This article is one post in a series entitled “When Talking about Forgiveness.”

One of the challenges we have in living in the emotional freedom that being forgiven should bring is shame. We often treat guilt and shame as if they are synonyms; as if saying “guilt and shame” is the equivalent of saying “water damage and moisture damage.” But the experience of guilt and shame are not the same thing.

If you have done much reading about guilt and shame, then you know there are a myriad of distinctions that can be made. Actually, there are so many distinctions that it can get confusing and you begin to wonder, “Which distinction is right?” and “Am I smart enough to identify whether I’m experiencing guilt or shame?” This reflection will err on the side of simplicity.

Guilt focuses on what I did. Guilt feels the weight of having done a bad thing. Guilt is about activity. The worse the bad thing was that I did, the greater the weight I feel. Guilt knows there are consequences for the bad thing I’ve done and is concerned with how to resolve those consequences.

Shame focuses on who I am. Shame believes what I have done makes me less than. There are no degrees of consequence with shame, there is the inherent sense of being second class or unacceptable. Shame is about identity. If forgiveness cancels a debt, that doesn’t matter because shame makes us feel like we won’t be admitted into the store to buy something even if we had the money.

Guilt focuses on what I did. Guilt is about activity. Shame focuses on who I am. Shame is about identity. Click To Tweet

Shame, Forgiveness, and God

We begin to see that forgiveness alone is not enough. A defendant in a court case can be forgiven for their crime (guilt – penalty cancelled) only to come home and not be welcome there (shame – unacceptable). The gospel speaks to both guilt and shame. The gospel offers propitiation (penalty bearing sacrifice) for guilt and adoption (full inclusion into God’s family) for shame.

A good picture of God addressing shame is in Psalm 3. David is on the run for his life. A myriad of sinful choices by David have led to the destruction of his family. Failing to address one son raping his daughter led to another son killing his brother. That son seeing his father, David, would not respond, led that son to start a military coup to oust his father. This is why David is on the run for his life.

When we wreck our family, we don’t just feel guilt but also shame. As David writes about his encounter with God, the wording he chooses reveals that he was feeling shame and that God addressed his shame. David declares that God is “the lifter of my head” (v. 3). If David were feeling guilt, he would have said “the washer of my stain” or “the bearer of my penalty.” Both of these statements are true, but they would not have addressed what David was experiencing.

It can be said that “shame is an experience of the eyes.” A child who feels inferior (another way of saying ashamed) at school will avoid eye contact with teachers and peers alike. To make and hold eye contact is an indication we feel “equal to” the other person. This is why when someone is training a dog, the master stares into the puppy’s eyes until the puppy looks away. It establishes the roles of master and pet. The dog learns that, however loved, it is “less than.”

In response to David’s shame, his eyes were on his sandals. He wasn’t just head-drooping sad, but eye-contact-avoiding ashamed. God’s response was to gently put his hand under David’s chin and draw David’s gaze to God’s tender eyes of grace. Loving eye contact did what the verbal contract “I forgive you” never could.

If you read the Bible with this point of awareness, you will begin to notice that passages which speak about the gospel emphasize that we are both forgiven (remedy for guilt) and accepted (remedy for shame) because of what Christ did on our behalf. We need to be proficient in articulating both if we are going to embrace and minister the gospel fully.

Shame, Forgiveness, and Others[1]

We return to the dilemma that things are often easier with God than they are with other people. God is durable, ever ready, consistent, and always receptive for us to engage. With God, it is only our readiness to receive, not his readiness to give, that is in question. People are different.

We think now of the parent whose addiction made them utterly unreliable for their children. We think of the business or ministry leader who was fired for embezzling money. We think of the spouse who committed adultery. We realize simply hearing the words, “I forgive you,” doesn’t make eye contact comfortable, natural, or, sometimes, even appropriate. The debt may be canceled and, even if the other person is not being punitive, there can be a major obstacle to restored relationship.

As the offender, we wonder, “What is my relational standing?” This is where conversations often get dicey. We should remember that forgiveness does not mean the removal of consequences. A child can be forgiven for hitting a baseball through the window, and still be expected to pay for the window. We should remember that trust still builds wisely over time. So, acceptance does not mean removal of consequences or full-instant trust.

Acceptance simply means, “We are equals. We are of the same kind. I am not enforcing emotional dominance over you because of your sin against me.” It may be a journey for the forgiving person to get to this place. We must leave room for them to be mid-journey too.

But this post is about processing our own shame, not alleviating the shame of others. So, what do we do if shame is a barrier in our ability to embrace the forgiveness that someone has given? What if they are willing but we are impeded by shame? Although it is admittedly awkward, we might ask for a conversation like the one below. During this conversation, each person would be intentional about maintaining eye contact.

You: [acknowledge the wrong of what I did accepting any ongoing consequences of wise trust]

Person You Hurt: [express forgiveness again] Then, “I want you to know that while what you did was wrong, it does not make you ‘less than.’ I not only forgive you as Jesus forgave me, I accept you as God accepts us.”

After this conversation, each of you maintain eye contact, you say, “thank you,” and the two of you mutually look away. In future interactions, you are mindful not to avoid eye contact. If your friend notices you are avoiding eye contact, they take this as an indication shame may be re-emerging and say some version of, “You are not less than. There is no need to look away.”

The behavioral residue of shame can become a deeply ingrained habit. Having the people who love us and invite tender eye contact as they remind us the simple truth of acceptance can be a powerful counter to this habituation.

The behavioral residue of shame can become a deeply ingrained habit. Having the people who love us and invite tender eye contact as they remind us the simple truth of acceptance can be a powerful counter to this habituation. Click To Tweet

Questions for Reflection

  1. In your own words, what is the difference between guilt and shame? How does the gospel address each in a unique way?
  2. What is an example of when tender eye contact has made a profound difference in a moment when you were experiencing shame?

[1] We said this reflection would err on the side of simplicity. That is most felt in this section. We will only deal with shame we feel for sins we committed (hence, forgiveness is relevant). We will not deal with the shame we feel for sins committed against us (such as abuse). Shame emanating from suffering receives a different form of comfort and has a different healing process. For more on this distinction see: