What’s the difference between guilt and shame?


So you are in a conversation about the gospel and you mention the “G” word, guilt.  You say something like, we are all guilty before God for breaking his laws.  The other person responds with “I don’t feel guilty.”  The implication of this statement is, “I don’t need to change my behaviour and I have no need of Christ.”  How should the pastor, evangelist or Christian friend respond?

The problem, it seems to me, is that, for many people, our culture lacks the vocabulary to describe how we feel.  What the person is really saying is “I do not feel any shame.”

Oxforddictionaries.com defines shame as:

A painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behaviour.

And the same dictionary defines guilt as:

The fact of having committed a specified or implied offence or crime.

But for many people today, guilt and shame are at best synonymous.  How can we overcome this confusion for people?  We stand before the judge of people condemned as guilty by fact, whether or not we feel shame.  Until we make this clear, then Christ makes no sense.  It would help me if readers could make some suggestions.

I have used an illustration from driving to clarify the difference between guilt and shame:

Say you are driving up the motorway at 80mph.  You are unaware of the speed you are doing and you don’t really care.  You feel no shame.  But you are guilty of breaking the law.  If a policeman or speed camera clocks your speed your guilt will be established.  Once you have been found guilty you might feel shame.

Anyone got any other, better, ways of establishing the difference between guilt and shame?

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One Response to What’s the difference between guilt and shame?

  1. Ian G says:

    Shame is the emotional recognition that we are guilty. It covers everything from offences against etiquette, to modesty, to murder. It’s unreliable, as is guilt. Guilt can be based on reality or on imagination.Victims can feel ashamed and guilty when they should not. They are emotional responses.
    Conviction is when we know that we are guilty and want to do something about it. Conviction says that we are guilty, but sentence has not been passed. We still have the opportunity to seek forgiveness.
    Condemnation says that sentence has been passed and there is no hope. The Enemy would like us to believe that this is the case.
    The Holy Spirit wants us to trust that Jesus has already satisfied all requirements of the law, the price is paid and we are free. The Holy Spirit does Conviction.
    There is, therefore, now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.(Rom 8:1)
    Sanctification is what deals with guilt and shame. Sanctification says that we are now clean, and therefore, holy before God
    As for the shameless, pray for the Holy Spirit to convict them. Jesus told us that was one of the things the Holy Spirit would do. The shameless either lack a moral sense or possess a seared conscience.

    That’s my best off the top of my head.

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