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.