good fear, guilt and shame

There are obvious reasons why fear, guilt and shame have a bad reputation inside and outside the Church.  There is really no need to illustrate this point, but…

Fear of judgment, rejection or punishment can be crippling.

Guilt that is exaggerated, overly-negative or simply mistaken is paralyzing.

Shame, too, when it is insulting, degrading and merciless, can be dehumanizing.

But that’s just simply not all there is to Fear, Guilt and Shame.  They can be not only unavoidable feelings that one will eventually encounter in life, but even helpful and self-protective tools to help us grow.

Fear can be protective.  It can keep us from doing things that we know will harm others or ourselves.  The opposite of this protective fear is selfish carelessness.

Guilt can be honest.  It can reflect the willingness to admit we have done wrong and the need to set things right.  The opposite of this honest guilt is the excusing or hiding sin.

Shame can be empathetic.  It can connect our logical awareness of wrong-doing to a heart-level grief that together can motivate (through God’s grace) our work to amend our ways and undo the harm done as much as possible.  The opposite of this empathetic shame is a calloused, arrogant or narcissistic heart.

varieties of shame

Following on from the last post, I’ve been thinking more about possibly helpful – or at least unavoidable – forms of shame.

First, I want to acknowledge just how unhelpful some forms of shame can be.  I think shame is most unhelpful when it focuses on the person and not the behaviour.  “You should be ashamed of yourself…” “Shame on you!” “I hope you’re ashamed…”  All of these focus the shame on the person.

Behind these statements is probably some kind of distorted sense of protective fear that wants the person to see what they’ve done, to take responsibility for it, and to change.  But the problem with focusing the shame on the person is that it actually does the opposite.  It takes their focus off of their behaviour and onto themselves as being shameful.  They feel labelled, categorized, tagged-and-bagged as ‘bad’.  This make a person feel trapped in this ‘bad’ state, and can make them feel like ‘bad’ people are simply bound to keep doing ‘bad’ things.

Let me quickly say that I don’t think the opposite is helpful either.  To say with glee simplicity: “It’s OK, you are awesome!”  Such popular positivism is well-meaning, and probably intends on letting kindness make a space for people to be their own guide and learn in their own time.  However, it can also have the opposite effect.  I don’t think any of us can truly or completely silence our conscience which reminds us that we are not perfect.  Overly-positive commentary from others, whilst well-meaning, can actually end up reminding us of our negatives.

The goal is the acceptance of our behaviour and taking responsibility for it.  And some forms of shame may just be helpful, necessary or unavoidable for this.

I am happy to be shown otherwise, but maybe it is helpful for us to feel some kind of shame when we have done something wrong.  And I am distinguishing shame from guilt.  Guilt is, I think, a logical admission, a verdict, in our minds that we did something.  Shame, in this sense, makes our admission a felt reality, an experience, in our hearts.

But now… what about shame that is sourced not in our own judgment of our own behaviour, but shame that is sourced in the judgment of others, our family, our church, our city, our society?  Can that ever be helpful or healthy?  I am daring to suggest it can.

One possibly helpful example is an anti-smoking campaign in Aotearoa-New Zealand: “smoking: not our future”.  This, it seems to me, is a movement that attempts to use shame in a helpful way.  Rather than pointing the finger, negatively, at people who smoke, it signals the future, positively, at a society which smokes less.   In principle, at least, it should be a good thing to promote good behaviour and discourage bad behaviour.  Some forms of shame seem to be unavoidable for this, right?

How does this basic dynamic become unhelpful or even harmful?  I reckon it happens when people use shame in ways that are a) disproportionate to the behaviour, b) self-righteous, c) impatient or d) forceful.  In principle, even putting someone in prison can be done in ways that are a) appropriate for the crime, b) humble, c) measured and d) gentle.

So much moral discourse in our culture seems to assume that the way to help people avoid depression and self-harm is to avoid anything that makes people feel shame.  I wonder if some of our overly-positive language serves to trap people in their own prison of self-judgment?

What if we accepted that sometimes people feel shame for good reasons, such as to come to a place of surrender and acknowledgement and taking responsibility?  Our role is to empathise with one another in our mutually-experienced guilt and shame.  We all get it wrong all the time about all kinds of things.  It doesn’t have to be a morality contest… It can just be life.

Shame doesn’t have to be linked to self-hatred and self-harm.  Shame can be re-claimed in a context of self-care and self-honesty.

