How many words can you think of for the color purple? Your list might include  lavender, lilac, mauve, periwinkle, plum, or violet. Knowing this many words for the color purple might be useful if you work in the paint department of a local hardware store. But our purpose is to create a metaphor. What we want to know initially is, “Do the words guilt, shame, and regret share the same relationship as the words lilac, plum, and violet? Are they three ways of saying basically the same thing?”

Initially, we might be prone to say yes. The experience of these three emotions is very similar. Each is unpleasant. There is a natural instinct to want to hide or cover up. Frequently we are embarrassed to admit or want to talk about any of these emotions. There is a sense of being dirty, damaged, or bad in the midst of these experiences. We have a tendency to believe that these emotions define us (at least to some degree).

Further, each emotion is triggered by similar types of events. There was something wrong that happened and we were part of that event(s). Socially, the triggering event is believed to carry a stigma that would make us less acceptable. All three tend to be things we think we shouldn’t talk about with others. Memory of the triggering event is very “sticky” in our memory and hard to let go.

To use another metaphor, we want to know if these emotions are identical twins, mere siblings, cousins, or doppelgängers (people who look like but have no relation). This article will argue that guilt, shame, and regret are best thought of as cousins. They are part of the same family, but not the same immediate household.

Guilt, shame, and regret are products of the Genesis 3 Fall. We experience guilt, shame, and regret because we live in a broken world marred by sin. Each of these emotions respond to types of wrong in our life and the world around us. But each emotion responds to different types of wrong, or better said, each of these emotions emerge when we have a different relationship to the wrong that prompts them.

We will begin with short, concise definitions of guilt, shame, and regret. Warning: short, concise definitions are wonderful because they bring clarity, but also run the risks for over-simplification. For our work here, we will accept the risk of over-simplification.

  • Guilt is a sense of legitimate condemnation in response to personal sin and says, “I feel bad because I did something wrong.”
  • Shame is a sense of illegitimate condemnation or contamination in response to suffering and says, “I feel bad because I am unacceptable due what happened to me.”
  • Regret is a form of grief for a reasonably good circumstance that was never realized and says, “I feel bad because I wish things had gone differently.”

We rightly feel guilt when we lose our temper, misrepresent the truth, fail to fulfill a promise, neglect a responsibility, dishonor an authority figure, make a crude joke, take advantage of someone, or fail to represent Christ accurately in some other way. If we do not feel guilty for these things, our conscience is seared (at least to some degree).

We feel shame when we have been abused (physically, verbally, or sexually), are limited by chronic pain or body disfigurement, have been betrayed by a spouse or trusted friend, are helpless after a catastrophe, or experience other hardships that are not the result of personal sin. If we “own” these emotions in the same way we own guilt, then we feel a false sense of condemnation. Regardless, we feel “less than” or marred by these experiences.

We feel regret when a parent is absent from key events in our life, an illness prevents us from pursuing a dream, an opportunity does not come our way, we cannot give loved ones things that most people can, or some other legitimate desire is unfulfilled. If we interpret these experiences as God’s rejection or a reflection of our value, then we over-personalize these events as if they carried a message about us from God; we treat regret like an insult instead of a hardship.

Pause for a moment to help you assimilate this much of the content and ask yourself the question, “Which of my major, unpleasant life experiences have resulted in guilt… shame… regret?” Being able to sort our emotional-moral laundry is an important part of making good application of the gospel. If we mis-identify these three experiences, we are likely to misinterpret the kind of compassion God offers to our hardship.

Before we move the next section, pause and ask yourself another question, “How does the gospel speak to the experiences of guilt, shame, and regret in unique ways?” If the first reflection question helped you assimilate what we just covered, this reflection question helps till the soil of your mind for what we are about to cover.

A foundational premise of this article is: the gospel speaks to both sin and suffering, but it speaks to them differently. To use another metaphor, the Great Physician can treat a joint injury and a muscle strain (injuries that often feel quite similar) but does so in different ways. Our goal in the next section is to enhance our ability to be good ambassadors of the Wonderful Counselor as we come alongside people experiencing a cocktail of guilt, shame, and regret (rarely do we ever experience just one of these emotions; they are cousins that often travel together).

The gospel answers guilt with forgiveness. Guilt leaves a moral stain on our soul which the blood of Jesus washes clean and then replaces with His own righteousness. Sin does not become our identity because the gospel transforms us from rebels against God to ambassadors for God. Jesus paid the penalty for sin in our place. Sanctification involves transforming the selfish motives which make sin seem appealing to motives that take their joy in loving God and loving others.

The gospel answers shame with acceptance. Shame leaves no stain but leaves us feeling visibly and repulsively scarred. The experience of shame leaves us haunted by the phrase “if they knew.” The implication is that whoever loves, trusts, or appreciates us now would not, “if they knew” the event(s) that cause shame. The gospel offers adoption with full, unequivocal inclusion in God’s family. It is often said, shame is an experience of the eyes. When we feel ashamed, we avoid eye contact. The gospel invites us to pray to God and fellowship with fellow believers without looking away.

The gospel answers regret with the assurance of that we are in the providence of a good God. The gospel reveals a God who transforms the unfortunate events of life. It does not force or rush us to call painful or unfortunate things good, but it does reveal the character of a God who redeems the darkest moments (Jesus on Calvary) for His glory and our good. The gospel gives us the freedom to grieve with hope the events that create regret. These events are sad, but they do not get the final or ultimate word on our life.

As you think about serving in the role of counselor, as individuals grapple with these implications, I would invite you to think in the role of ambassador more than teacher. It is easy to get excited about these truths, listen for when they are relevant, and begin talking with passion. That is the mindset of a teacher; someone who is excited about their subject matter and tries to elicit comparable enthusiasm in their pupils. For counselees whose struggle is perpetuated by confusion or misinformation, the role of counselor-as-teacher can be helpful.

But for many counselees who will benefit most from this material, their struggle is not rooted in confusion or misinformation, but the absence of experiencing the reality of these truths. Their primary need is not greater understanding, but lived experience. For shame, they haven’t known warm eye contact after sharing their pain. For regret, they have not experienced patient companionship in their grief. For guilt, they have not know a relationship where the weight of past sin did not sit heavy upon them. They need an ambassador more than a tutor. As counselors, with the courage brought by the privacy and security of a confidential office, we often get to be that first ambassador which makes God’s response to their struggle tangible. My hope is that this article helps us step into these moments more accurately.

Webinar Invitation

This case study was written to set up the presentation for the free webinar “Counseling Guilt, Shame, and Regret as Different Experiences.” The webinar will be Thursday January 14th at 1pm EST. My goal in this twice-monthly series of free webinars is to teach one primary counseling concept or skill each month and then provide a case study that allows participants to become more proficient at utilizing that skill or concept.

These are great events for:

  • Pastors, chaplains, and ministry leaders looking to enhance their pastoral care skills
  • Counselors wanting CEU credits to help them learn more about the intersection of their faith and practice
  • Leaders in church-based counseling ministries looking to grow in their case wisdom
  • Undergraduate students looking to discern a calling to vocational ministry or a career as a professional counselor
  • Friends and small group leaders committed to walking faithfully alongside their peers in tough times