1.27.2015

Guilt vs Shame, part 1: Can Guilt Be Good?


I know this is weird, but not all of the brilliant people in the world write and post blogs from which we may glean wisdom and inspiration. Crazy, right?! I know! But it's true - some awesome people can only be found in real life. I love it when I get to introduce you to one of my awesome real life people, and today is one of those days. I cannot even begin to tell you what this woman's friendship has meant to me over the last couple of years, but I will say that when the stars align and we both have, like, a whole entire hour free for coffee, Libby breathes life into me. Every time I see her, I wish I could share her with you. You'll see why...

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Can Guilt Be Good?


A while back - and by a while I mean 2 years ago - Jamie and I were having coffee and she said "will you guest post on my blog?"  I nodded my head nonchalantly and said "yeah, definitely."  And then I hoped she would forget. In my head I thought 'no way. I can't write for your blog. Jamie , YOU are a blogger. I'm...' I didn't even know what I was-I was just NOT a blogger. But she didn't forget and I got over my insecurity (almost).  I'm ready to blog and I want to blog on shame. Why shame? I think shame is one of the biggest tools if not THE biggest tool in the arsenal of the devil and the topic doesn't get discussed much in churches. And, I  have been learning a lot about the topic over the past two years -- as in first hand. The idea of shame isn't new to me, but sometimes you know about something (i.e. intellectual knowing) and other times you KNOW something (i.e. in your bones/gut knowing). It is almost as if I had to have a face to face with my own shame to realize how powerful and destructive shame is to all of us.

If we are going to understand shame, we have to distinguish between it and its close cousin, guilt.  Here's a working definition of guilt:

1. The fact or state of having committed an offense, crime, violation, or wrong, esp. against moral or penal law;

2. A feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime, wrong, etc., whether real or imagined.
Thank you dictionary.
Guilt is like a two sided coin: one side has an imprint of an offense and the other side, an imprint of our feelings about said event; we think or do or say something that falls outside of the parameters of a moral law to which we ascribe, and we have feelings about it. Within this rudimentary definition of guilt there is an important distinction between unhealthy and healthy guilt. My personal definition of  unhealthy guilt is  "blaming someone else for not getting what you want."  We have feelings (usually those that make us uncomfortable or we don't like) and we would rather not discuss them openly and honestly, so we shroud them in unhealthy guilt messages like: "you never call me" or "everyone else is going to the family reunion..." Unhealthy guilt points and blames; healthy guilt acknowledges and restores.

From God's perspective guilt is ultimately about broken relationship. It isn't just a Law that is broken or a specific sin, it's a connection to the divine that is torn and fractured. And while a system of offerings was set up to restore and maintain connection with God in the Old Testament, it is in Christ that we are relieved of the consequences of messing with our relationship with God.

With this information in mind, there are a couple of ways guilt can be our friend. First, guilt can remind us we are created in the image of God (imago dei). We experience this connection between guilt and the imago dei through conscience. Conscience is part of what makes us unique as humans: we contemplate our actions and make moral self-evaluations. Conscience is not perfectly the voice of God within us but it does point to God's image in us.  

Second, guilt reveals the importance of relationship and reconciliation. When we are guilty, we are called to make things right and so we ask forgiveness, we make some kind of amends and we model what reconciliation looks like. Guilts' innate connection to relationship is the tool that enables us to re-establish relationship with God and with one another.  We show each other and the world God's model for how relationship works.

Guilt has a purpose. Guilt, when viewed appropriately, is good. Where things go awry is when guilt becomes confused with shame - and if you don't read the next post I guess you are ...oh sorry - I was just about to shame you...

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Libby Vincent became a follower of Jesus in the middle of her college years. Knowing that she was being called by God to full time professional ministry, she pursued her education which led her to Pasadena, CA, Edinburgh, Scotland, and Berlin, Germany. She currently teaches for Fuller Seminary Northern California in the area of Systemic Theology and Theology and Film. Libby resides in Folsom with her husband of 22 years, Dan, and her two teenagers, Maggie and Trent. 


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Be sure to come back on Thursday for part 2, Libby's take on Shame. ( I... *ahem*.. I mean, you, YOU seriously need to hear this one.)


Ok. What about it - Do you think guilt is a good thing?