If shame is such a wrong thing to feel, then it only makes us feel even worse when we feel ashamed.  But if shame is a normal part of human living and learning, then maybe we are strangely enabled to not stay trapped in our shame, but to work through it to acceptance and change.

Theologically speaking, the Gospel of Grace doesn’t imply that we are ‘basically good’ people who have never done anything shameful.  Rather, it is precisely because we have done those things, and (hopefully) have a healthy sense of regret, guilt and shame about them, that the Gospel of Grace is such good news.

on guilt and shame

It seems to be an unquestioned assumption in modern western culture that guilt and shame are bad, unhealthy and unhelpful.  Most of the moral discourse is dominated by statements that flow directly from these assumptions.

I can relate!  Who wants to feel guilty?  Who enjoys shame?  Not only that, both guilt and shame are shot through and warped with all kinds of unhelpful messiness.  Like power, sex, or money, they can easily be used poorly and people get hurt.

But are these concepts entirely worthless?  Is there any worth or value to them?  Here are some thoughts…

Good Guilt?

Guilt can be good.  As Auckland theologian Neil Darragh points out, guilt can be enabling guilt, in that it helps us to recognize and face our wrongdoing (or sin) and to seek and receive the help and grace we need to change and grow morally.  There seem to be two opposite extremes we can and do go to here.  One we might call false guilt or what Darragh calls ‘disabling guilt’.  Here the accusation is worse that the behaviour, or there may be no wrongdoing at all that matches the accusation.  At the other extreme, we have what we might call false innocence, or ‘getting off Scot free’.  Here there is an absence of an accusation (from others or from self), but a presence of wrongdoing or sin.  Both extremes fail to give us any help at ethical growth.

Good Shame?

Some of you might be thinking right now, “OK Dale, I take your point about guilt, but shame is another matter, it’s always bad…”  Perhaps, given a certain definition, that is correct.  But let’s try and get behind the word to the idea, and then we can think about what is the best word to use.  Hear me out :)

Some people, quite helpfully I think, have distinguished between guilt and shame by saying that guilt says what I did is bad, and shame says am bad.  That kind of shame is at best incomplete and distorted, and at worst crippling and harmful.  Another way to think about shame is in a relational sense.  When a society, community or family shares certain values, as they do, certain actions and behaviours will simply be in conflict with those values.  When a person does any of those certain things, they will naturally feel various kinds of shame, depending on how many people in the society, community or family know about it, and how much they know, etc.  This kind of shame seems to me to be natural and unavoidable.  And I’m willing to suggest here that it may even be helpful.

Having said that, I think a Christian influence on society, community or family will engender not just values concerning what actions cohere with those values, but also values concerning how to relate to people who act in ways that conflict with those values.  A Christian community, in this sense, has both standards and an impulse to restore those who break those standards.  In the remainder of this post, I’d like to suggest that the shame which seems unavoidable can serve a good purpose only in a community characterised by restorative discipline.

Restorative Discipline

As the two terms suggest, there are two dynamics are at work, I reckon, in how a Christian community deals with someone who breaks what they understand as Christian values.   One (discipline) has a necessarily negative posture, and the other  (restoration) is necessarily positive.

The positive dynamic is that of gentleness and restoration.   Galatians 6:1 says that when someone is caught in a sin (imagine all the dynamics involved when this happens… and imagine how it often plays out…) “you who are spiritual should restore them in a spirit of gentleness.”  As usual, Paul is writing these instructions as a corrective for what was happening.  In this case, it seems that some of the spiritual leaders at Galatia were not being gentle or restorative when people were caught in a sin.  Gentleness is appropriate because people whose sin is being found out are scared and defensive.  Restoration is the goal because God wants healing, community and forgiveness rather than brokenness, isolation and enmity.

It’s much harder to deal with the other more negative dynamic.  What words might we use?  We have all kinds of understandable discomfort with words like ‘discipline’ or ‘punishment’.  I think a good deal of our discomfort here flows from times where the ‘discipline’ or ‘punishment’ was seen to be disproportionate to the (mis-)behaviour.  But on the other hand, surely various forms of corrective action are appropriate for various kinds of misbehaviour.  Sometimes we need consequences to change.

