Guilt and Shame: How Understanding Both Can Help Our Cross-Cultural Witness

Modern missiologists often force missionaries to choose between a “guilt-innocence” gospel and an “honor-shame” message. But guilt and shame are interconnected.

“What broke, and is everyone okay?”

If you have children, that urgent question has been a staple during your parenting journey. The crash of a glass and the cry of your child alert you that something went wrong.

Similarly, it doesn’t take much insight or research to realize that our world is broken and crying out for help. We see people hurting, feel pain ourselves, and long for relief, escape, and peace. As we share the good news of Christ, how can we diagnose and communicate to a world who is unsuccessfully seeking ways to escape their brokenness?

God in his common grace, gives us emotions—really part of our moral conscious—that expose two ways we are spiritually broken. I believe the realities of guilt and shame are God’s gracious provision to make us aware of our brokenness and need for him. I also believe that understanding the relationship of the gospel to both guilt and shame can help us faithfully present the gospel in relevant terms in both our culture and other global contexts.

Guilt focuses on the personal legal standing of an individual before the law. A judge makes a legal decision based on the evidence of an individual breaking the law. Guilt is ideally the unbiased judgement of whether one has conformed to the law. Sin is breaking the holy law of God; therefore, justice must be served. Guilt is a legal standing that should induce a moral feeling because of our relationship to the law.

Salvation from guilt entails God covering our sin by his Son fulfilling the law, paying our debt, and receiving our punishment by his perfect, substitutionary sacrifice on the cross.

Shame, in contrast, focuses on personal relationships within the family. Honor comes when children maintain respectful, obedient relationships with their parents. Sin, from a shame perspective, is breaking a relationship, dishonoring the family, and disobeying the authority figure within the family. When this relationship breaks, then it brings shame to the person, the family, the community, and the group’s authority/elder/father.

Salvation from shame looks like God adopting us into his family so that we are no longer rebellious enemies, but beloved children.

Guilt is a legal problem and shame is a relational problem. The gospel provides both legal redemption and relational reconciliation.

In short, guilt is a legal problem and shame is a relational problem. The gospel provides both legal redemption and relational reconciliation.

A gospel presentation that focuses on guilt would explain the law, our failure to keep the law, the penalty of our sin, the coming judgment, and the perfect sacrifice that Jesus gave. Salvation immediately changes our legal standing as we are justified—declared righteous. Our justification and redemption are based on Christ fulfilling the law and paying the penalty for our sin. We get the righteousness of Christ and Christ takes the weight of our sin. The Father declares sinners guiltless as he finds satisfaction in the work of his Son on the cross.

A gospel presentation that focuses on shame would explain our relationship with God in the garden and how sin broke that perfect relationship. Adam and Eve felt shame after their sin and were immediately aware of their nakedness. They were physically and spiritually exposed as creatures who had disobeyed their Creator. Our sin brings dishonor and disrespect to the Father as we have rebelled against his perfect will. Our sin has given Satan opportunity to boast and malign God’s name.

Furthermore, a shame focused gospel conversation would talk about the reconciliation of this relationship and focus on the Father’s love, the Father’s grace, and the Father’s forgiveness. The Father, by sending Jesus, has done all that was necessary to bring glory to his name (reversal of shame) and bring us into full membership in his kingdom family. This membership graciously comes through adoption as sons and daughters, not as servants or slaves. These themes of relational brokenness and restoration often resonate more effectively with those in shame-based cultures across the globe.

Both guilt and shame should be included in complete presentations of the gospel because they both emphasize important effects of sin and the Fall. Western Christians should be aware that our cultural value of individualism often leads us to emphasize the guilt perspective to sin when evangelizing. When contextualizing the gospel—especially in cross-cultural situations—it would be wise to know the worldview of the people and adapt gospel presentations to address cultural questions and felt needs. A faithful presentation would go on to quickly raise the questions that arise from Scripture and that might be a blind spot in that same culture.

Guilt and shame are both significant to understanding the human need for salvation and must not be emphasized to the exclusion of the other. Guilt points to our need for redemption and shame points to our need for reconciliation. Redemption and reconciliation are both provided at the cross!

Joshua Bowman

Joshua Bowman holds a Ph.D. in Missiology from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and is Assistant Professor of Missions and Theology at Cedarville University. He served with his wife Amy and their four children in Zambia and South Asia with the International Mission Board for seventeen years as a church planter, church strengthening strategist, and team leader.