Guilt, Shame and Judging Others

Guilt, Shame and Conviction

Guilt and shame are widely acknowledged to be negative, unhelpful emotions. Guilt is more inward-focussed – how bad I feel about that thing I did or didn’t do. Shame has a more outward direction, but is still internalised – how bad I feel about how they might feel about what I did or didn’t do. Guilt and shame are both very difficult to get rid of; they can stick around for years, whether you did something to try to atone for your mistake or not.

Chrisitians often contrast these two with conviction. Conviction is to be recognised by its short live appearance – it is a feeling that exists only while there is something that you need to do to remedy a bad situation. Although it might be confused with shame or guilt, once you do that thing, it will go.

Judging Others

Jesus said “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.” (Mt 7:1)

Christians have struggled with this instruction for a long time. Judging is so easy – and satisfying too. You get a little moment of superiority, a little ‘pharisee moment’. I suppose it’s one of those things that “I know I shouldn’t, but…” While thinking about the difference between guilt, shame, and conviction, I came to a new understanding of why we have been told not to judge, based on the effects of judging (not on exegesis of the passages in question).

When we judge someone, what are the possible responses that they might have?

  1. They might ignore you. Fair enough, all kinds of people ignore us all the time, we’re used to it. Sadly, this is the best of the possible responses, though.
  2. They might respond by judging you right back. “Who does he think he is to lecture me… What’s so great about her… Do they really think they’re so perfect…” This kind of response makes no difference to the behaviour that we’re judging them for, it only focusses their anger and hurt on us instead.
  3. They might respond with guilt or shame.

Guilt and shame are not positive responses. Yes, they are natural, human responses to actions we regret, but not healthy ones. The healthy response is conviction, which I take to mean as the Spirit of God working in you to change or remove a problem in your life. But I am convinced that conviction never comes from human action, especially our judgmentalism.

Creating guilt or shame in someone else is a really bad outcome, yet it’s the strongest response we can hope for. The terrible personal consequences of a life gripped by shame or guilt should be reason enough to make me forswear the little hit of judging someone. More than this though, guilt and shame can each be a barrier to finding God – a dangerous thing! We should be very careful in doing anything that pushes people away from the gospel – this isn’t a case of the good news being hard to hear, it’s us being the barrier to belief.

Hooked on Judging

Yet knowing all this I still judge people! Judging is an automatic human response to someone not fitting our morals and knowing it does no good is not the same as not doing it. I think our worst possible response to this knowledge is guilt. Controlling this urge is going to take discipline – and perhaps conviction. At least we have the example of Jesus, who really did what he said on not judging, renown for accepting anyone, no matter their history. The example of the disciples is encouraging too, as they learn after Jesus is resurrected and ascended, slowly and gradually, that everyone is an insider to the gospel message.

  • I’m intrigued as to what brought this particular reflection about.
    I can remember some pretty heavy discussions during missiology lectures & seminars re. ‘guilt’ and ‘shame’ cultures and the different way the good news (and associated bad news) of Jesus might be said to speak to them.
    What you say clearly makes a lot of sense, but I think I might nuance it slightly by saying also that guilt at root tends to be more seen & experienced as an individualistic thing, while shame has more of a communal perspective (paralleling your ‘inward’ and ‘outward’ descriptors). As a result I suggest they are handled differently, and the element of conviction you describe speaks quite differently to them.
    Thought provoking. Thanks!

  • I think that’s probably what I was trying to say, Simon!