Last week I wrote about meditating on scripture so we could know the difference between condemnation and conviction. As I was writing that post, I heard a great sermon (yes, it was my husband preaching, but seriously, it was objectively a great sermon!) about the difference between “guilt” and “shame.” While both are covered in the blood of Christ, the antidote to each is unique. Jesus is the Great Physician, and he came to heal. His word provides all we need for training and instruction in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16), but it takes wisdom to know which part of his word, which aspect of his sacrificial death, applies to guilt, or shame, or anything else that Satan wants to use to bind us once we’ve been set free.
The distinction between guilt and shame is important because their antidotes from scripture are equally distinct. I think quite often we meet shame by meditating on verses related to guilt – and it doesn’t quite relieve the symptoms of shame. Likewise, if we apply the balm of scripture talking about shame to the gaping wound of guilt, it does not quite heal.
They are related, to be sure, which is why it can be so challenging to diagnose the difference and meet the particular wound with the right hope found in scripture. Thankfully scripture promises if we ask God for wisdom, he will lavish it upon us (James 1:5).
So, what is the difference between guilt and shame?
Well, guilt has to do with our conduct. Guilt is a fact or statement of wrongdoing. It’s a state of being. Guilt implies one has committed an offense, violated a law, or are convicted of doing something wrong. Guilt is being responsible for having done something wrong. Guilt may include feelings of remorse for having acted incorrectly – sort of a heartfelt wish you had done something different or were not responsible for the actions or consequences of those actions. Guilt tempts us to shift blame. Guilt requires repayment, restitution.
Shame, however, is a painful feeling of being dirty, tainted, humiliated, somehow less worthy because of your guilt or the guilt of someone else. Shame is that feeling of being exposed, really seen with all the wrongness clinging to you. It carries a sense of being dishonorable, unacceptable, disgraceful, foolish, unlovable, and unworthy. Shame tempts us to hide. Shame requires cleansing, removal of the stain.
Let’s put it this way – in the garden, Adam and Eve were guilty of violating God’s instruction, and deserved the penalty of death because of their guilt. Then Adam blamed Eve and God (“the woman” – blaming her, “you gave me” – blaming God) to avoid responsibility for his guilt. Eve blamed the serpent (“the serpent deceived me” – blame shifting).
When God entered the garden on the day they committed their offense, they hid because they were ashamed. Before they were guilty, they were naked and unashamed, and there was no need to hide.
And on that day God declared their guilt, clarified their death sentence, and promised a Savior who would settle their guilt-debt (Genesis 3:14-15). He also provided covering for their shame (Genesis 3:21).
So often we focus on how Jesus took our guilt without remembering he also bore our shame.
To the heart burdened with guilt, the promise of absolution, justification, and restoration to a state of declared innocent is the ointment that comforts. But, to the heart burdened with shame, the promise of his cleansing, his love, and his unconditional acceptance is the balm that heals. God, in scripture, addresses both needs.
This is why meditating on scripture is so important. Spending time in God’s word allows us to hear his whole counsel. It trains our hearts in wisdom that we might sow peace and harvest righteousness (James 3:17-18). Digging into God’s word to really understand the richness of what he offers leads us to pools of cleansing for our shame. We read of His love that would sacrifice to cover our shame, in spite of the stain of sin we bear from birth. He tells us we are adopted, loved, accepted, and seen, through Christ, as a spotless bride. And we can rest in the covering God provides for our disgrace – the removal of anything that taints us – cleansed from our sin.
Spending time meditating on our justification – the declaration of our righteousness, the promise we do not have to live under the sentence of death, the certainty our guilt-debt has been paid in full, frees us to live righteously, to similarly forgive others, to own our guilt, but not be owned by our guilt.
And as we grow to understand the debt paid by Jesus’ blood, and the great cleansing and covering of Jesus’ blood, our hearts swell with worship that impacts how we do life, moment by moment, and how we live in grace with others, moment by moment.