The Difference Between Guilt, Shame, and Regret

Are these words synonyms? They feel very similar. Each is unpleasant. There is a natural instinct to want to hide or cover up. Frequently we are embarrassed to admit or want to talk about these emotions with others. There is a sense of being dirty, damaged, or bad in the midst of these experiences. We have a tendency to believe that these emotions define us (at least to some degree).

They seem to be triggered by similar types of events. There was something wrong that happened and we were part of that event(s). Socially, the triggering event is believed to carry a stigma that would make us less acceptable. Memory of the triggering event is very “sticky” in our memory and hard to let go.

I would argue that these, when rightly understood and our experiences are rightly interpreted, are three distinct emotions and the gospel speaks to each in unique ways.

Guilt is a sense of legitimate condemnation in response to personal sin.

Shame is a sense of illegitimate condemnation in response to suffering.

Regret is a form of grief for a reasonable good circumstance that was never realized.

We rightly feel guilt when we lose our temper, misrepresent the truth, fail to fulfill a promise, neglect a responsibility, dishonor an authority figure, make a crude joke, take advantage of someone, or fail to represent Christ accurately in some other way. If we do not feel guilty for these things, our conscience is seared (at least to some degree).

We feel shame (among other emotions) when we have been abused (physically, verbally, or sexually), are limited by chronic pain, have been betrayed by a spouse or trusted friend, lose our job, are helpless after a catastrophe, or experience other hardships that are not the result of personal sin. If we “own” these emotions in the same way we own guilt, then we feel a false sense of condemnation.

We feel regret when a parent died when we were young, an illness prevents us from pursuing a dream, an opportunity does not come our way, or some other reasonable and legitimate desire is unfulfilled. If we interpret these experiences as God’s rejection or a reflection of our value, then we over-personalize these events as if they carried a message.

The gospel answers guilt with forgiveness. Guilt leaves a moral stain on our soul which the blood of Jesus washes clean and then replaces with His own righteousness. Sin does not become our identity because the gospel transforms us from rebels against God to ambassadors for God.

The gospel answers shame with comfort and truth to counter lies of suffering. Shame leaves no stain, but traps us in the confusion of suffering’s lies. The gospel patiently cuts through those lies of shame and offers us the freedom that comes with the identity of being a dearly loved child of God. As a loving Father, God is tender in removing lies of suffering knowing that we often cling to them like a dysfunctional security blanket.

The gospel answers regret with the assurance of that we are in the providence of a good God. The gospel reveals a God who transforms the unfortunate events of life. It does not force us to call painful or unfortunate things good, but it does reveal the character of a God who redeems the darkest moments (Jesus on Calvary) for His glory and our good.

As you seek to make application of this post, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. How and when have you confused the experiences of guilt, shame, and regret?
  2. How has this confusion caused confusion (or offense) about the kind of help God offers in the gospel?
  3. How would rightly identifying your emotions in these experiences help you draw upon God’s hope in the gospel more effectively?
 

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