Equipping and Empowering for Victorious Kingdom Living

Guilt or Shame? Do You Know the Difference?

Guilt or shame? Woman hiding her face in her hands
Guilt or Shame?

We had completed a successful ministry session just a week ago, but Susan continued to say how dirty she felt every time she “let God down” by not doing everything perfectly. Many of the things she was reporting were not really sin. They were unhealed attitudes about herself. And frankly, some of them made sense for her protection. It struck me that she was not suffering from guilt, but from shame.

Do you know the difference? She didn’t, nor do most people I minister to. Here’s my definition, which has helped to set a number of people free:

Guilt is about what you have done.
Shame is about who you are.

So, what difference does that make? All the difference in the world!

Guilt

You see, guilt is related to true sin. A violation of God’s commandments or an offense against another person.

And so, I am guilty. But the good news is that the antidote to guilt has already been provided for us by the cross of Christ. When we are guilty, we simply confess our sin to God and the offended person, repent, make restitution if necessary, and receive forgiveness. It’s pretty straightforward.

Shame

Shame, on the other hand, requires a different remedy. Shame attacks my identity. Who I see myself as, and how others see me. I am bad, dirty, ugly, stupid, naughty, clumsy, incapable… The list is endless. I feel guilt, but the real issue is shame, which usually originates when a parent or other significant adult uses shame rather than discipline to correct an offense. They attack the identity, the essence of a person. 

Before long, you don’t need that adult to tell you how bad you are. You can do it yourself! And so you do. You tell yourself that lie every time you make a mistake. Every time you look in the mirror. Every time you make a decision.

For example, my sister was utterly gorgeous as a child. I was quite plain and my mom didn’t know what to do with my straight, fine hair. So I never felt pretty. I was never told I was pretty, or even ok. One day my dad said, “Pat, you’ll never be pretty, but you’re smart.” At that moment, I didn’t want to be smart. I wanted to be pretty like my sister. And now, my ugliness had been confirmed—spoken out loud—by the man who should have been building me up. For the next 50 years, I was ashamed of my looks. I defined myself as ugly. Nothing I did changed that belief. No new hair style, no new dress, no new make-up could remove the label of UGLY. I felt shame all the time.

How Can I Heal From Shame?

Since shame is about who I am rather than what I did, the critical test is whether this self-assessment is biblical truth. God has already provided his assessment of who I am throughout Scripture. If my assessment differs from his, guess who’s wrong? For example, he says I am fearfully and wonderfully made (Ps 139:14). Who am I to assert anything different? I need to rein in those thoughts and make them conform to what God says about me (2 Cor. 10:4-5). If I don’t, that is sin. Then I am guilty of unbelief. But if I accept God’s assessment of me, then I have dealt effectively with shame.

Now here’s the secret. Shame is empowered by an evil spirit which is often very resistant to leaving. It will argue and double down, repeatedly reminding me how terrible or ugly or worthless I am. But if I declare and repeat God’s truth regularly, every 37 seconds (or every time the feeling returns), it’s only a matter of time before the negative feelings leave and are replaced with Truth. In my experience, it takes about a month to feel better if I’m diligent in refusing to accept the lie while applying the Truth.

So, give it a try.

Conquer guilt by confessing and repenting.

Conquer shame by appropriating God’s truth and rejecting Satan’s lies.

Let me know how it works for you.

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