On Guilt and Shame

Preached on Good Friday, March 30, 2018, at First Baptist church of Framingham, for the ecumenical Good Friday Service. Note I first learned of this distinction between guilt and shame through the work of Brené Brown.

Feel free to listen along! Note that I do improvise slightly from the manuscript as seen below, but not much.

Scripture: Matthew 26:69-75

Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. A servant-girl came to him and said, “You also were with Jesus the Galilean.” But he denied it before all of them, saying, “I do not know what you are talking about.” When he went out to the porch, another servant-girl saw him, and she said to the bystanders, “This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.”[h] Again he denied it with an oath, “I do not know the man.” After a little while the bystanders came up and said to Peter, “Certainly you are also one of them, for your accent betrays you.” Then he began to curse, and he swore an oath, “I do not know the man!” At that moment the cock crowed. Then Peter remembered what Jesus had said: “Before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.

Tell me if you ever heard these words growing up from a mama, Grandmama, or an auntie after you did something: “You should feel ashamed of yourself. I brought you up better than that.”

Now, our Grandmamas and aunties and mamas are so often full of wonderful wisdom, so it pains me to have to disagree with them, but I will right here.  I wish that instead of emphasizing the shame that should feel when we do something bad, that instead we were taught to feel more guilt.

This may seem hairsplitting, but guilt and shame are two very different things. We feel shame when we feel bad about who we are as a person, and we feel guilt when we feel bad about something we’ve done. Think about that difference: feeling bad about who we are as a person, verses feeling bad about the things we have done.

Shame happens when we are concerned mostly about ourselves. Guilt happens because we are concerned about others. Shame says that I, that we, can never be good, that we will amount to nothing. Guilt tells us to pick ourselves up, shake the dust off our shoulders, make right what we did wrong, and do better in the future.

In this scripture passage, Peter denies Christ three times in words that I’m pretty sure all of us have said at one point or another “Oh, I don’t know that guy.”  “Oh, I’ve got nothing to do with those folks.” And with the crowing of the rooster, Peter remembers what Jesus said that he would do exactly that.  In that moment, Peter feels guilt.

He feels guilt because in denying his friend, his teacher, the messiah, he has hurt him. No, worse, he has betrayed him. Maybe not as bad as Judas did, but when no one is speaking up for you, staying silent is a betrayal.

And yes, Peter might have felt some shame, a sadness that he had become the sort of person who would do such a thing. But we also know that shame would not be the overriding factor in Peter’s life. For Peter did not fall into the pit of shame that said he would never do any good in this life. No, Peter, who three times denied Christ when Jesus needed him most, wept bitterly over how he had hurt Jesus, and then picked himself up, and went on to do marvelous things in Jesus’ name.  He went on to baptize, to do miracles, to found and lead the church in the city of Rome.

The hurt he had done others did not prevent him from making amends, from doing good to others. Instead, it inspired him to do good and to reconcile with his God and with his friends. Through the grace of God, the shame that might have plagued him was banished, and his guilt transformed into a sincere motivation to do good.

So I ask us- when are our Peter moments?  And what will we do with them?  Will we wallow in shame, convinced of our innate badness? Or will we allow God to work in our lives, to banish shame and  through God’s Grace transform our guilt into faith and hope, so that we can do the work of love in the world?