In God’s grace, I’ve been thinking through what true repentance is made of and especially when it comes to the affections I feel. Most recently I’ve been thinking about the difference between shame and guilt. Both are Biblical words used in the diagnosis and punishment of sin but what do they really mean? Is there one more preferred than the other? How do they apply to repentance?
Let’s begin with understanding what these words mean. In its essence, the chief defining trait of shame, is embarrassment. Feelings of awkwardness mostly from being found out in wrongdoing. Guilt on the other hand, in its essence is about responsibility for an action. Feeling to blame for wrongdoing. Each can have some traits of the other but I think the chief difference is that of embarrassment versus responsibility.
The chief difference is that of embarrassment versus responsibility
How does this apply when we think about our sin before God and others? When we think about sin, it is not enough to simply know that something is bad and abominable before God, God cares for how we view it and what feelings it invokes in us. This is where shame and guilt come in. We need to feel both embarrassed and responsible for our sin. Embarrassed because we knew better and still went on and did it. Embarrassment because we did what we think others shouldn’t or did to others what we would not like to suffer from them – the embarrassment of our hypocrisy. The embarrassment of choosing what fails and is doomed to fail. I think this embarrassment is what God speaks about in Isaiah 1:29, when He speaks of redeeming Zion by justice. The effect is that those dwelling in Jerusalem as Isaiah is speaking will be ashamed of their idolatry because it will fail them and cause them to face God’s wrath!
But we must also feel responsible. That we deliberately took action and walked a certain path because we wanted to. That we are to blame for the choice and the consequences that followed. Guilt considers that God is right in His verdict of our sin and that we can give no defense; we are rightly accused and judged, indeed guilty! Isaiah at his call in Isaiah 6, sees God and is immediately conscious of his sin. He knows that he is guilty and deserving of judgement. “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” v5. He understands and takes ownership of his sin and knows that it means he is doomed.
How then do these two feelings work together in our repentance? Let’s consider King David, in his sin with Bathsheba and how shame and guilt work together in his repentance in 2 Samuel 11-12 and Psalm 51. David sees a woman bathing, finds out she’s someone else’s wife and still calls her up to his room and sleeps with her. She gets pregnant and David devises this grand plan to have her husband sleep with her to cover up the pregnancy but when that fails, he plots Uriah’s death in war. He then takes Bathsheba to be his wife and bear his child. He does all this is secrecy thinking that he is all safe. But God’s been watching and sends him a prophet to expose his sin. The prophet quite expertly exposes David’s sin through a story of injustice. David, as the ‘righteous’ ruler is rightly angered by the injustice and proclaims the proper judgement for the sinner. Prophet Nathan then says simply, “You are this man!” and goes ahead to proclaim Yahweh’s verdict and judgement on him.
How does David respond? “I have sinned against the LORD.” This, I think, is the result of shame and guilt. He is ashamed because he gets to see himself clearly. He is able to plainly see his actions in the light of what he knows and has received from Yahweh’s hand. He sees his hypocrisy plainly – how can he judge the unjust man in the story when he has done exactly the same thing to Uriah? His shame humbles him before the LORD to hear and accept responsibility for his sin. With things now so clear, with him off his high horse, he can then take responsibility for his actions, rightly confessing, “I have sinned against the LORD.” Shame humbles the sinner and gives proper room for guilt to work to bring about confession and then hopefully godly sorrow that leads to repentance.
Shame humbles the sinner and gives proper room for guilt to work to bring about confession and then hopefully godly sorrow that leads to repentance.
Psalm 51 records David’s response to the exposure of his sin. “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. . . For I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgement. . . Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me and I shall be whiter than snow. . . Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. . . Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness. . .”
The shame and guilt have worked out their proper course on the road to repentance for David. We shall do well to learn from him. When God mercifully exposes our sin, in private or public, we ought not to take quickly to trying to excuse/justify our sin. There is never a good reason for sin! Then we are to have a good look at our sin – to name it (bloodguiltiness, for David) and understand what it is that we have believed, said and done that is contrary to God. Often times I’ve found that when I am aware of a sin, I want to skip this step of properly understanding and taking responsibility for it because I am so embarrassed by it. But what I’ve learnt is that, I do not properly feel the guilt of it – take proper responsibility for it, because I haven’t properly diagnosed the error. This means that I oftentimes stick at sinning because I’m busy trying to treat the symptoms and not the root of the problem. I’m busy trying to put out the fire without understanding its cause. “Let’s just move on!” yet I haven’t known what it is I am moving on/away from.
I have found that it is when I have properly understood my sin that I can clearly confess it and then seek to turn away from it, which in fact is what repentance means! How can we ever hope to confess and turn from (repent) what we do not understand? How can we be equipped to recognize sin in its different guises when we’re not humbly taking responsibility for it and understanding it at its root? True repentance involves the pain of shame and guilt followed by the real confession of sin and seeking to turn away from the sin we have just confessed as God cleanses and helps us. Skipping any step leaves us simply wallowing in sin not mortifying it!