What is guilt? (Guilt Grace and forgiveness 4)

Pastoral Counselling expert Collins identifies two main types of guilt “subjective guilt” and “objective guilt.”[1]

“Objective guilt occurs when a law has been broken and the lawbreaker is guilty even though he or she may not feel guilty. Subjective guilt refers to the inner feelings of remorse and self-condemnation that come because of our actions.”[2]

Under objective guilt he includes legal and theological guilt. Legal guilt means breaking the laws of the land whilst theological guilt entails breaking God’s Law. He also includes

He also includes “personal guilt” and “social guilt” In his definition of objective guilt. With personal guilt, “the individual violates his or her own personal standards or resists the urging of conscience.” “Social guilt comes when we break an unwritten but socially accepted rule.”[3]

When the Bible talks about “guilt” it is actually talking about “objective guilt.” Subjective guilt is more to do with our conscience and a sense of shame. Often when we talk about guilt we are referring to subjective guilt. This is why it’s important to distinguish between what I feel and what really is the case. Feelings can be deceptive. At the same time, this helps us to get a more nuanced understanding of how sin affects us individually and corporately. Shame properly speaking is a response to guilt. That’s the problem with talking about “guilt cultures” and “shame cultures.” They are really two aspects of the same problem –sin.  So shame is an important feature of the Bible narrative.  When Adam and Eve sin, they realise they are naked. They are ashamed. They try to cover their shame with fig leaves. God provides animal garments as proper clothing to cover their shame. When Noah gets drunk after the flood, he ends up naked and the subject of gossip.  His son, Ham, further exposes his shame. Shem and Japheth seek to cover his shame.  So, when we get to The Crucifixion and see Jesus stripped, tortured and publically ridiculed as he hangs on the Cross, we are presented with the solution to guilt and to shame. Not only is Jesus punished in my place but he bears my shame. Justification has a legal character to it. I am declared innocent.  But justification also carries the idea of my nakedness and shame being covered by the clothes of righteousness.

By the way, I think that honour/shame culture is not so much about how I individually respond to my sin as to how a society responds collectively. It’s not an alternative to talking about guilt. Rather it’s an extension of our understanding of it. “Honour-shame” cultures recognise that my individual sin brings shame on all of us. We all share in the consequences of one person’s wrong doing.

The problem with shame is that it may not always be rooted in real guilt. Subjective feelings can be misleading. As well as distinguishing objective guilt from subjective guilt, we also want to distinguish false guilt and real guilt. False guilt means that someone may be overwhelmed with a burden of shame when they are not to blame. This may be because they have a characteristic trait which means they take responsibility for things not within their control or remit. It can also be a problem with people who have experienced abuse. They are led to believe that it was their own fault.

This means that false guilt is more obviously associated with subjective guilt. However, false guilt may be identified when there is personal or social guilt. In a legalistic community, a person may be declared guilty when in fact they have done nothing wrong. Even legal guilt may be false guilt when the laws of the land ask us to go against God’s laws.

[1] Gary R Collins, Christian Counselling A Comprehensive Guide(3rd Ed. Nashville, Dallas. Nelson, 2007),  178.

[2] Gary R Collins, Christian Counselling A Comprehensive Guide, 178.

[3] Gary R Collins, Christian Counselling A Comprehensive Guide, 178.

Advertisements