determination to do good to another, regardless of the cost to oneself) and faithfulness (steady commitment to fairness, justice, and reliability that means you can depend on someone and build a solid relationship with them).22

The point of this is to say that this means that the honour of God is a wonderful thing. What else would you want creation to revolve around? The glory of God—his honour—the thing that ought to be valued, cherished and elevated in the world—is not the self-aggrandisement that is often associated with human honour, but God’s self-giving goodness to what he has made. He doesn’t exploit or demean those who are under him and who depend on him; he loves and faithfully serves them, and gives himself to doing good to them, no matter the cost to himself. When you see it that way, isn’t living in that honour system life and blessing itself? So that’s the ideal the Bible sets as true honour. And this then gives us the foundation for how to understand shame and guilt properly—especially in our experience.

ii. The goal of creation: receiving, reflecting and returning God’s honour

To help us get a handle on that, I want to use an illustration of how the world is meant to work from the American theologian and revival preacher Jonathan Edwards. In his tract A Dissertation Concerning the End for Which God Created the World, he says to imagine a light source—like the sun—and a mirror. God is like the sun: he is the source, and he makes the world so that he can pour forth his glory into it—that is, fill it with his honour—his serving love and faithfulness to us. But the process doesn’t end there: creation (and especially humans) is to receive God’s glory and then reflect it around so that the world is filled with his good gifts. Then we are to return his glory as we use those gifts in accordance with his will, and as we praise and thank him, the giver. So there is this beautiful relationship of rebounding love and faithfulness—from God to us, us to each other, and us back to God. God’s serving love and faithfulness wonderfully fills, dignifies and elevates his servants, who then give themselves in serving love and faithfulness to him and to others. That’s how the world is supposed to work. That is the ideal—the true honour around which the world revolves, and to which the world is finally headed.

When you think about it, it makes good sense of our experience. Aren’t the best and most satisfying times in life those times when you have been loved—when someone has shown a deep desire to just do good to you—not to manipulate you, or for their own benefit, but at their own expense? Isn’t it when someone has given you their word and kept their word, showing themselves to be trustworthy and reliable? Or alternatively, isn’t it that satisfaction and joy you feel when you have given of yourself to someone else in that way?

In comparison, aren’t those times when people have let you down, betrayed you, been indifferent or abusive towards you, or when you have been that towards others, a small taste of death? For me, this illustrates the truth of God’s word—that the world, and therefore our lives, are meant to work around receiving, reflecting and returning his love, and faithfulness.23

iii. The nature and consequences of sin

That understanding of God’s honour also helps us understand the nature of sin and its consequences—especially in terms of shame and guilt. Sin is much more than just breaking rules or committing a crime; sin is when the world turns away from its true source of glory, the Creator, and tries to seek glory elsewhere—in what is created. But the mirror has no light of its own; it depends completely on its source. So when we turn away from God, the world is twisted away from its true glory and becomes bound by darkness, death and decay. The wheels come off, and our use and enjoyment of creation degenerates into idolatry.

When you see it this way, you understand why shame and guilt in the Bible are so tightly related to sin: turning our hearts away from God ruptures the relationship of true honour around which the world revolves and which gives it life. We have utterly failed to reflect and return God’s love and faithfulness as we should. We know this because of the concrete breaches of right relationship with him and each other that we have committed in thought, word and deed. That is our true shame. That is our true failure. That is our guilt, which God’s word in the Law and the Gospel brings to light, revealing through our actions how our hearts constantly break the bounds of our relationship to God. As it says in Romans 3:23, “for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory [i.e. honour] of God”.

