How do you tell when someone is truly repentant for sin? It’s not always easy. Remorse often looks like repentance, with its sorrow, tears, and apologies. Yet Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 7:10-11 that remorse and repentance are two different responses, each with its own result. Remorse without repentance brings merely hastily patched up relationships and wounds that remain uncleansed of infection. In other words, remorse does nothing to alleviate the real cause of conviction—guilt.
A feeling of guilt is a gift from God to show us our sin and to show us how to have it atoned for. Guilt should produce genuine repentance, characterized by the seven responses listed in verse 11. Genuine repentance deals completely and radically with the guilt of sin, and comes away forgiven and cleansed.
Many people, however, have a difficult time distinguishing shame from guilt. Shame is not the same as guilt. Guilt is specific and objective. It is both a status before God, in which the sinner is reckoned condemned in God’s sight, and a sensation of having broken the law of God. Shame is an essential aspect of guilt, but guilt is much more than shame. Godly shame (or “sorrow” as Paul calls it in verse 10) is a feeling of dread over our actions that should lead us to a sense of guilt about why we feel shame.
In contrast to the specificity and objectivity of godly guilt, shame is general, vague, and entirely a feeling. Shame that does not result in a clear sense of guilt experiences no relief, for it finds no path to repentance, which is the only way to forgiveness and relief. Shame often leaves us feeling depressed, uneasy, and frustrated.
In his book, Wired for Intimacy, William Struthers describes the dynamic of shame:
Shame can be internal disappointment with ourselves or can be placed on us by a wider community. It is an attempt to cover up a sense of unworthiness or agonizing vulnerability. It involves exposure and judgment, with resulting feelings of insufficiency, defectiveness, inadequacy or unworthiness. At the core of shame is the belief that the individual is not worthy of love. In some cultural contexts shame is used to motivate others to change their behavior. This shame comes from the outside, imposed on us by our culture, community or family. But it can also come from within, imposed on us after a sense of guilt has been warped into a denial of our worth, value and identity in Christ.
It is critically important to recognize the difference between shame and guilt. Guilt is the feeling that we get when we do something that our conscience tells us is wrong. This conscience, our internal moral compass, serves as protection for both ourselves and for those around us. When our actions or thoughts have led us to a violation or injury of another person, guilt can be a good emotion. It is a guide that can make us aware of when we have injured others. Healthy responses to guilt are confession, repentance, forgiveness and restoration.
This is exactly what Paul was praising the Corinthian church for in 7:8-11. When confronted with their sin, these believers allowed the shame they felt to be interpreted by their objective guilt before God, and not merely by feelings of self-pity or self-loathing. Their guilt drove them to confession and repentance, and as a result they experienced forgiveness and restoration.
But what do we do when we can’t tell the difference between guilt and shame?
Sometimes there is a gray area between guilt and shame. A person can know he is “guilty” but have no emotional response to the guilt. Oftentimes this is a person with a seared conscience. These individuals, at the extremes, can become sociopaths. But everyone has the capacity to know that they did something wrong yet find ways to excuse it, minimize it or even enjoy it.
The problem with shame is that it is based on more than just what we do. While guilt is primarily based on our actions, shame is based more on our belief about ourselves. The severity of our sense of guilt can sometimes lead us to a place where we feel a sense of shame. As we identify with those whom we have injured, we move from a healthy sense of guilt into a warped understanding of forgiveness, grace and mercy.
William M. Struthers, Wired for Intimacy: How Pornography Hijacks the Male Brain (IVP, 2009), 55-6.
When a feeling of guilt that is based on an objective violation of our conscience and the law of God is not followed by biblical confession (agreeing with God about the nature of our sin) and repentance (taking responsibility for our sin and forsaking it by seeking the forgiveness of all offended), a worldly shame ensues. This shame results in everything but biblical repentance—blame-shifting, anger, self-pity, self-justification, and often, further sin, concealment and evasion of responsibility.
All this means one thing: when confronted with our sin by the Spirit’s conviction, our shame and guilt must translate into biblical confession and repentance if we hope to experience forgiveness and restoration. If it does not, we will find ourselves in an inescapable maze of our own self-condemnation for which there is no relief.