Differentiating Between Two Kinds of Shame

Shame may follow sinful actions, or it may arise from accepting blame or failure. Whether guilt is real or imagined, shame holds a person hostage with the condemning declaration, “You are bad!” Shame generally takes two forms. “I am bad because of what I have done.” In this case, personal sin produces guilt, and out of guilt may come feelings that we will call sin-shame. “I am bad because of what other people have done.” The sins of other people hurt you in ways that may cause feelings that we will call provoked-shame.

We need to distinguish between these two kinds of shame.


Sin-shame is the consequence of your actual guilt. When you offend God, the shame that results is true and right. If you have been mercilessly victimized, this may be hard news to hear….As hard as it is to hear this, sin-shame tells you the truth: “I am bad because of what I have done.” Your guilt is real and irreversible. It needs to be addressed, but you are helpless to address it because you can’t undo it. Therefore, you need God to forgive your sins, exchange your guilt for his righteousness (putting you into a right standing with God, based on the merits of Christ—2 Corinthians 5:21), and provide new life and identity that powerfully fight shame (Ephesians 1:3–6). Sin-shame is actually merciful because it was designed to drive you to God for his free pardon in Jesus Christ. When you respond by repenting, sin-shame is no longer necessary, so God removes it.


From a young age Shannon experienced provoked shame: “I am bad because of what others have done.” Shannon’s uncle and mother sinned in ways that hurt Shannon and fostered her sense of self-condemnation and disgrace. Even today she feels betrayed, exposed, embarrassed, and confused. Ashamed. As with sin-shame, provoked-shame condemns Shannon as a bad person. But unlike sin-shame, provoked-shame is a lie. No matter how she may feel, the sins of other people do not condemn Shannon in God’s sight (Ezekiel 18:20). Provoked shame condemns no one before God. But, if believed, its lies can do terrible damage. Provoked-shame seems hopeless because the sufferer cannot prevent or fix the sins of others. As with sin-shame, someone outside the situation must intervene. Jesus Christ is that someone.

Mistaken Tendencies

We have seen that sin-shame tells the truth: “I am bad because of what I have done.” Sin-shame warns you of the condemnation of sin. When you heed the warning, sin-shame drives you to God. Therefore, sin-shame should be believed. But provoked-shame lies to you—“I am bad because of what others have done”—and cruelly condemns you for something you can’t control. Provoked-shame should be rejected.

[Written by Sue Nicewander, and excerpted from her mini-book HELP! I Feel Ashamed.]

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