Unless your conscience is particularly insensitive, you’ve probably felt guilt and shame at least once or twice since you woke up this morning. But what are guilt and shame telling us, and what does the Bible say about them?
Guilt and shame are related but not identical consequences of sin, and honestly, they have a great deal of difficulty understanding them if we treat both as feelings. Guilt, in the biblical sense, is an objective status; it literally refers to an individual or group of people being found guilty for a wrong committed as well as incurring the punishment that comes as a result.
This is the human condition, according to Scripture: all of us are guilty of breaking God’s commands, of disobeying and violating His Law. And if we are guilty of violating one command, James explains that we are guilty of violating them all. And because guilt is an objective fact, rather than a subjective feeling, it is true whether we feel guilty or not.
Shame, however, is a little different. Shame is the emotional response, the pain that comes from our guilt. When we describe feeling guilty, what we are actually feeling is shame.
The gospel tells us that Jesus has taken away our guilt and shame, and it was His pleasure to do so. The author of Hebrews wrote that “For the joy that lay before him, he endured the cross, despising the shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2, CSB).
This is important for us because in this life, we still will have feelings of shame, both because of sins we committed in the past and sins we continue to commit in the present. But our shame isn’t what defines us. Jesus defines us. And even in the moments when our shame weighs on us heavily, we can look to Him, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, knowing that He took our guilt and shame away forever.