Shame or Conviction?
Let me start with this statement: Shame masquerades as conviction. And it’s incredibly hard to tell what you’re feeling––shame or conviction.
“If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.” Brené Brown
As one author puts it, “both produce very strong emotional reactions that result in changed behavior” (Jim Grimes). No wonder they are confused so often.
Why is it so important that we get the difference? I believe that our thoughts influence our emotions (not the other way around) and that if we can change our perspective about, say… ourselves… then the way we feel about ourselves will improve. I also believe that the way we feel influences our behavior. So, if we change a thought, the associated emotion will obediently follow it, and our behavior will reflect this feeling.
Simplified: Thought influences emotion, which leads to action.
How can we tell the difference between conviction and shame?
Let’s start with shame.
One pastor I enjoy following, Kris Vallotton, has been teaching on recent insights about this subject, and makes this statement: “Shame always demands a prescription to numb the pain…When we don’t feel OK, we often look for ways to comfort our pain, and compensate for our inadequacies. Shame lures us into dysfunctional behaviors, oftentimes resulting in addictions.”
Adam drinks alcohol in excess. He drinks when he is feeling disconnected, sad, lonely, and frustrated. He needs something to “take the edge off.” After waking up from another painful, mind-thumping hangover, he feels guilty. “I can’t believe I did it again… I’m sorry God. This is the last time. I don’t want to keep doing this.” But, the guilt is relentless and reinforces the shame-saturated thought that he has had so many times- “I am disgusting.” This thought causes him to feel depressed, inferior, disconnected, sad, lonely, and frustrated… again. The next day, he returns to a familiar behavior–drinking in excess–and he experiences the cycle all over.
Most of us can identify with Adam in some form or fashion. Just replace “alcohol” with shopping, pornography, exercise, sex, busyness, gambling, television, etc.
Proverbs 26:11 says that when we continue making the same mistake over and over again, we are acting like animals who return to their vomit… it doesn’t make sense! Shame keeps us imprisoned, robs us of all confidence, causes us to feel powerless, and convinces us that we will never be free.
But what’s the difference between guilt and shame?
Simply this: guilt is behavior-focused, and shame is identity-focused. Guilt says, “I did something disgusting” while shame says, “I am disgusting.”
The word ‘guilt’ means: “the fact of having committed a specified or implied offense or crime” (Webster)
The word ‘shame’ means: “a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior; a loss of respect or esteem” (Webster).
A fact versus a feeling. Shame-based statements cannot be proven with facts, only with feelings and the opinions of people who have treated us in an abusive way. When we abuse ourselves, it can be challenging for God or anyone to convince us that the shame is not provable, but it is indeed based on a lie… a false belief.
When we are focused only on our shame, we deny the truth about who God says we are! We tend to become hopeless and reject the idea that God could rescue us from our problem.
So, what exactly is conviction?
The word convict is a translation of the Greek word elencho, which means “to convince someone of the truth; to reprove; to accuse, refute, or cross-examine a witness.” The Holy Spirit acts as a prosecuting attorney who exposes evil, and reminds us of our need for a Savior.
Conviction causes us to recognize a behavior that goes against a Biblical teaching, moral standard, or Christ-like characteristic that we have chosen to uphold. Conviction reaffirms our identity!
John has enjoyed rated R movies in the past. He used to convince himself that they were okay by making statements to himself like, “They’re harmless…who care’s if they have a few sex scenes and vulgar language? Those things don’t have any influence on me.” But ever since he gave his life to Christ, he gets this “sense” that he shouldn’t watch those kinds of movies anymore.
He and his wife have a free night off together, he goes to Redbox on the way home from work. He sees several movies that are rated R that his buddies at work (and at church) have been recommending. He decides to go with a different movie instead because he knows that watching those kinds of movies don’t bring him any closer to Christ.
For John, choosing to watch R-rated movies is a sin. But, the Holy Spirit working in his life whispers to him in that moment and says “You are way too magnificent and pure to be acting like that. Don’t act less than who I say you are!” No depression, no regret, no hangover, no fear, no hiding, no guilt, no shame. John listens to the Spirit of God and chooses the narrow road (Matthew 7:14) and, although the decision feels slightly sacrificial…he increases his sense of confidence, assurance of faith, and intimacy with God.
“Living through true conviction is like building your house upon the rock. The storms of life will come and rage against you, but you will stand because you have built wisely. Proverbs 28:13 states, ‘he who conceals his transgression will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will find compassion.’ 1 John 1:9 says that ‘if we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.’ Within a humble man, true conviction leads to confession. In confession, you find compassion, and in compassion, healing and restoration” (Jim Grimes).
In John’s example, he responds to conviction before an act of sin is committed. Conviction may also come after we give into temptation and choose to sin (by the way…no one ever “falls into sin”- it’s a willing act). When our convictions cause us to respond with confession, we destroy any attempt by Shame to distort our identity; confession is an act of vulnerability that denies Shame any more space to act in our story.
I want to leave you with this brilliant quote by Dr. Brene Brown, a research professor, social worker, and author who has devoted almost 15 years to studying vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame.
“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”
*This blog was last edited for grammar and clarity in October 2021