Have you ever considered what the difference is between guilt and shame?
Here in Psalm 69, attributed to David, he mentions both of these uncomfortable feelings.
He says concerning his guilt (although not informing us of what exactly he is guilty of):
5 You, God, know my folly;
my guilt is not hidden from you.
Then he speaks of his sense of shame:
7 For I endure scorn for your sake,
and shame covers my face…
19 You know how I am scorned, disgraced and shamed.
All human beings, by our very nature, will experience guilt and shame. Sadly, we are all inclined towards going our own way, doing that which is often self-centred, walking away from the good that we should do, and then having to face the consequences of this activity and attitude.
Unless we have hardened our heart against what is just and true and good, then we will often suffer from a guilty conscience. Some people do feel guilty when maybe they probably shouldn’t (e.g. parents of difficult children, victims of abuse, etc), but usually the feelings of guilt are justified in our lives. The reason being that we have transgressed some law or standard that we were aware of and yet ignored.
The Bible speaks clearly: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).
So, that’s guilt, and David says concerning his experience that he is very aware that his guilt is not hidden from God. i.e. God knows and we cannot hide it from him. In another psalm David describes what happens if we try to hide it. He says;
When I kept silent,
my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
4 For day and night
your hand was heavy on me;
my strength was sapped
as in the heat of summer.
But there was an answer to his dilemma. He continues:
5 Then I acknowledged my sin to you
and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, “I will confess
my transgressions to the Lord.”
And you forgave
the guilt of my sin. (Psalm 32:3-5)
The Apostle John puts it this way in the NT:
7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from allsin.
8 If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:7-9)
So, what about shame?
Although probably not adequate, because we humans are more complex than this, a simple definition could be:
Guilt is the uncomfortable feeling about what I have done or failed to do. Shame is the very uncomfortable feeling about who I (or others) consider I am as a result of what I have done.
Guilt says, I have committed the crime of stealing. Shame says, I am a thief. Shame seeks to define who I am as a result of the guilt of my action. Of course, there may be some truth in this!
Guilt is certainly hard to live with if it remains unconfessed and undealt with.
Shame though can be very debilitating and drives people to desperation and despair and even worse activities.
Other definitions suggest that shame is not just about our self- identity but is broader than that. It has to do with relationships. It is a feeling of embarrassment or humiliation or disgrace due to failure known by others. Shame is how I then perceive how others (including God) see me.
In this psalm, the element of relationship comes out. He says:
7 For I endure scorn [by people] for your sake,
and shame covers my face…
19 You know how I am scorned, disgraced and shamed [before people].
Like us, David was not perfect. Like us, he was often guilty of some sinful action. But he didn’t allow his failures to shame him and define him as a person for long. He accepted his guilt, sought forgiveness, repented and moved on (see vs. 18-25 as well as Psalm 51). And this is what we need to do, with God’s help. If our guilt and shame lead us to seek to heal broken relationships and to a greater dependence upon God, then that’s positive.
The good news is that the verse I quoted above from Romans which says
23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,
continues, and concludes:
24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (Romans 3:23-24)
Thank God that “the one who trusts in Him will never be put to shame”. (Isaiah 28:16 and Romans 9:33)
Good news indeed!
Let me just finish with a final thought.
David, as a leader, was also acutely aware that when he failed, it impacted upon those who followed him. So, in this psalm, he prayed a prayer in verse 6 which I have often needed to pray myself, and that is:
6 Lord, the Lord Almighty,
may those who hope in you
not be disgraced because of me;
God of Israel,
may those who seek you
not be put to shame because of me. Amen.
[Author’s note: There is so much more to this topic of guilt and shame than I could cover in this short Post. Hopefully though this brief introduction is still helpful.]