Guilt and Shame


My wife was in a women’s Bible study that recently brought up the topic of guilt. The comment was made that, “All guilt is from the devil.” As we discussed this on our walk that evening, she said that the comment pretty well summed up the attitude of the group, but that she did not feel comfortable with it. When we got home, we turned to the dictionary to see if maybe we were missing something.

1: the fact of having committed a breach of conduct especially violating law and involving a penalty; broadly : guilty conduct
2a : the state of one who has committed an offense especially consciously
b : feelings of culpability especially for imagined offenses or from a sense of inadequacy : self-reproach
3: a feeling of culpability for offenses

2b comes closest to something that may not be an accurate self-assessment, due to “imagined” offenses. Perhaps shame was what these ladies were really speaking of when they talked about guilt.

1a : a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety
b : the susceptibility to such emotion
2: a condition of humiliating disgrace or disrepute : ignominy
3a : something that brings censure or reproach; also : something to be regretted : pity
b : a cause of feeling shame

Well, maybe not. What is going on here? These ladies seem to be missing a fundamental truth.

For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God

Romans 3:22b-23 (ESV)

We have sinned, therefore we should feel guilt and shame. So, what are we missing?

The dictionary tells me that guilt is feeling bad for what I have done and shame is feeling bad for what I am. I am what I do; that is the way the world (generally) works. It is also the way Scripture works. If I commit sin, I am a sinner. I am guilty, therefore I should be ashamed.

As we’ve continued to revisit this topic, we think the issue is not that guilt (and shame) are bad. The problem is that we don’t like them. Americans, and their churches, are about feeling good. The internet will gladly give up quotes along the lines of, “Don’t feel guilty; just do what you want.” Sounds a bit like, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:4-5 ESV)

Yet Scripture is clear that we are to feel bad for our guilt.

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.

James 4:7-10 (ESV)

Just in case you think James is too harsh, Jesus said, “Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.” (Luke 6:21b ESV) “Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.” (Luke 6:25b ESV)

The proud man dwells more willingly on the little good he does, on the little devotion he feels, than on the thought of the evil he has committed and which he does daily. He puts behind him the multitude of his sins, so that he need not be ashamed and humble himself; and he reflects often upon certain of his minute exercises of Christian piety, so as to indulge his self-complacency, as St. Gregory says: “It is easier for them to see within themselves that which is  pleasing to them, than that which is displeasing.” Perhaps you also have this tendency.

Cajetan Mary da Bergamo, Humility of Heart

If we do wrong — and Scripture is clear that we all have — we are guilty and therefore should feel shame. Though it is unpleasant to feel guilt and shame, the answer is not to do away with them, but to fight against sin.

Consider this: Touching a hot stove hurts. What is the answer to this problem? Our society would tell us to find some sort of salve or medicine to deaden the pain. Common sense tells us to not touch the stove.

Some would call this being judgmental. I disagree. If you feel guilt and shame, it is because you think you have done wrong. I’m not going to argue that you haven’t, because we all have. Thanks be to God that we have hope of forgiveness through Jesus.


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