1.29.2015

Guilt vs Shame, part 2: There's a BIG Difference

This is the second half of a two part series on Shame from my real life friend and legit theologian, Libby Vincent. Be sure to read part 1, here!

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The BIG Difference Between Guilt and Shame


In my last post, I talked about guilt. Now I want to talk about shame.

I've been working hard at understanding shame. It wasn't really my choice-it just happened. About two years ago  a bunch of unforeseen losses in my life pretty much broke me - I was depressed, listless and almost hopeless.  Once I got out of the fog, I began to dismantle deep messages of shame from my past and began to believe in God's message of worth. God used some key people in my life during this time: my family and friends (who stood with me and held me up); my spiritual director (who helped me expand my theological lens); my therapist (who embodies grace and wholeness to me), and the work of Dr. BrenĂ© Brown (who has researched and written extensively on shame and vulnerability) 

As I did with guilt, here's a working definition of shame - shame is:

"....the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging."

The primary difference between guilt and shame is this:  guilt is about what we do; shame is about who we are. It may seem like a difference of semantics, but it's more than that. Guilt says "lying to my boss was wrong"; shame says "you're a liar." Shame labels us with names like liar, loser, failure, ugly, stupid. Shame shouts "you'll never be man enough; you're a drunk; a pervert; a lazy slob; your body, mind, house, car, children -- your faith -- isn't perfect enough". Shame is what the devil uses to convince us we aren't worthy of God's love and never will be. Shame demoralizes, dehumanizes, and paralyzes us with fear.

Sadly, shame is prolific in the church: the one place that could be a safe haven from shame is often the place that shames us the most. But it doesn't have to be that way. The church can work against the destructive forces of shame. Instead of being a broker of shame, the Church can be a conduit of worth. I think we can do this work by encouraging one another to work through our shame, and expose it for what it is - lies. We can use tools like therapy and spiritual direction to help us know where we are vulnerable to shame. We can teach and preach on shame, helping people understand what it is and how it works. When we speak against shame - it doesn't mean we don't take sin seriously. 

We are people with brokenness; we sin, but our sin does not define who we are.  When we believe WE ARE BAD we can't recognize God's voice of acceptance because we are too busy trying to perform and clean up for God. We can't be representatives of God when shame owns us, because it makes us angry, hostile and fractured people. In an effort to alleviate ourselves from our own sense of worthlessness and self hatred, we release the venom of vitriol, cynicism and judgment upon others. This is not how God wants us to live. God wants us to live out of our worth - given to us at creation, redeemed through Jesus, and made complete at the end of time. Our identity as belonging to God is what gives us our worth (Genesis 1.31). When we believe that nothing and no one can change our standing as Gcd's beloved, sin becomes less attractive, coping mechanisms we have used to avoid our shame lose their appeal, and compassion for ourselves and others increases. Miraculous things happen. Healing and wholeness happens. Life giving choices happen. Christ in us happens.

In this life, shame will always be around. But shame doesn't have to have the last word. We can be proactive by calling out shame and ushering it to the door marked EXIT. It won't be easy. It's painful and can feel overwhelming.  It takes courage. But sometimes we have to experience 'crucifixion' so we can have 'resurrection.' Sometimes SOMETHING has to die -- our shame -- so that SOMEONE can live - like you and me. 


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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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To be honest, friends, the concepts of Guilt and Shame have been hard for me to untangle in my own life, since they are so often wrapped up together. But learning how to untangle that knot and recognize the difference has been a life-giving process for me. I hope this little series has encouraged you to do the same. 

Ok, Libby. WHAT'S NEXT?!

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Have you been able to let shame die, so that you might wholly live?