Sin, Guilt, and Psychology: What I Wish All Pastors Knew

Saturday, March 08, 2014

(This article originally appeared in Sojourners)

"Whatever happened to sin?" This complaint is one frequently heard from conservative pastors lamenting that no one wants to hear about sin in a society increasingly repelled by the idea of guilt. We have come to associate guilt today with negative ideas like "guilt-trips," and with feelings of shame. As a result, when the subject of guilt and sin are brought up, our defensive walls go up, too.

This is not just true for liberals or progressives, it equally applies to conservatives, and in fact is simply a characteristic of all human beings. When we feel accused, we react defensively. That's simply a fact of human nature across time, and across cultures. So while conservatives bemoan what they have disparagingly labeled a "culture of victimhood" where everyone can identify as being hurt, but not face up to being the cause of hurting others, this in fact equally applies to conservatives just as much as it does to progressives, or anyone else for that matter. The fact is, all of us find it easy to condemn the other, and tend to see ourselves as innocent victims. Consider for instance how often conservatives portray themselves as being marginalized by society (Fox's annual make-believe "war on Christmas" comes to mind here). Again, this reaction of defensiveness is simply a common human defense mechanism that knows no ideological boundaries. We are all (ahem) guilty of it.

Negative feelings surrounding the idea of shame and guilt have thus become something we are acutely aware of today. Mark Galli, in an article in Christianity Today, notes how this shift has also affected the church:
"It is no coincidence in a society where we imagine ourselves mostly as victims of social or biological forces, in a culture increasingly illiterate in the language of guilt, sin, and personal responsibility, that Christus Victor is winning the day in the Christian world ... for some reason, when the Christus Victor theory is extolled by Protestants today, personal sin and guilt take a back seat ... at least for today's Protestants, it has an uncanny tendency to downplay a sense of personal responsibility, which in the end, sabotages grace."
The immediate context here is the subject of the Christus Victor view of the atonement, which is something I have written about extensively. However, the deeper issue that Galli is addressing here is the widespread societal shift away from a focus on guilt, instead seeing this as something negative and threatening. It's an insightful and intelligent article with some very valid observations, but is Galli correct in his claim that our cultural shift away from the language of guilt goes hand in hand with a "downplay of personal responsibility?"

Our culture's shift around its relationship to shame and guilt can be traced to the broad influence that psychology has had on Western culture over the past century. That is, the reason we have become so sensitized to guilt and shame today in our culture comes from the practical insights of psychologists: As they worked to help people face their hurtful and dysfunctional behaviors, psychotherapists observed that their attempts to help were often met with resistance. Early on Freud referred to this phenomenon as "denial," but regardless of the terminology we use, this is a dynamic therapists have recognized over and over and again because it is, quite simply, one of the most basic elements of human psychology: When we feel threatened we get defensive.

As a result of this dynamic, psychotherapists have found that people actually have struggles on two simultaneous fronts: One struggle is with their negative behavior patterns that hurt themselves and others. The other struggle is the feelings of shame and self-hatred that often accompany these. In fact, the two are frequently intertwined in a destructive spiral where feelings of shame lead to doing things to dull that emotional pain, which then lead to more feelings of shame, and round and round it goes.

As a result of these insights, we have become increasingly aware of the harm that shame and self-loathing can do to us. Consequently educators today learn not to tell kids that they are "bad," but to instead say things like "we don't do that," because we understand the damage that comes from shaming people, and in particular small children. In other words, if our culture has become sensitized to shame, this is actually a good and healthy thing, rather than a problem to bemoan. On the contrary, rejecting feelings of shame and worthlessness, while at the same time taking personal responsibility for our lives, is a clear moral advance.

It also must be said that religion — and here I mean in particular my own religion of Christianity — has often been guilty of exacerbating the problem of shame, rather than helping people break free of it. I say this as a confession, as an admission, as one on the inside attempting to humbly and honestly face what we as the church have done that has hurt people. The fact is, the promoting of shame in the name of religion is demonstrably not good and healthy. As shame and vulnerability researcher Brene Brown explains, "Shame is highly correlated with addiction, depression, eating disorders, suicide, violence, and bullying." Yet shame — not the idea that we do dumb things, but the idea that we as people are bad and unworthy — is often championed as going hand in hand with defending the faith. How many of us grew up singing the line of Issac Watt's famous hymn "... for such a worm as I" or reciting prayers echoing those of Charles Spurgeon when he exclaims, "I feel myself to be a lump of unworthiness, a mass of corruption, and a heap of sin, apart from His almighty love?"

