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The Threads of Guilt and Shame in the Gospel Message

Fall 2006
PAGES 9, 10
[original publication]

Before the police officer pulled me over, my conscience had already given me a ticket: I was guilty. But when the siren screamed my sin to the world, I felt ashamed. My guilt was about breaking the law; my shame was about being exposed as a moral failure. Guilt and shame accompany all sin. They are what make sin so grievous and the preaching of forgiveness so urgent.

Preaching the Gospel in a Shame Culture

As a missionary sent from a western "guilt culture" to preach the gospel in the Asian "shame culture" of Japan, I soon learned how difficult it is to use the thread of law, sin, guilt, and atonement to communicate the gospel in a shame culture. For people who think of sin either as crime or as a dust that collects on the mirror of the soul, guilt is not a pressing issue: Guilt is something only criminals worry about; if people commit a sin that is not a crime, they brush it off as easily as they would wipe dust off a mirror. Shame, however, operates as a powerful moral sanction. The exemplary moral behavior of the Japanese people is due in part to the strong desire to save face. Loss of face disrupts relationships and leads to despair and even suicide.

So how should we communicate the gospel in a shame culture? First, we need to communicate God's grace as his answer to the problem of guilt—difficult as this is. All people are guilty and in need of forgiveness. Deep down we all know this. The law is written on our hearts and our consciences accuse us. Even anthropologists who divide guilt cultures and shame cultures are now admitting that people of all cultures know both guilt and shame to some extent. So in Japan I stubbornly persisted in teaching about God's provision for our guilt in Christ.

But I also used a second strategy: preaching the gospel as an answer to the problem of shame. The two threads of guilt and shame run through the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. And for people of a shame culture, the shame thread is often easier to follow.

The Difference between Guilt and Shame

The terms "guilt" and "shame" can be understood in two ways. Objectively, guilt refers to our culpability as people who have broken God's law, which results in punishment, death, and God's judgment. Subjectively, guilt is experienced as the burden of responsibility for transgressing a moral boundary. We feel it as pangs of conscience, as blame or self-accusation when we know the offense is our own fault. Guilt is the inexcusability we feel for our sins.

Objectively, shame is like pollution in our relationship with God; the uncleanness of our sin clashes with God's holiness. It is the dishonor and marring of the image of God caused by our sin. Subjectively, shame is our sense of defilement in the presence of the holy God. It is our painful realization that as sinners we are naked before God (Gen. 3:7). Unwanted visibility and the desire to conceal are at the heart of the shame response.

Guilt is our sense that we have gone too far, but shame is feeling that we have not gone far enough. It is a sense of moral failure that leads to embarrassment, feelings of unworthiness, and despair. Guilt feelings focus on what we do, whereas shame feelings focus on who we are, how we look, and how we relate to others.
The answer to objective guilt is punishment and restitution—a balancing of accounts. The answer to objective shame is covering what is exposed, exchanging the shame for honor or glory, and restoring relationships. The answer to both subjective guilt and subjective shame is love—love that forgives, and love that affirms, honors, and restores broken relationships.

Guilt and Shame in the Bible

The threads of shame and guilt both appear already in the story of Adam and Eve's first sin in Genesis 3. Their first reaction was one of shame. "The eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves." In answer to God's question, "Where are you?" Adam said, "I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid." Before they sinned, Adam and Eve "were both naked and they felt no shame." After they sinned they covered themselves, were afraid, and hid—three typical characteristics of the shame reaction.

God's response introduces the thread of guilt: "Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?" After establishing their guilt, God punished them. But in the promise of victory over the serpent through the seed of the woman and the provision of better garments for their bodies, God hinted at the marvelous answer to guilt and shame that would come in Jesus Christ. Later in the Old Testament God called for purification ceremonies and guilt offerings that also pointed toward the final solution to our guilt and shame dilemma.

Jesus' death on the cross was a perfect answer to our guilt problem. "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor. 5:21). Jesus' crucifixion was also a perfect answer to our shame problem. He "endured the cross, despising its shame" (Heb. 12:2). On the cross our naked Savior took responsibility for our spiritual nakedness. And now, with the veil of the temple torn, we can approach our holy God without shame. To all who believe in him he offers white clothes to cover our shameful nakedness (Rev. 3:18). He not only covers our shame; he exchanges our shame for a glory that reflects his own. Jesus referred to his death as the hour of his glorification (John 12:23). In taking responsibility for our sin on the cross, he transformed the cross from a symbol of shame into a symbol of glory.

Guilt and shame are not only aspects of God's punishment of our sin. They are also grace-filled provisions designed to move us to godly sorrow, which "brings repentance that leads to salvation" (2 Cor. 7:10). They function together in a healthy way to motivate people of all cultures to seek God's gracious forgiveness and reconciliation.

Preaching the Gospel in North American Culture

I believe the strategy we used in Japan can work in North American culture as well. As terms like "law," "sin," and "guilt" become fuzzy and even quaint, we need to redouble our efforts to teach these concepts. We need to resist the temptation to avoid these terms because they are not pleasant. Preaching grace includes calling sinners to repentance. Reading the law and confessing our sin in public worship will not take away joy in our worship, but will deepen it.

At the same time, if it is true that guilt language speaks with less and less clarity to our North American postmodern ears, we may gain a better hearing if we frame the gospel as God's answer to our guilt and God's provision for our shame. The message of God's love will speak powerfully to many people—especially our youth—who often struggle with feelings of worthless-ness, failure, and low self-esteem. Love is the one theme that best sums up the gospel for those wrestling with shame. God's love makes it safe for people to expose what causes them shame. Love casts out fear, restores our true humanity, mends broken relationships, and banishes shame. And love also forgives and banishes guilt, bringing joy to the guilt-ridden. God's love is his marvelous answer to both guilt and shame. We must preach that love and mirror it in our lives. "To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood . . . to him be glory and power forever and ever! Amen" (Rev. 1:5-6).

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