But it also explains why so often, in the Bible, what is shameful or guilt-worthy is so close to what is honourable and right. It’s like sex: in the context of a loving and faithful marriage, sex is a powerful, wonderful gift of God to be enjoyed and used as a vehicle to serve your covenant partner joyfully. That is the ideal: it is wonderful and right, and you wouldn’t want it any other way. But take sex out of that context, or use it within marriage to dominate or abuse, and it becomes damaging and degrading, filled with shame and guilt. It stops being honourably self-giving the way it’s intended to be, and instead becomes shamefully self-serving, which we know is wrong. It is twisted out of its proper place within the bounds of God’s honour, and so it now fails to deliver what it was intended to. In fact, it delivers the opposite.

iv. The honour of God in the gospel of Jesus

This way of looking at honour, shame and guilt also explains why the Bible presents the glory of Christ crucified as the foundation of how to deal with both shame and guilt: it’s because it’s the answer to sin. Remember John 1:14: how does Jesus reveal God’s glory to us? By being “full of grace and truth”. That is, love and faithfulness. The Creator enters his creation so that by his life of love and faithfulness in response to God’s goodness, he can turn the world darkened by sin back to its true source of glory. We see this on the cross: the cross is the ultimate expression of God’s honour and glory, because in it, we see God’s love and mercy—his love in offering forgiveness, restoration and reconciliation to ruined sinners, but love hand in hand with faithfulness—dealing justly with our sins so that they no longer condemn us, for Christ has paid for them in his death.

But the gospel of God’s love and faithfulness is not just about Christ’s work for us; it’s also about Christ’s work in us. Because we who are saved have now received his glory, we are also re-oriented back towards our creator, and by the work of his Spirit in us, we ruined sinners begin to find life and honour as we reflect and return God’s love and faithfulness once more, as we were made to. So Paul says to the Ephesian church,

Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. But that is not the way you learned Christ!—assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (Eph 4:17–24)

How do we do this? Reading on in Ephesians 4, it’s all about rebuilding your life around love and faithfulness—true honour and glory. So the gospel calls on us to be people of honour. But this doesn’t mean being conservative, formal and stuffy, with a high regard for ceremonies and courtesies; it means seeing every aspect of your life as an opportunity to receive, reflect and return God’s life-giving love and faithfulness to you.

IV. Use the Bible’s perspective as a lens for the complexities of experience

i. Psychologically/as an individual (BUT before God)

Let me close with some brief thoughts on where the rubber hits the road with all this, and especially how it interacts with some of the secular study on the area. Firstly, psychology’s emphasis on and study of the individual can illumine the Bible’s teaching on our nature as limited, finite, fallen beings in a world under the shadow of sin. Psychology reminds us how complex and mixed we—and our experiences of the world are—especially how our emotions play a big, but sometimes hard to control, part in our motivations and actions. So at its best, psychology can help us understand and process those confusing swirls of shame and guilt within us—swirls that arise for different reasons and which are caused variously by internal and external forces. Furthermore, psychology shows us that godly, faithful living doesn’t mean being spiritually bulletproof (that is, just read your Bible, believe the gospel and you’ll walk through life unaffected by trouble); instead, it’s normal to feel up and down—to have some periods when you feel on fire and others when all you feel is darkness. For some of us, our experiences of shame and guilt (whether legitimate or illegitimate—whether they’ve been imposed on us or they come from what we’ve done) may have deeply scarred us—scarred us in ways from which we may not be able to heal completely in this life. But if I can put it this way, it is no shame to go through that.

However, it is also important to remember that true philosophical individualism is actually a godless, sinful attempt at self-rule. It’s no wonder that, when it runs rampant in society, as I think it’s beginning to do now, we find ourselves in an absolute ethical mess. No: robust, healthy, biblical individualism is to see ourselves as individuals, but always before, and in relationship to, God. Ultimately, it’s his concepts of honour, shame and guilt that should form the final and absolute reference point for assessing how valid our individual, relative experiences of shame and guilt really are. If the reasons we feel shamed or guilty don’t line up with God’s perspective, they are illegitimate and need to be resisted and rejected. If they do line up with God’s perspective, we ought to embrace them and use them both prospectively to build ourselves towards true honour. But we should also see that when we fall into them, they are God’s painful but good and loving call to turn back to him and find forgiveness and restoration to life.

ii. Anthropologically/as an individual in community (ACTUALLY, communities)

With anthropology, I think its real value is to remind us that in the end, none of us are truly independent, self-sustaining individuals: we are inherently relational beings, and that makes perfect sense when you remember that we were made in the image of the God who is relationship—the Trinity. So it’s no wonder that articles are now suggesting that the West is moving back to a collectivistic shame culture; it’s just they’re completely wrong, because we were always a collectivistic shame culture. We’ve just had a particularly high collective concern for the individual person, which is now dissolving as our society rejects the Bible that dignifies each person as being made in the image of God.

