Digital Only: Young Adults
Shame versus Guilt: Help for Discerning God’s Voice from Satan’s Lies
The author lives in Utah, USA.
The distinction between shame and guilt can help us on our spiritual journey to repent and become like God.
Repentance can feel daunting at times. There are many voices telling us different things—the Spirit inviting us to change and repent, Satan professing that repentance isn’t possible, our own minds whispering that we are not enough. How can we know which messages originate from God and which ones are Lucifer’s? As a social science researcher, I have found psychology’s distinction between shame and guilt to be very helpful in making this judgment. When examined through a gospel lens, the shame-guilt framework organizes the key doctrinal principles of divine worth, agency, and repentance into a model that helps distinguish God’s voice from Satan’s lies.
Shame and Guilt Defined
In the social sciences, “shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.”1 Guilt is “a sense of remorse and the desire to make amends.”2 Shame is character-based (“I am a bad person”), whereas guilt is action-based (“I did a bad thing”).3 Shame leads you to want to shrink, hide, and disappear.4 Guilt identifies an action that you regret, prompting you to change for the future.5
Social science further elaborates that shame attacks your character, asserting that at your core you are worthless. Such lies often lead to self-loathing and condemn you to a lifetime of misery, forever believing you are unlovable and don’t belong anywhere.6 Feelings of guilt, on the other hand, do not attack your self-worth and generally do not include self-loathing. Instead, guilt reminds you that your actions are not in line with your values and identity. This realization often prompts you to change those actions and become better.7
Church doctrine is clear on how God wants us to feel. Our inherent worth as children of God means that we are never worthless, even when we have sinned.8 The Spirit’s voice will never encourage you to hate yourself, rather reminding you of your eternal worth as a child of God (see Moses 1:4). The voice that says you are worthless and unlovable will always be Satan’s (see Moses 1:12).
Shame tries to convince you that you are not enough and shouldn’t even be trying. Shame wants you to curl up in a corner and surrender as it whispers to you that you’ll never get there.9 If shame can convince you those things are true, it has made the decision for you. It will keep you from trying again and becoming better by convincing you that you don’t have agency and don’t have the ability to try again. Guilt, on the other hand, tells you when something you did does not correspond with your values.10 Upon receiving that knowledge, you are free to choose what to do with it. You can decide to change the behavior or ignore that little voice. Regardless if you are feeling guilt or shame, you are the agent who decides what to do next.
The doctrine is clear: God has given you agency; He wants you to choose for yourself (see 2 Nephi 2:26–27). Satan wants to destroy your agency (see Moses 4:3), ideally without you noticing (see 2 Nephi 28:21), and bind you to a life of misery (see 2 Nephi 2:27).
Shame insists that the only way to deal with mistakes or failure is to run away, hide, and become invisible.11 Shame says that the worst thing that can happen is for someone to find out what you’ve done and that if people knew they would be disgusted by you.12 Guilt encourages you to keep moving forward. Guilt promotes changes in your behavior and allows you to reach out for help if you need it.13
Hiding sins from God never elicits true repentance (see Alma 39:8). It can’t. Repentance is only possible through your Redeemer (see 2 Nephi 10:24; Mosiah 16:13; Alma 13:5). You must come unto Him to be made whole and receive complete forgiveness. When shame convinces you to hide your sins from God, repentance can’t occur. Satan wants this. If you don’t repent, if you don’t call on the power of Jesus Christ and the blessings of His Atonement, Satan wins (see Alma 12:35). Christ pleads for you to come unto Him and become better through His grace (see Matthew 11:28; John 7:37). Messing up, learning from your mistakes, and moving forward through repentance is an ongoing cycle on your journey to become like Him.
Bringing It All Together
I argue that shame can always be discounted. God will never attack your character, steal your agency, or prevent you from repenting. Rather, He reminds you of your worth, promotes your agency, and helps you to repent.14 Guilt is a signal Heavenly Father has provided to let you know that something is not quite right and there needs to be a change.15 I consider guilt to be the social-science synonym for godly sorrow.16 I believe shame is Satan’s version of this signal to get you to believe that all hope is lost, that change cannot occur, and that you will never be able to live up to your potential as a child of God.
Experiencing Shame for a Sinless Decision
Because shame is aimed at your inherent worth rather than your actions, it isn’t limited to sins or other behaviors that require change. Satan, well-meaning people, and even your own mind may shame you for actions or decisions that don’t require repentance. Here is a personal experience to help illustrate.
For a long time I wanted to serve a full-time mission.17 I was excited and did my best to prepare, but something didn’t feel quite right. After a year of wrestling with the Spirit’s frequent but subtle hints that a mission was not the path for me, I decided to finally trust God, and I let go of my plans for a mission.
I have struggled with many negative emotions concerning this decision. I felt inadequate serving as an 18-year-old Relief Society president, preparing sisters for their missions when I would never serve one. I felt awkward telling people I had changed my mind and wouldn’t be serving a mission. I cried during one stake conference when the speaker asked those who had served or who were planning on serving missions to stand, and it felt like I was the only one sitting down.
I spent many nights crying and struggling with the self-loathing and inadequacy I felt. I thought that because I didn’t serve a mission I was spiritually deficient, would be a horrible wife and mother, was an awful person, and would never be good enough.
Let’s take a step back and analyze my situation. Did I commit sin? No. Was there an action God needed me to change? No. I was being shamed for a sinless decision—a decision for which God wouldn’t want me to hate myself. The shame I felt about not serving a mission can therefore be rejected. It wasn’t from God, and it has no place in my life.
What to Do When You Feel Shame
If shame is never helpful no matter the context, how do you combat the shame storms you experience? Renowned shame researcher Brené Brown tells us that the keys to develop shame resilience are as follows:
Acknowledge personal vulnerability.
Actively pursue critical awareness of shame.
Speak about shame.18
Each of the elements in this formula is best achieved when the individual partners with Christ: open your heart and allow yourself to be honest and sincere with your Savior; increase personal awareness of shame through study and by faith; reach out to Christ and through Christ to others; and speak openly concerning your experiences with shame and about the transformative power of the Redeemer in your life.
This can be done through fervent prayer, fully opening your broken or hurting heart to God; searching for and pondering instances where Satan has fought prophets and apostles with shame (and failed); asking for Christ’s healing power to be present in your life and for guidance in testifying of that power to others; and sharing both your failures and triumphs with loved ones and with your Heavenly Father.
Always remember that God loves you and that you belong.19 He will never tell you otherwise.20 Satan will try to deceive you, but you can discern and reject his lies.