Several years ago I was talking with some friends, and during the course of the conversation, I came to a realization that has helped me sort out some emotions:
Shame and guilt are not the same thing.
Shame is destructive
When I think about shame, I usually think about scenarios where we commonly see shame portrayed. Perhaps a person has done something wrong, and others are mocking him for it. Perhaps a person has done something wrong, no one knows about it, but she is afraid others will mock, belittle, intimidate, scorn, or think less of her because she did it.
When I think of scenarios like these, I’m struck by how the element of shame is something that we feel in response to how we imagine (or experience) others considering us. I believe this reaction is a veiled form of pride: we are placing the opinions of others above that of God.
Guilt is constructive
By contrast, when I think of guilt, I think of it in a more detached sense. A person is guilty who has broken the law. Thus, if that person recognizes the illegality of the action, the expected consequence is to feel guilt. Guilt has no comparison attached to it. It is, to steal a word from the title of this blog, binary. You are guilty, or you are not guilty.
Recognizing guilt, feeling guilty, and comprehending the ramifications of our actions are what impel us to seek restitution.
Shame ≠ Guilt
This definition has really helped me sort through my feelings when I realize I have sinned. As I consider my actions, I think: “is what I’m feeling shame or guilt?” If I’m feeling shame, it gives me an opportunity to uncover more aspects of pride in my nature. Who do I think is trying to shame me? Is God trying to shame me? (Hint: the answer to that question is always “no”.) As I answer these questions, I try to cast off these feelings and focus instead on my guilt. What did I do? Why did I do it? What choices of mine led me to that place? How do I avoid them when they will surely rise again in the future?
This, I believe, is the element of true repentance. When Adam and Eve were found naked in the Garden, God was not the one who shamed them; that was The Accuser. God simply acknowledged their wrongs and invited them to consider their actions, accept the consequences, and move on. Should our experience be any different?