Shame Versus Guilt

Essay Nine

There is a world of difference between a shamed-based culture and a guilt-based culture.

“Culture” can mean a whole nation, religion, tribe, clan, family, church, or any other similar entity.

As an example let us say that a Christian leader is found to be guilty of a sin, which then is made know to others.

The shame-based church, of which there are many, particularly among churches that tend toward legalism, and might be either a works-oriented or a grace-oriented church. The fallen Christian leader is an embarrassment to the church, maybe a wider grouping of churches, perhaps a whole denomination. This leader may be cast aside, fired, shunned, or any number of things might happen. This is known as “shooting the wounded” and is demonstrative of a shame orientation.

The guilt-based church with a fallen leader will not shoot the wounded but will take steps to bring healing and reconciliation. And this will work when the Christian leader acknowledges the sin and moves away from it, confesses his sin to God and man, and repents. If treatment or therapy is required, very well, but the fallen leader is restored.

The difference between a shame-based and a guilt-based church could not be greater.

Now then, let us change the scenario. Islam is founded on and produces a shame-based culture. For instance, if a young woman rejects an arranged marriage, she dishonors her family, clan, and tribe, indeed the religion of Islam itself. It falls to the family to restore honor, and this is very often accomplished by the killing of the young woman. The father, a brother, even a mother, will carry out this act. The young woman brought shame, and the only way to restore honor is murder. The murderer is not shamed but honored.

Or, to site another example, a member of the family or clan converts to another religious faith. Knowledge of this might be discovered and become widely known. To restore honor, the apostate must be killed. The murder covers the shame, and again, the murderer(s) are honored.

Or again, let us say a starving ten-year-old boy steals a loaf of bread at the town’s market, is caught, and has his hand chopped off without anesthetic in the public square (common in Saudi Arabia), for honor to be restored to the community.

The above are examples of what may happen in a shame-based culture.

So too, in shame-based cultures there is a great deal of secrecy and silence. For instance, homosexuality is harshly condemned among Muslims, and a homosexual caught in the act may well be killed, depending on the country. At the same time, homosexuality is widely practiced, especially in Muslim-dominated countries, but it is concealed from public view. Shame only comes when forbidden acts are exposed. The sin of the act itself it not what brings shame; it is the exposure of the act that brings shame.

Consider a guilt-based culture, say an evangelical Bible-based church, which will probably view homosexual behavior to be sinful. If a case comes up in such a church, the sin does not tarnish the entire church community. The individual involved hopefully will receive appropriate ministry aimed at restoration and recovery.

The Bible Way

Most readers of the New Testament know that when Jesus was arrested and taken away to trial, Peter denied Jesus three times. Jesus even told Peter and the rest of the disciples that such would be the case (see Mark 14:26–31). It turned out just as Jesus had foretold (see Mark 14:66–72).

Peter thought he was so strong, but fear got the better of him. When the pressure came, Peter crumbled completely. After the third denial, Peter finally came to himself: “And he broke down and wept” (Mark 14:72).

The early church was not a shamed-based culture but a guilt-based culture. The chief apostle fell and did so publicly, and everyone who has ever read a Gospel knows this. Peter was not shunned and did not suffer violence; rather, he continued to be the one who preached the first Christian sermon, which we find in Acts, chapter two, and upon whose name the Roman church claimed to be founded.

Jesus Himself demonstrated for His Church the way things ought to be. We find a gripping and amazing story in the twenty-first chapter of John’s Gospel. The scene is a beach beside the Sea of Galilee after Jesus’ resurrection. It was a spring morning, and Peter, along with six other apostles, went out in a boat to fish but without success. Then at dawn the fishermen saw on the shore a stranger who told them where to cast their net. Immediately, the net was nearly bursting with fish. It was then Peter realized who the stranger was, so he jumped into the water and rushed to Jesus. Later on after the breakfast, which Jesus had prepared for the seven, Peter and Jesus took a stroll along the beach. As they walked, Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved Him. Three times Peter answered, “yes” and three times Jesus responded with, “Feed my sheep.”

Peter denied Jesus three times. Jesus gave Peter the blessed opportunity to affirm his love for his Master three times. Jesus did not bring Peter’s sin up to him; there was no need, since the Holy Spirit does this far better, and Peter was encouraged to continue to follow Him.

This is the great model for a guilt-based culture, which the Church must be if it is to be healthy. The legalists get in the way, however, and twist things to shame-based. This is what Islam has done, along with so many other religions, and certainly most of the Bible-based cults in Christianity have followed this pattern.

And it is to the legalists, those who are sinners as we all are, to whom I am reaching out with this essay—whether Muslim, Christian, or whatever.

Jesus died on the cross to cover sin, not shame. Biblical Christianity is guilt-based and thankfully so, since sin may be forgiven. The healthy church is not shamed by the acts of an individual. And most importantly, God delights in redeeming guilty sinners and erring Christians.

The Real Problem

The real problem with a shame-based culture is that guilt is never dealt with but persists and often resurfaces as depression, anger, or self-hatred—maybe all of these.

Imagine the father who is forced to kill his daughter who refuses to marry a man she neither knows nor loves. The shame may be covered by the murder of the girl, or so it is assumed, but what about the conscience, the heart, or the mind of the family members? Guilt, a natural occurring brain function, remains. And there is no forgiveness.

A young boy or girl steals a loaf of bread, is caught, and brings shame upon the family and clan. Sharia Law demands a public amputation of a hand and/or a foot. What about the boy or girl, the family, the friends? What about the observers of the event or those who have the responsibility of carrying out the punishment? Everyone is traumatized, unless all of these people are inoculated against such atrocities, which I suspect might be the case when a person is brought up in a shame-based culture.

I was a medic with the U.S. Air Force from 1961 to 1965. My unit was 2nd Casualty Staging Flight, which is based at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, California. For years my duty hours were from 5 PM to 8 PM. Many a green beret or ranger who had been wounded in Vietnam (starting in1963) would wonder down to my office late at night, and we would spend hours talking about what happened to them. It was known then as combat fatigue, and it was real. Not all had suffered actual bodily wounds. Many were listed as psychiatric on the flight manifest. Some had killed, raped, and maimed innocent civilians. They knew horrors such as I had never heard. My own brother, a combat engineer in Vietnam, came back emotionally wounded from experiences there and eventually committed suicide. With my college background in psychology and my newfound faith in Jesus, I was able to talk about forgiveness with traumatized young men. And for some, not many, the forgiveness found in Jesus Christ and His cross made all the difference.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, can be deadly. Those who have experienced it have a high rate of suicide, become psychotic, and sometimes go off on murderous rampages. (The statistics are available by means of a Google search.)

I cannot help but wonder about the wrenching struggles many experience in Muslim cultures where the covering of shame is virtually mandated. Guilt does not go away. There it sits, eating away like a cancer deep in the interior. And this is why I emphasize the shed blood of Jesus in my witness to Muslim people.

At the conclusion of every morning service at our small Miller Avenue Baptist Church in Mill Valley, California, we observe the Lord’s Supper. We do it because Jesus directed His Church, the Body of Christ, to do so. (There is no set frequency of observance.) We also do it because it is a wonderful presentation of the forgiveness that we have in the finished work of Jesus, the Son of God. I conclude this essay with some of the passages we recite just prior to receiving the Bread and the Cup.

The Confessional:

“For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Romans 3:23

The Jesus Prayer:

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

The Promise of acceptance and forgiveness

“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” 1 John 1:9

Individual, silent prayer of confession

The Confirmation:

“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Romans 8:1

The Assurance:

“Those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” Romans 8:30

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