What is the role of shame in the Christian life? I have felt a lot of guilt and shame in my life. Sometimes it seems to help keep me out of sin, but it also makes me afraid of God at times. I don’t think it is the same as repentance for sin, but maybe it helps me to repent? Does God want us to be ashamed or feel guilty, or is it a thing that He allows us to feel so we stay away from sin?
Mindful of God’s mercy, might we consider these feelings of guilt and shame. At the risk of being too imprecise, I will distinguish guilt and shame, showing how neither of them are of God’s original design, though His mercy can operate in them and through them.
When it comes to the beginning, it is explicit in the book of the Genesis that Adam and Eve (in reference to their original condition, which included their
nakedness) “had no shame” (Genesis 2:25). Shame entered after the fall as a consequence of their sin. However, whereas they were “guilty” of committing the original sin, their shame was in their sentiments that may have included fear, embarrassment over their condition (of being naked), and other types of feelings of regret or even self-hatred. Thus, it is clear that guilt (the responsibility for the wrongful act committed) and shame (the sentiments of loss or any type of regret in their hearts) are distinct.
While my words above may be an oversimplification of these terms – especially since we often think of guilt as an feeling in our heart more than just responsibility for the wrong – the point I want to draw from this distinction is that guilt has the power to lead us to immediate conversion, whereas shame often cuts us deeper, sometimes leading us to feel as though mercy and forgiveness may not be possible because of those choices/actions that led to the feeling of shame. To put it another way, whereas I might feel a time of guilt after committing a sin with the recognition that when I humbly ask God (and neighbor, when necessary) to forgive me, I will be forgiven and able to move on from it, in feeling shame I may have need of greater healing gifts of God, so that I may both be forgiven of the sin/s that led to shame, and strengthened or healed of other afflictions that came as a consequence to the act, such as self-loathing, depression, or other types of sentiments that weaken our sense of being loved by God.
Thus, if I can attempt to answer the original questions using the distinctions between guilt and shame that I have put forth, I want to assure any who relate to the questions that God does “allow us” to feel guilt as a means to inviting us to repentance. Throughout the Scriptures there are stories of sin, the consequences of sin that lead to guilt, and in some moments, the stories of repentance. Two which come to mind are King David’s sins of adultery (with Bathsheba) and murder (in having Uriah, the husband of Bathsheba killed in battle) found in 2 Samuel 11-12, and the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32. In both of these stories, sins are committed leading to loss of grace, followed by an awakening to do penance and return to the Lord. Guilt can have the capacity to give the spark of repentance to the heart to return to the Lord – and therefore can be transformed by God into joy. Shame, on the other hand, is when guilt is internalized to the point where we move toward losing hope. In this way, it is important to recognize that shame is not healthy, but instead can lead to a downward spiral where any consolation that God may offer is not easily accepted, nor any grace easily and affectively received.
For those who feel “shame,” please do not be afraid of the grace and mercy of Jesus, especially as available in the sacrament of Penance. The Lord does not desire the death of the sinner, but that we would be able to turn back and live (Ezekiel 33:11). There are no sins “too big” for God, by whose crucifix He has already won the victory over every sin. Trust in the Lord at all times.