The general loss of such sentiment in our culture fuels the frequent lament of many conservative preachers that we are "a culture increasingly illiterate in the language of guilt, sin, and personal responsibility." But again, is it really true that the loss of shame automatically goes hand in hand with a loss of personal responsibility? As far as psychology is concerned, nothing could be further from the truth. On the contrary, taking hold of one's life is the very cornerstone of recovery and mental health. However, in the face of people's defensive reactions, the practical question psychotherapists find themselves faced with is this: How can we help people to honestly face the things they do which are hurtful, without adding fuel to the fire of shame and self-hate in the process? How can we get to personal responsibility in the context of acceptance and love, rather than making people worse by promoting condemnation? 

The answer they have discovered is that people can only really open up when they feel safe and accepted. This insight is somewhat counterintuitive. Our fear is that if we unconditionally accept someone, this will be taken to mean we are condoning all their hurtful behavior. Don't we need to make it clear that we reject their sin? If we accept people as they are, wont they take this as a license to do whatever they like?

What psychology has found, however, is that when people feel safe and secure, accepted and loved, it is in that place of acceptance that they are finally able to open up and share their vulnerabilities, their hurts, their fears, and their failures. Ironically, it is when we don't focus on sin and guilt, and instead focus on unconditionally loving and accepting people just as they are, that the stage is set for repentance and remorse to actually take place. Creating that "safe-space" of unconditional acceptance allows us to dare to be real, to really open up, to face our darkness together with courage and honesty.

Understanding this dynamic allows us to get past these walls we all put up, and instead get to a place where grace can truly flow. It means getting to real and deep relationships, to healing, and, yes, to repentance and personal responsibility, too. My prayer therefore is that more pastors would learn about these dynamics of basic human psychology. At the end of the day we find psychology is not at all opposed to a healthy faith or morality; it's simply a tool that allows us to understand what is going on in ourselves and others so we don't get stuck there.

When you get right down to it, what it really takes to practice all of this is faith. Not faith in a particular set of doctrinal or creedal statements, but faith in the original sense of the word — as relational trust. That is, we need to actually trust that love is powerful enough to reach a person in a way that fear or threat or condemnation simply cannot. That's what grace is all about.



At 5:40 PM, Blogger Samurai said...

Great article challenging status quo thinking on what actually leads to real change and growth in human beings.

I've been mulling over how to introduce this very idea in my own profession (medicine). It's "conventional wisdom" in my field that the way to get people to change is to give them more truth and more information about why their lifestyle and behavior is unhealthy. When change doesn't happen, we then get frustrated and start labeling patients as "noncompliant" or "problem patient."

Don't get me wrong - I'm not saying change isn't necessary. But herein lies the issue. I think compassion gets a bad rap. It's been denuded to being little more than leniency or overlooking someone's flaws. IAs passivity not much interested in challenging someone to change. t's hard to encapsulate in a few words, but compassion is far more potent than that. Perhaps the best way I can describe it is this: you can't always agree with or relate to someone's behaviors or beliefs. But you can always relate to the person - to their HUMANITY. The stuff people go through, their life stories, their triumphs, their suffering, their vulnerability. It's the recognition that "I've been there too, in a way" and that we are no better or worse than the next person. That there but for the grace of God, I might have been there in that place too if I'm not already.

That provides the safety for people to open up, because they're not being condescended to. I can't tell you how many times meaningful and groundbreaking encounters have occurred for me in my practice with patients who were otherwise written off as "badly behaved" or "noncompliant" by taking this approach.

You're right - it seems to counterintuitive. But it works.

At 10:27 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Awesome insights Samurai, and great to see how this applies in other areas (medicine) in addition to religion. Really shows how these are very human problems we all wrestle with in many different spheres (I think we could add parenting to the list for sure!)

