Guilt Without Shame

As a leader, I have sat in my share of staff meetings where blame for a problem or failure is shifted from person to person, ending with no one taking responsibility. As a result, anger and bitterness grow among the staff, and challenges are rarely resolved. 

The inability to create a culture where taking responsibility is the norm is a tremendous leadership deficiency that I believe may stem from a culture of shame. Leaders who do not recognize and communicate the difference between guilt and shame will build teams that lack the necessary trust and vulnerability to be responsible.  

I have found it much easier to admit guilt than to play the blame game. When something is my fault, I strive to set an example and tone for the rest of my team. Though it is easier to admit guilt, it is not without pain. Pain is experienced most strongly when we fail to separate error from our intrinsic value. Just because you made a mistake does not lessen your value. When team members are assured of their value, they will likely admit their guilt and not pass the blame on to others.

I believe that a healthy sense of responsibility is absent of shame and enables us to recognize our mistakes without losing value. To expand on this idea, we can observe what Paul the apostles calls “godly grief” in 2 Corinthians 7:8-11. In verse 10, he says, “Godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.” This passage caused me to think about the trouble we have differentiating between godly grief stemming from guilt and the damaging effects of shame. 

Godly grief is not shame. The word “guilt” means that we have committed a wrongdoing. On the other hand, shame is the humiliation that causes us to lose our sense of value by focusing on that offense. Guilt focuses on the offense, and shame focuses on the person who has committed the wrongdoing. Within the Christian community, we may keep each other from the benefits of godly grief because of the propensity to move toward shame. The leader’s job is to create an atmosphere where each member understands their value and requires them to admit guilt and seek forgiveness. A member should never leave our team because they are driven away by shame. Christ has set the example of valuing us by calling us to repentance. 

When God convicts us of sin, he does not shame us but reaffirms our identity as his children. In John 16:8, we read, “And when He [Holy Spirit] comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.” The word “convict” is a translation of the Greek word elencho, which means to convince us of the truth. In Hebrews 12:4-7, we see that we are addressed as children whom the Lord disciplines because he receives and loves us. These realities allow us to admit our guilt without experiencing shame. God does not shame, and neither can we. 

If we apply this truth, we can overcome a common problem in the church. Many leaders have become dismissive of sin and its consequences because they fear shaming others. They have listened to cultural voices that accuse Christianity of being a shame-based religion because of its call to repentance. Calling people to repentance based on their intrinsic value can dispel this false accusation. 

As leaders, we must understand that we cannot tolerate the presence of sin in the lives of those we lead. Instead, we must create a church culture that holds each member in high esteem, assuring them of their value to us and the church’s mission. Because they are valuable, they are given space to admit their wrongdoing and be restored without fearing being cast aside—guilt and shame of not doing the same thing. 

There is no room for shame in the church, and removing it will strengthen each member of your ministry team and, thus, your entire church community. Repent when guilty, but never lose your sense of value and significance as a human or child of God.

Paul Hobbs
Paul Hobbs

Paul Hobbs is lead pastor at The Retreat Church: A Church of the Nazarene in Yucaipa, California.