At this point, it may be useful to remind ourselves of the need for a balanced view of human nature.  We can err on the side of viewing humans as ‘basically good’ or err on the side of viewing them as ‘basically evil’.  The tendency to think we don’t need corrective discipline (in appropriate forms) may flow from a belief that humans are so ‘good’ that they will quickly recognize their sin and repent of it.  The reality is that we are too often stubborn, dishonest, fearful and prideful.  Sometimes loving discipline (again, in helpful forms) is the only thing that can help someone come to terms with their sin.  This is the best context in which to understand Paul’s command to expel a member from fellowship in 1 Corinthians 5:1-5.  Of course the other side of the coin is to err on the side of viewing humans as ‘basically evil’.  The belief that humans have little good in them may lie behind disciplinary actions that seek to force someone to repent.  God does not bring us to repentance through discipline that is over-powering, intimidating, harsh or insensitive.  Rather, it is God’s kindness that leads to repentance, as Paul seems to have needed to remind some ‘strong leaders’ at Rome (Romans 2:4).

Summary

Tying these threads together, I am basically suggesting that both guilt and shame, understood the right way and in the context of healing community, can be helpful and necessary.  We may have a thousand stories or personal experiences of why “they made me feel so guilty” or “that church heaped shame on me”, and many if not most of these could sadly be accurate indictments of leaders acting from control, fear, anger and power.  But I am daring to suggest here that if our community and the discipline of our community is characterised by love, honesty, truth, healing, then guilt and shame may just possibly be necessary wounds en route to repentance, reconciliation and growth.

moral fear

Ethical discourse, I suggest, is degraded and corrupted by fear.  I’m not talking about the healthy protective fear that flows from love, but rather the unhelpful power-grasping fear that is its own source.  Below I’ll suggest two equal-opposite examples of this power-grasping fear, and then I’ll offer a suggestion about a third, ‘middle’ way.

On the one hand, we can see a fearful response to ‘misbehaviour’.  This kind of fear is reactive, and wants to (at best) guide or (at worst) control human behaviour.  It often takes the form of wanting to ‘raise’ ethical standards, or perhaps turn back the clock to prior times where standards were ‘higher’.  The logic seems to be along the lines of:

  • People misbehave
  • People misbehave because they don’t know what is good behaviour, and/or cultural moral standards are too permissive
  • Therefore, to improve behaviour, more moral instruction and/or more strict morals is needed

On the other hand, there seems to be a fearful response, not to misbehaviour, but to the effects of perceived misbehaviour.  This, too, is a reactive fear, and wants to protect people from (at best) false guilt or (at worst) any guilt.  It often takes the form of ‘updating’ or loosening ethical standards.  The logic seems to be something like:

  • People harm themselves and others
  • People harm themselves and others because they feel acute moral guilt
  • Therefore, people will harm themselves and others less if we loosen ethical views that are too outdated and/or strict

The point here is not to say that morals never need to be adjusted in either direction.  Arguably, they can be unhelpfully permissive or unhelpfully strict.  The point has to do with the way that fear plays a role, both in the desire to make morals, ethics, and laws, more strict, or less strict.

As suggested above, fear can be helpful.  Among other things, we should have a healthy fear of false guilt. Auckland-based theologian Neil Darragh calls this ‘disabling guilt’, signalling the way that victims of it are disabled from feeling and acting and being as they should.  But this false guilt is flanked by what he calls ‘enabling guilt’, which – contrary to what we often hear – is actually helpful in that it assists us to face our wrongdoing, take responsibility for it, and amend our behaviour and grow morally and personally.

The problem with the two types of reactive fear above is that they tend to short-circuit moral discourse and reflection.  Fear cements people, cornering them into angry and aggressive (or passive-aggressive and condescending) dismissal of those they disagree with.

Patient discussion is better.  People may not instantly agree when it comes to a particular activity and whether or not feeling guilty about it is enabling or disabling.  But at least they might be able to understand one another.

superstition, anti-intellectualism & guilt

I came across this “chain-text” that (equalling and perhaps even excelling similar kinds of texts) manages not only to be superstitious and anti-intellectual, but also uses guilt tactics:

God is whispering your name, why? Because something good is about to happen to you. [umm… horoscope alert…] If u believe in God send to ten people without thinking. [really!?  without thinking?  Excuse me, but your anti-intellectualism is showing…] Ibet u don’t have time to do this [thanks for the vote of confidence – I thought something good was about to happen to me?] but Jesus gave his life for you, send this to ten people [not 9, not 11, but 10 – one for every one of the ten commandments, one of which is to not take the Lord’s name in vain, which this whole chain text is an exercise in…] and see what happens in five minutes. [not 4, not 6, but 5 – one for every minute you intentionally ignore bad things and notice only good things…] Do u have time for God.? [because forwarding such drivel ‘for God’ is obviously so high on God’s list of how we should spend our time.]