Guilt is good, shame is bad

April 14, 2007 at 4:42 pm Leave a comment

neil-book.jpgIn line with my post yesterday on Japan’s shame-based culture vs. the West’s guilt-based culture, I thought I’d share Richard Neil’s analysis of guilt and shame from The God You Thought You Knew.

Neil defines the two terms a bit differently than I did in my last post, but his definitions are the same as mine in their essential points:

Guilt, says Neil, is the fact of having “done something wrong according to a standard outside oneself.” It’s “a realization based on a determination of fact[;] a state or condition of being—not an emotion.” (38)

Shame (according to the dictionary definition Neil quotes) is, by contrast, “a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety.” It often occurs when a person thinks he hasn’t met another’s expectations, and it’s always associated with a (feared) loss of reputation as one forfeits the respect, goodwill, or acceptance of others.

Guilt vs. shame: What are the results?

In his analysis, Neil suggests that guilt is a good thing, a healthy thing. Like pain, it exists to tell us when we’re doing something harmful to ourselves or our community. In that sense, a recognition of objective guilt is healthy because it leads to rectifying the problem.

Shame, on the other hand, is a bit different. It plays on our feeling that we don’t measure up, or that we have disappointed someone (either another person, or God). In other words, it works based on the fear that we have lost our place in our relationships. It’s associated with a sense of condemnation, along with fear of other people.

Significantly, the feeling of shame always leads to destruction of relationships (in contrast to a sense of guilt, which prompts us to rectify the wrong and thereby restore relationships). As Neil explains, shame results in four negative consequences: ashamed people are prompted to hide from others, cover up their behavior, loathe themselves, and feel distanced from others.

Is shame legitimate?

There’s no doubt about it—shame is real. It exists, and we all feel it.

But are we supposed to feel it? Neil makes the case that the answer is no.

As he demonstrates, the feeling of shame is a result of sin, and it represents a distorted perception of God’s attitude toward us. Though we might feel shame, it’s not because God shames us. Two of the biblical stories Neil analyzes in support of this statement are those of Mary anointing Jesus’s feet at Simon’s house, and the story of the prodigal son returning home. In neither case is the divine response one of shaming the individual in question, even though both had violated society’s (reasonable) standards.

(Although Neil doesn’t mention the story of the woman caught in adultery, I’d throw that one in as another good example. If ever there was a perfect time to heap shame on someone, this was it, but Jesus refuses to condemn.)

If God doesn’t shame us, should we shame each other? Presumably not. Our objective ought always to be restoration of relationships, never alienation in relationships.

Bottom line: Shame ought to be banished as a tactic for reformation.

Questions to consider:

1. Do you agree that God doesn’t desire us to be shamed?
2. Should Christians ever use shame to try to prompt changes in another person?


Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

Shame, shame! Thomas

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profile.jpgI am working on my M.A. in Religion at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Besides having a big interest in theology, history, ethics, and the deep stuff of life, I am also very fond of Mediterranean food, snow, and the color red.

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