But anthropology reminds us of the biblical truth that true life is found in relationship. We need each other to really know and be who we are. We need God most of all, but we also need those around us. That’s why the church—gathering together with our brothers and sisters in Christ in love and service—is the central aspect of the saved life in the New Testament. Because it’s when we’re together that we have the opportunity to reflect God’s love and faithfulness to others, which, remember, is one of the main reasons for our existence.

It’s here that the complexities of our various personalities and gifts, and our various individual seasons of strength and weakness, become opportunities to both receive and express the goodness of God to us. I remember reading a fantastic article years ago on the experience of depression being a reminder of the need we have to both serve and, in turn, be the opportunity for others to serve us in our own time of need. Sadly I can’t remember where I read it, but it was very helpful in my thinking on the nature of Christian life, ministry and fellowship—that they involve us both giving and receiving, not simply one or the other. I think it’s the same with our experiences of shame and guilt: some of the impact of them on us runs deep and does indeed cling to us, and for many of us, there are times or situations when they are beyond our individual strength to bear. Again, in light of God’s honour, it is no shame to recognise that: we are frail, broken creatures who need the grace of God and who often need our brothers and sisters to support and carry us when we lack the strength to ourselves. That’s true, biblical, fellowship, isn’t it? As Galatians 6:2 puts it, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ”. So anthropology helps us remember that we are social beings so that we can develop support structures of love and faithfulness—relational connections—into our social scripts in our families and at church to help each other walk through these times and stay on the path with God.

Furthermore, at a broader social level, anthropological concepts can help us Christians engage well with the world. I think the concept of the PCR—or multiple PCRs—is so helpful in understanding social interaction. We Christians have (or should have) Jesus’ determination of what is honourable, shameful and guilt-worthy as our framework of value and life. But we don’t exist in a Christian bubble; we actually dwell in and meet many different PCRs in the world—our families, our workplaces, our social groups, those who commute with us, but whom we don’t know from a bar of soap, and so on. Each of these PCRs has its own sphere of influence and its own vision of honour and acceptability—sometimes explicit in established rules and norms, sometimes implicit, and sometimes just the “vibe” of things. But the PCR is still present, and understanding and perceiving what this group deems honourable, shameful and guilt-worthy can help us better engage with people in that system, and stay godly in it, so that we can bring them the gospel of true honour in God’s grace.

Living here in Newtown, I can’t help but think of how closed the fringe community just outside our doors seems to be to us. Perhaps part of the reason why is because we haven’t been very good at crossing from our honour culture (both theologically as well as culturally) into theirs. It’s a good challenge, isn’t it, to try and discover at a deeper level what they cherish and value, what they reject and spurn, and why, so that we can better connect with them and, hopefully, win them for Christ.

Guilt, shame and the glory of God in the gospel of Jesus

There’s much more to say on this topic—especially on the concept of the PCR—but let me wrap up. In 1 Corinthians 4:3-5, in light of the Corinthians’ stinging criticism of his ministry, Paul makes a beautiful statement in response that, for me, captures the heart of what I’m trying to say tonight. It cuts across both shame and guilt—individual and cultural issues—and drives us to the heart of the gospel:

But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court [i.e. shame culture: psychological shame and guilt imposed by others]. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted [i.e. guilt culture: self-imposed psychological shame and guilt]. It is the Lord who judges me [i.e. God is the PCR that matters in the end]. Therefore, do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.

This is how we deal with shame and guilt: we’ve got to work hard at not using the standards of others, or even our own self-generated standards, as the measure of our value and worth—what is honourable and shameful, what is right and wrong. That may mean honestly acknowledging and confronting our true failures and crimes before him, as well as working hard to reject the false failures and crimes the world (or even our own hearts) tries to impose on us. But we’re also to cherish, elevate and hold as precious above all else in life the state being honoured—not by others or by ourselves, but by God—receiving praise from him, the true source of glory and honour. We do not deserve this because of our own glory and perfection, for that way leads to despair and illegitimate shame. Instead, on the last day, we will be seen for what we are—objects of his glorious grace and truth, sinners forgiven and restored through the Christ, whose honour was to lay down his life for us.

