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.

ordinary sin

The doctrine of Sin has been something I’ve had an interest in for a while, and some of my research and writing has touched on both sin and the forgiveness of sin.  I think it’s a very important doctrine, and thus very important to understand with clarity and balance.

Scholars of Aristotle and Aquinas will be able to articulate it better than I, but I find the concept of the ‘mean’ or middle to be helpful here as at many points (nod to Aristotle).  Just as a ‘virtue’ seems to be flanked on both sides by two opposing ‘vices’ (nod to Aquinas), so also a healthy view of a doctrine (or dogma) seems to in between two extreme distortions of it.  Here’s a quick attempt to sketch this with regard to Sin.

The extreme of “totally evil” 

At one extreme, the “totally evil” view is based on the persistent and tragic experience of everything from indifference, busyness and rudeness to violence, terrorism and death.

The positive of this view is its ability to summarize (though perhaps generalize) and account for all of this activity with a single concept.  All of this ‘bad stuff’ is eventually the result of ‘sin’ at the personal level, and ‘Sin’ at a cosmic level.   Humanity and all of creation is ‘fallen’.  Like it or not, there is a great deal of accuracy for this view, both in terms of experience of reality and interpretation of Scripture.  A patient and discerning assessment of human nature can see past the cosmetic self-righteous and moralistic posturing that masquerades as ‘goodness’.  The best statements of so-called “total depravity” are about the full sweep and scope of Sin, reaching to every part of nature and human nature.  There is no ‘part’ of creation that is free from the influence of Sin and evil.  The brokenness and rebellion goes ‘all the way down’.   And the irony is that trying to deny one’s sinfulness and assert one’s goodness is itself one of the surest examples and breeding grounds for sin.

The negative of this view is… well.. its negativity.  In extreme form (hence me calling it an extreme view), it doesn’t appreciate or recognize any goodness to human nature.  And a thoroughgoing doctrine of Grace is thus undermined, because Grace creates and sustains at least some good in all people.

The extreme of “basically good”

This leads to the positive “basically good” view.  In a way, the very presence of the word “basically” is illustrative.  Philosophically, it can signal a nod to Locke’s notion that the ‘basic’ or original state of human nature is a ‘tabula rasa’ or blank slate.  In terms of modern usage, it can also signal a tempering of what could be seen as an absolute rejection of any evil in human nature.  Few people would want to say that humans are “totally good” and I’ve yet to meet anyone who serious defends human perfection.  So the “basically good” view is a very attractive option for those who wish to assert the dominance of human goodness, whilst not totally denying the ‘accidental’ circumstances of human ‘wrongdoing’.

The positive of this view seems to be the fact that it inherently avoids the absolutism of saying that humans are perfect.  It allows us to enjoy the widespread acceptance and agreement of modern society, which is quite nervous and concerned about those who think that there is something ‘wrong’ with us.  After all, that kind of talk makes people feel bad, and feeling bad is of course what makes people (accidentally) get tripped up into doing bad things, whether to others or to themselves.  Surely the way to fix things is to avoid this talk of ‘sin’ and restore people’s self confidence!

And here we see the weakness of this view.  At its core, this view is basically a way to justify oneself, and avoid responsibility for the ‘bad things’ that happen, either in the world or in one’s own life.   It is a ‘weak’ view in that it is not strong at helping to understand, account for, or of course do anything to change, the very real and tragic things that people do.  And wise therapists, social workers and addicts will testify that taking responsibility for one’s actions is the best way to work for change.

It seems that these extreme ways of looking at human nature tend to feed off of one another, rather like (and probably not unrelated to) right wing and left wing politicians. The more one person asserts human evil (more need for government and legislation?), the more another will assert human good (less need for government and legislation?); and vice versa.  What is needed is a view that avoids the extremes and includes the positives.

The Doctrine of Sin

It could be true that the biblical content on human nature may tend towards an emphasis on human guilt rather than human glory.  But the first thing to say about the Judeo-Christian notion of Sin is its remarkable breadth.  Humans are “very good” (Genesis 1), and “crowned with glory and honour” (Psalm 8).  To be a human is a glorious thing.  But at the same time, there are “none righteous” (Psalm 14 & 53), and too often it is true that we continually think evil in our hearts (Genesis 3).

The second thing to say is that there is something quite ‘ordinary’ and everyday about sin.  Every week at my church (Anglican/Episcopal), we are led by the worship leader or the priest in a confession that includes that we have sinned “in ignorance”, “weakness” and “through our own deliberate fault”.  That seems true to my life and the lives of people I trust to be honest.  Another great local Anglican confession prayer observes that “some sins are plain to us, some escape us, [and] some we cannot face.”  I’m thinking here of the vast spectrum of ways in which we all “get it wrong”.  We walk past one another without giving the human acknowledgement we all deserve.  We steal and cheat.  We parade our acts of charity on social media.  We lust after power, sex, status, moral standing, theological achievements, acceptance and a thousand other things that may be fine to pursue, but not lust after.  Even the ‘best’ person we can think of, if they are honest, has all manner of ‘ordinary sins’ the would admit to.

The third thing to say about Sin has to do with the implications… the ‘so what?’ of Sin.  So we are sinful.  So what?  Well, if we are sinful, then we ultimately need forgiveness, and need Ultimate forgiveness.  The forgiveness on offer through the gospel of Christ is something that is both a single once-for-all Act that cannot be repeated, and an on-going continual work that we must enter into more deeply.  Another bit of local Anglican brilliance announces that “God forgives you”, as a once-for-all fact.  But the stark announcement is followed by a gentle admonition: “forgive others… forgive yourself.”  This is an ongoing process to deepen for the rest of our lives.