Guilt arises from a sense of remorse about hurting someone else, and it is only possible to feel guilt when we have a sense of empathy for others.
Shame, on the other hand, arises from a sense of inadequacy, dishonor, and valuelessness brought about by non-conformity with a social standard. If our sense of identity encompasses our home or our family, then we can feel shame not only when we, ourselves, are out of conformity, but when our home or family members are out of conformity.
A common response to feelings of shame is hate. We may hate ourselves, and sink into a sense of despair or misery, or we may hate those that have projected the standards that we are unable to meet. Since despair drives an inward focus that causes us to lose all caring for others, then whether our response to shame is self-loathing, or others loathing, it inhibits our ability to empathize with those around us, and thereby inhibits our ability to feel guilt.
On the surface, therefore, shame appears to be a valueless and destructive emotion. Why then, is it a persistent component of our human experience? Because, from the earliest of times, humans have been interdependent. We depend on each other to survive and, therefore, the health of every member of our community is important to our own health. Further, since young adults have a propensity for making high-risk, health-altering decisions, it is clear that in order for a society to survive, it needs mechanisms to deter harmful behavior, and community pressure in the form of shame does exactly that. To understand this, think what it would take to raise a child in a subsistence culture. In that environment, if there wasn’t both a mother and father working every day to hunt and gather food, the burden would fall to the tribe, putting a strain on the community resources. It is easy to see how social standards against inappropriate sexual behavior serve to protect the whole community.
Shame has two components. The first, is the creation of community standards, or norms of behavior. As they evolve, these standards become an integral part of the culture of a community and serve as foundational components of the sense of identity of the individuals in that community. The second, is the acceptance of this standard, by the individuals in the community and, more importantly, an awareness when they do not meet it.
In the third chapter of Genesis, Adam and Eve felt shame once they ate of the tree of knowledge of good and evil because they had suddenly become aware of God’s standards and their failure to meet them. Shame, as derived from a standard of God’s righteousness, is a painful, yet positive emotion that can serve to drive us to conform to the wisdom and loving nature of God. Like all other things on this Earth, shame can be corrupted. For example, in Luke 1:25, we learn that women felt shame if they were childless–probably from a misguided notion that God was punishing them for some unrealized sin. In our current society, people often feel shame if they cannot sustain a high-wage job, if they suffer from any form of addiction, or if they feel unattractive, ill-educated, or inarticulate.
Because of the evil and unwarranted pain caused by ungodly shame, we, as members of a community, have a responsibility to be aware of, and influence, the standards and social pressure put on those around us. As Christians, we also have a responsibility to give comfort to those suffering under the burden of shame.
As individuals, when we begin to feel a sense of shame, we have a responsibility to evaluate the standards being forced upon us and to reject those that do not conform to God’s standards, as revealed through the Bible and the Holy Spirit. While to some degree it is foolish to set aside the collective wisdom and standards of our society, outright; we must be aware that all human societies and cultures have a tremendous propensity for piling burden upon burden on us. In Mathew 23:4, Jesus accused the local religious leaders of this very thing when he said: They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. Lifting this burden off our shoulders, though, is not easily done.
The reason why it is so difficult to let go of feelings of shame, is because while guilt derives itself from our past actions, shame derives itself from our very identity, from who we are as a person. A man might identify himself as unattractive because he is bald. A women might identify herself as weak, if she didn’t feel that she fought back hard enough, when raped. A key to fighting off this unwarranted shame, is to realize that our sense of identity is defined by the patterns of our thoughts. If, in our minds, we continually cycle through society’s notions of acceptable looks and strength, we are doing ourselves no favors; but for most of us, this is what we do all day long, and the constant stream of media that we expose ourselves to, doesn’t help. Healing comes, when we accept Christ’s advice to repent which, in the original Greek, was metanoia, meaning to change your mind. In Romans 12:2 the Apostle Paul shared the same advice, urging us to not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect and again in Ephesians 4:22-23 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.
With a short read of the Gospels, it is hard to miss the overriding message that God loves us, and went so far as to give the life of His only son to free us from the painful burden of sin. But having this sense of love work its way into our soul usually takes a more deliberate effort. If you are suffering from feelings of shame, the best thing to do is take a long-term holiday from the friends and media influences that twist your thinking, and spend time reading the Bible, praying to God, sharing your life with a Christian friend or mentor you can trust, and yes, occasionally reaching out to share the love of Christ with others. This is how you renew your mind, and it is how you shift your pattern of thinking away from the destructive values of society and towards the joy-generating values of Christ. As you do this, the feelings of shame will slowly dissolve away, along with the despair that goes with it.
As painful as shame can be, there is one thing worse than a culture of shame, and that is a culture that has no shame. In societies that promote values of independence and rebelliousness, where support for a person in need comes anonymously in the form of government checks and taxes, we are far less aware of the impact that our own behaviors have on others, and therefore, this type of culture loses its sense of shame. With the loss of shame, comes the loss of age-old wisdom, and with the loss of wisdom, comes an increasing cycle of pain, blame, more bad decisions, and finally, a sense of helplessness.
Life with no shame, is no life at all. If we refuse to accept the shame, and the pain of the shame, like Adam and Eve, then we lose our guidepost to the truth. The amazing thing about God, is that as soon as we acknowledge him, and acknowledge our sin and shame, He will reach out to us in tender love, and cover over our shame, just as he did with Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:21).