Thursday, December 15, 2011

A heap of guilt with a side of shame?

One of the lessons participants in certain 12-step support groups learn is about the difference between guilt and shame. This is particularly helpful for co-dependents who may seek help through Al-Anon or Families Anonymous, or the church’s Family Support Group (a companion program to the Addiction Recovery Program, still in pilot stages in selected locations). As co-dependents let go of things that don't belong to them, they hopefully also learn to release guilt they have falsely carried related to their loved one's lives. Overcoming shame (for the co-dependent and for the addicted loved one) may be more difficult.

Alma teaches Corianton about the proper place for guilt:

And now, my son, I desire that ye should let these things trouble you no more, and only let your sins trouble you, with that trouble which shall bring you down unto repentance.

O my son, I desire that ye should deny the justice of God no more. Do not endeavor to excuse yourself in the least point because of your sins, by denying the justice of God; but do you let the justice of God, and his mercy, and his long-suffering have full sway in your heart; and let it bring you down to the dust in humility (Alma 42:29-30, emphasis mine).

Guilt can be a positive force in our lives, if, as Alma teaches, we allow it to bring us to repentance.

Consider Enos’ experience:

And my soul hungered; and I kneeled down before my Maker, and I cried unto him in mighty prayer and supplication for mine own soul; and all the day long did I cry unto him; yea, and when the night came I did still raise my voice high that it reached the heavens.

And there came a voice unto me, saying: Enos, thy sins are forgiven thee, and thou shalt be blessed.

And I, Enos, knew that God could not lie; wherefore, my guilt was swept away (Enos 1:4-6, emphasis mine).
His guilt was swept away! Awesome. And just right. That is precisely the point of the atonement (one point, anyway). Through the blessing of the atonement we have the opportunity to turn from our sins and change and be better than we were. Our guilt can be swept away.

Shame, on the other hand, is a different kettle of fish. If guilt is that feeling that motivates us to change – that Godly sorrow that moves us to repent and to call on the Savior’s love and mercy to rescue us, shame is that deceitful web of the adversary that would have us believe that there is no hope for someone like us, that since we’ve sinned, no one could love us, especially God. (Of course the fact is that God has already loved us; His Son has already paid the price of our sin long before we committed it!)

Shame may keep us from seeking repentance because we believe we are unredeemable, or the pain or embarrassment (for us or for those we love) of repenting will be too great.

It is easy to leap from shame to pride – to suggest that somehow shame is our fault. I would recommend against that. Pride is pride and shame is shame; they are not the same. There are some whose pride may prevent their repentance, but that is not shame. Shame is often externally imposed, perhaps even unwittingly (in my generation, many were reared in shaming homes: “You should know better than that. How could you do such a thing? We don’t do that in our family!”).

Well-meaning church teachers might also instill shame when they teach (even unthinkingly) that certain sins are so serious they are virtually unredeemable, even though that is clearly not true. President Packer taught in the most recent conference:

You may in time of trouble think that you are not worth saving because you have made mistakes, big or little, and you think you are now lost. That is never true! Only repentance can heal what hurts. But repentance can heal what hurts, no matter what it is ("Counsel to Youth," October 2011 General Conference, emphasis mine).

Guilt focuses on what we have or have not done. Shame focuses often on who we are.

When we care for one another by bearing one another’s burdens, comforting those who stand in need of comfort and mourning with those that mourn, ideally we are easing a burden, not adding to it with shame. (A nice discussion of this thought, with reference to Job and his "friends" here.)

The good news – that is, The Good News – is that the atonement can help us in both cases. Not only did the Savior bear the pain of all our sins, but he bore all our pain so that, as Alma taught, “he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities” (Alma 7:12).

It is helpful for me to remember the story of the father with incomplete faith as recorded in Mark. The father approached Jesus, pleading with him to heal his son who was beset with a deaf and dumb spirit. The Savior teaches him, “If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth” (9:23). The father instantly confesses his belief, but then adds (perhaps sensing that the Lord already knows that his faith is weak), “help thou mine unbelief” (v. 24). The Savior does not chide him, nor does he refuse to help. Instead, he casts out the spirit and restores the boy to health.

It is helpful to remember that the Savior was willing to bless this boy and his imperfect father. And I believe he is willing to bless me. Even though I make mistakes that cause me guilt, they need not bring me shame.


  1. Excellent post - very good distinction between the two.

    I find that "shaming" is a very natural tendency - since it is ever so easy. Often, however, shame is used to keep someone from reflecting badly on the one concerned about being shamed himself.

    Iow, if I don't want others to view me negatively in some way, I am prone to try to control others in such a way that people don't think badly of me because of what those others do. It is projecting my own insecurities onto others and, in a very real way, exercising unrighteous dominion over them.

    Finally, often, the only ones who can "being shame one me" are the ones who are closest to me - so those I tend to shame are my wife, my children, my fellow congregants, etc. Truly, in this particular way, we hurt the ones we love.

  2. Papa D, great comment, and thanks.

    You bring up an excellent point that may well show up in a future post, namely that shaming is a controlling behavior. That's one reason why it's such an important discussion for recovering co-dependents.

    "Reproving betimes with sharpness", for instance, should not be shaming, but suspect that often it turns out that way on the ground.

  3. Thanks for the discussion between the difference between guilt and shame. I found it very enlightening.