Guilt vs. Shame


Brené Brown, author and theologian, offers an easily accessible definition of guilt and shame. It turns out,
“guilt” and “shame” are two different things but we often combine them as if they were one. The following
table helps to describe Brown’s template:


While “guilt is just as powerful as shame… its effect is often positive while shame is often destructive.”

How does guilt and shame manifest in ministry?

…In our theology:
Our understanding of guilt and shame affects how we understand God, humanity, and our relationships with God and each other. Let’s look at our theology of sin, for example. Through the lens of guilt, sin is an act over which to feel remorse, to repent, and to act differently. Through the lens of shame, sin deforms (or destroys) our character, and fundamentally who we are as humans. Guilt is meant to provide the mechanism by which we are made aware of actions that harm self or others. Shame attaches actions (and the consequences of those actions) to our humanity, requiring us to repent for who we are rather than what we have done (or not done).

… In the local church:
Guilting people into service or ministry tasks disfigures guilt into a shaming device that devalues people into fear-filled robots. Shaming people for actions or inaction confuses the healing grace of God with the “law” that condemns people for not yet being who they will become in Christ Jesus. As United Methodists, we believe God’s unmerited grace is central to the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Unintentionally infusing guilt and shame into the ways we think about God’s movement through the church can make it more difficult for people to recognize the very grace God came to offer us.

… In our capability to create equity:
When guilt and shame are combined, we feel as if there is nothing we can do about injustices or oppression that we have caused or from which we have benefited. By separating the two, we can much more easily address areas of injustice without feeling paralyzed about who we must be to have let them go on so long. Shame limits us to understand the sin of racism as creating “bad” people. Guilt helps us to understand racism as a system of policies and systems of organization that can be changed as our thoughts and actions are transformed by grace. Shame paralyzes us by attempting to permanently label our character. Guilt points us toward opportunities to enact justice.


Resource written by Rev Alisha Gordon

Brown, Brené. Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. Penguin Group, 2012.

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