Shame, Guilt, and the Church: Part 3 – Shame vs. Guilt

Some of these thoughts are instigated by notes I took during a class on conflict mediation back in 2012. Part of the class the professor discussed certain aspects about shame and guilt, and thus vulnerability as well. Other thoughts come from Brene Brown’s TED talks, which I’ve already posted about below. Although much of what I am about to write about is universal, I am going to be writing from a Christian perspective here, with references to God and the Bible. Even if you are not a Christian, I believe that much of this will still resonate with you.

If there is one thing that is definitely universal for all of us, no matter our faith, it’s shame. We all feel shame, whether we choose to admit it or not. Have you ever thought about what shame is exactly? If someone asked you to explain what shame was, how would you explain it? How would it differ from guilt? Maybe this will help:

Shame is that deep sense of feeling unacceptable. It’s that feeling of being exposed, humiliated.

Shame lies in the shadow of guilt. It is something that is FELT, not a cognitive issue.


Shame continually plays two tapes:

1) “You’re never good enough” and 2) “Who do you think you are?”

Shame is the “swampland of the soul.”

Shame arises in our significant relationships. It arises due to life’s situations and culture’s response.

Shame arises within us because of what we do — our addictions, our sexual behaviors, etc.

Shame attaches itself to those who are made powerless, those who are victimized.

Shame is felt by minorities in the midst of a majority.

Shame causes feelings of being an outcast, exposed, naked, unclean, contaminated, separated, alone.

Shame paralyzes people. It keeps people from being able to move or act.

Shame is NOT simply embarrassment.

Those are some examples of how we can think about shame. But lets remember, guilt and shame are not the same thing. And we here in the U.S. are really bad about knowing the difference.

Guilt lies without, while shame lies within ourselves. Guilt can be acted upon so that you are no longer guilty. With shame, there is no set of redemptive actions that is possible. The self is stuck. It’s immovable until the feelings of shame gradually fade away or are interrupted by other feelings.

Removing shame requires an intervention from someone outside ourselves. For Christians, ultimately shame arises when we are exposed to God’s holiness. But we are not left to wallow in it. Jesus pursues us into the depths of our shame. The church must be a place where people can honestly bring the pain of their shame. For Christians, Christ plays a crucial role in overcoming shame. By taking upon himself and embodying our shame, Jesus, in His suffering and death, overcomes and redefines shame, inaugurating possibilities of respect for self and others, and for praise.

You might struggle with shame if you feel wrong, but you don’t know why. Or if blame just always seems to end up at your doorstep. Or if you still feel the shameful experiences of your past.

When dealing with shame:

1) Embrace it.
2) Expose it.
3) Lament and repent.
4) Forgive self and others.

Dealing with shame is an emotional experience. It’s not simply a cognitive one. It needs to be deeply heartfelt experience, not a decision to just not feel shame anymore.

As we deal with one another, let’s contemplate and be more aware of how we exploit shame. For example, be aware about how you use the word “should” and how you apply it in your relationships. Do you “should” others? The Church itself would do well to evaluate its own use of should language. Overall, the church needs to undertake the big task of de-idealizing itself, one another, and even God.

The church could modify some of its practices to help enhance the possibilities of flourishing and growth. It can focus on ways of making people feel welcome, guarding itself against making people feel alienated, adding to the self-hate and shame of its members and visitors.

An evaluation of how and what is being preached within local churches might do a lot to reduce shame within the church. Jesus didn’t give lists about how to be a better person, leader, or family member. We should evaluate the theological methods and symbols we use, making sure that we are not adding to people’s sense of shame. Churches need to be a place that gives space for pain and provides a safe place for those wanted or needing to expose their shame. If you don’t give space for pain, people will resist.

Shame, Guilt, and the Church: Part 2 – Vulnerability and Shame

[This is part two of an ongoing number of posts that I am doing to try and better understand the place of shame and guilt in our lives. Then, (eventually) I will talk about their place within the Church.]

Shame is something that is universal. If we can feel emotion, we feel shame. Interestingly enough, it is rarely discussed directly. So when someone does decide to talk about it, it is not a surprise to me that people seem to respond so favorably to the discussion. It’s like they’ve been waiting for someone to talk about it their entire lives.