So at the end of the day, we deal with shame and guilt by having a true, absolute view of honour—God’s honour—a view that we then use to assess, process and walk through our various experiences of shame and guilt. God’s love and faithfulness to us is the true and absolute measure of honour. True shame, then, is a failure to respond in love and faithfulness to him, and true guilt is the concrete expression of that failure in thought, word and deed.

But ironically (no, fittingly and wonderfully, when you remember its content) the gospel of Jesus is the final and ultimate expression of God’s honour: that honour takes ruined sinners—helpless and hopeless in their sin—and justly and graciously redeems, restores and re-dignifies them, so that they can now say, from a place of utter security and love, “I once was blind, but now I see—was lost, but now I’m found”.24 And so finally, we deal with our shame and guilt—past, present and future; internal and external; legitimate and illegitimate—by clinging to God’s wonderful honour—no matter what our feelings or others tell us—thus enabling us to help and be helped by our brothers and sisters in Christ to do the same.


1 Brené Brown, I Thought It Was Just Me, Penguin, New York, 2007, p. xix.

2 C Fitzsimmons Allison, Guilt, Anger and God, Regent College Publishing, Vancouver, 2003, p. 54, citing Freud’s quotation of Hamlet, “Conscience doth make cowards of us all”. (Originally published in 1972 by Seabury Press, New York.)

3 Patrick Durkin, “Mental Health Costs Economy more than $60b”, AFR, August 2015: Accessed 14/02/2018.

4 Andy Crouch, “The Return of Shame”, Christianity Today online: Accessed 14 June 2018.

5 Michael Jensen (@mpjensen), “Sin produces in us two awful tumours: guilt, and shame”, tweet, 17 February 2018 8:30am: Accessed 13 June 2018.

6 Dan DeWitt, “The difference between guilt and shame”, The Gospel Coalition, 19 February 2018: Accessed 10 May 2018.

7 Brené Brown, “Listening to shame”, TED, March 2012: Accessed 10 May 2018.

8 Joe Roberts, “No Shame”, in New Republic, September 1992, p. 4.

9 Paul Ekman, Telling Lies, cited from Accessed online 10 May 2018.

10 Dan Zahavi, Self, Consciousness, and Shame, OUP, 27 June, 2012, first uncorrected proof cited from Accessed online 10 May 2018.

11 Ruth Benedict, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese culture , First Mariner Books, New York, 2005 (1946) p. 223.

12 James S Atherton, “Doceo; Shame-Culture and Guilt-Culture”, 10 February 2013: Accessed 13 June 2018.

13 Bruce J Malina, The New Testament World, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, 2001, p. 30.

14 Deonna, Julien A, Raffaele Rodogno and Fabrice Toroni, In Defense of Shame: The faces of an emotion, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2011, pp. 178-79 (emphasis mine).

15 Douglas Cairns, Aidos: The Psychology and Ethics of Honour and Shame in Ancient Greek Literature , Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1992.

16 Benedict, p. 222.

17 Cairns, p. 28.

18 Ibid, p. 28.

19 Ibid, p. 25.

20 F Gerald Downing, “Honor among Exegetes”, CBQ 61, 1999, pp. 53-73.

21 For those interested, I did a survey in my PhD, which is available in the Moore College library. You’ll have to wade through a bit of Hebrew, but even if you don’t have Hebrew, I think there’s enough in there for you to get the idea.

22 Sometimes you see the synonyms “mercy” and “justice”, or “grace” and “truth”, like what John says of Jesus in John 1:14.

23 Cf. Romans 11:33-36: “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory [honour] forever. Amen” (v. 36; emphasis mine).

24 John Newton, “Amazing Grace”, 1779.

Our next event:

“Is God green?” with Lionel Windsor, Monday 29 July 2019 at Moore College.

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