That’s what happened in 2010 when Dr. Brené Brown decided to share what she had been studying about shame and vulnerability over the course of six years at a TEDx talk. She clearly knew that it was important information and that people would relate, but she had no idea how many people it would impact. Her original video has been viewed over 12 million times. Her popularity after doing that original talk increased so much that she was asked by Fortune 500 companies to speak at their events and conferences (she references this in her second video). Eventually, she spoke again at a TED talk a couple years later building upon her first talk about shame and vulnerability.

I will share the two videos here. I can’t recommend them enough. For me she says things that I have thought for years but have never had the ability to put into words. She gives summaries, examples, and definitions about shame and vulnerability after doing years of great research, gaining quantifiable data on the subject.

PLEASE watch them. They are each about 20 minutes. I promise you they are worth 45 minutes of your time. You may even want to watch them more than once.

Here’s the first one:

Here’s the second one:

Shame, Guilt, and the Church: Part 1 – An Introduction

[This is part one of a series that I am doing about the place of shame and guilt in our lives. This is an introduction. I will eventually get to talking about the place of shame and guilt in the church as well. ]

I have a notebook in which I reflect on things about culture, society, and worldviews. It is a compilation of personal thoughts and reflections, as well as notes from various lectures and dialogues I have been a part of. I do this because I am preparing to move to Japan within the next few years. I plan to serve in some kind of helping and advocacy role, whether it be counseling, pastoring, or more of a social work type of role. I’m not going as a white westerner come to fix all of Japan’s problems, but I want to learn how to be a bridge — a culture broker, so to speak. There are aspects of Japanese culture that are absolutely incredible. There are many things that Westerners can learn from their culture. But as in any culture there are also blind spots which inhibit growth and health within their society. And let me reiterate, the same is true for the American culture, as well as any other culture.

Oftentimes we hear cultures dichotomized into “Western” and “Eastern” cultures. And as frequently described, Western cultures come with values of individuality and democracy. With Eastern cultures come the values of honor and shame, and the importance of family. And then once we have neatly categorized these two, we can better compare and contrast.

Living in a modern and post-modern (and post-post modern?) society we like to reflect about ourselves. And when we do, we like to think we have things figured out. Something like a culture or society can be summarized neatly and understood once we have analyzed and precisely labeled things. But I would argue that every culture and society throughout the world is too complex to think we can have it all figured out. It might be nice to think we can. It makes it easier to sound smart and write doctoral dissertations at least.

Reflection is good, don’t get me wrong. (Isn’t that why blogs exist?) But I just don’t like it when we act like we have entire cultures or societies figured out. I dislike thinking that we can pinpoint why people act the way they do. Human beings are incredibly complicated. Put a whole bunch of us together and we become even more complicated. Let’s not be so arrogant as to say or think that we can understand ourselves and why we do what we do. We can postulate as to why things are the way they are, but let’s just try to be honest about what we can really know and what we can hope to understand.

Anyway, as I started off saying, I keep a notebook with various thoughts and notes about culture, society, and worldviews. I like to write down thoughts and questions that help me prepare for the cultural and worldview differences that I’ll experience when I get to Japan. And oftentimes these reflections help me understand that even though value systems might differ in many ways, generally speaking, there is much overlap.

Japanese culture, as well as many Eastern or Asian cultures, is often described as being an “Honor/Shame” culture. American culture is rarely, if ever, described in that way. I would argue that even though white Americans don’t necessarily have the same values, traditions, or expectations surrounding family and their community, it’s not like honor and shame don’t play a significant part into how and why we do what we do.

I think by labeling other cultures as being “honor/shame” oriented we for some reason conclude that we do not operate in the same way. But I think we do also operate in similar ways, but we just don’t talk about it in the same way, or recognize that we do.

I believe we Americans (and when I say we, I am speaking as a white, middle-class American) have a hard time explaining what shame and guilt are. We don’t really understand the differences between what shame and guilt are. This could also be in part because the topic of morality and ethics is so complex. I think when we try and define or describe what shame is, we are often thinking of guilt, and maybe vice-versa.

But just because we can’t define shame and its nuanced differences from guilt doesn’t mean that is we don’t feel shame as Westerners. We do. But we often ignore and overlook the importance of understanding what shame is, and how it impacts us as individuals, as groups of people (such as families or churches), and as a society at large.

So I have taken some notes over time, helping me understand what shame is and how it impacts us. I want to share some of these things, showing how shame differs from guilt, and how Americans, and especially the white American Church, have really dropped the ball on this.