Focusing for a minute on the medical world: I think the key here is finding what actually works since doctors want to see their patients get well. So the question would be: why are patients "noncompliant" and how can we get they not to be? Often doctors respond to noncompliance with shame and threat, even when they pretend they are simply giving facts and information. "You really should lose weight" is shaming, even if the doctor is unaware of that. "If you don't stop smoking you will die" is a threat, a fear-based motivational strategy. Trouble is, these are rarely information the patient does not already know. It’s not an information problem.

A better model is the transtheoretical model of behavior change (also known as the "stages of change" model). It begins by identifying where a person is on the stages of change (precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, maintenance) and then asking how we can get them to move to the next stage from where they are at. If a person is in precontempation they are not ready for recovery, what they need is discovery first.

One method of helping to move a person to the next stage is known as “motivational interviewing.” This entails working with a client to access their own motivation to change a behavior based on their values. They key here is that it’s their own motivation. Another central aspect of this is that it involves listening, sympathizing, affirming, rather than being adversarial (which the whole “noncompliance” and “problem patient” terms indicate). As one practitioner put it “motivational interviewing involves collaboration not confrontation, evocation not education, autonomy rather than authority, and exploration instead of explanation.”

I think this sounds very much in line with what you were saying about compassion being a missing element in many doctor-patient exchanges. So it sounds like doctors AND pastors could benefit from learning some psychology. Again it’s really practical: It’s about learning how to effectively move people towards positive change and health, rather than running up against a wall.

At 6:43 AM, Blogger ofgrace said...

I think it was when I became a Psychology major in college that I began to realize the Scriptures were speaking to spiritual (and psychological) realities on a much deeper level. It's a very ancient Christian understanding that a deep self-knowledge precedes and is a prerequisite for a right understanding of the Scriptures.

This realization is also what is so appealing to me about the wisdom of the desert fathers (and in Eastern Orthodoxy, our contemporary monastic "elders" who carry on this same living tradition today). To illustrate, I'll share a couple excerpts of spiritual counsel from one such "elder," the beloved Elder Porphyrios of Greece (d. 1991). Elder Porphyrios was a Greek peasant, who entered monastic life at the tender age of 14 on Mt. Athos--his only "university" was the Church's liturgy. He writes:

"When our brother errs we must bear his temptation. True love inspires us to make sacrifices for the good of our neighbor. Without sacrifice and with our condemnation, we cause our brother who fell to fall even further; while, with the silent sacrifice of our love and prayer for him, we awaken his conscience, which awakens and condemns, him and so he repents and is corrected."

"When you pray for someone who is suffering from sinful passions under the influence of the devil, don't tell the person that you're praying for him. Otherwise the devil will learn about it and will influence his soul to rise up against you and your prayer will have no effect. Pray for the person secretly and your prayer will be effectual."

How many times have we arrogantly told someone we will "pray for" him, clearly meaning to communicate, "Boy, do you need prayer, brother! You're an unholy mess!" and demonstrated the truth of this dynamic? Great post, Derek.

At 2:47 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

I believe in the shift from seeing sin as a moral and therefore legal problem, to seeing sin as a destructive effects problem. Counseling becomes less about getting people to stop doing the bad thing to getting people to see that we were meant to live above a destructive and hurtful way of living. Sin is something that takes me away from relationship with friends. It draws me into myself and causes me to live outside of relationship. I find my desire to connect with God diminished when sin is more prevalent in my life. Not because of guilt, but because sin draws me away from wanting to be connected.

Even so, there still needs to be a legit place for shame. Shame is the feeling that others are not glad to be with us because of our actions. It gets messed up when we are shamed for stuff we can't fix, change, or control. Without a healthy sense of shame, we all become narcissistic, refusing to hang our heads and apologize for our part in the problem.

My thoughts.

At 10:49 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Have you heard Brene Brown speak on this? She makes a distinction between guilt and shame. Guilt she sees as positive (I think this is what you mean positively by shame). Shame she sees as negative. I think the distinction is really helpful. If you do a quick Google search it's easy to find.

At 6:36 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Yup I really love Brene Brown's work. But I think she misses the mark when she doesn't distinguish between identity shame and healthy shame that causes us to realize we are not bringing others joy by our hurtful actions. It's like the difference between shaming a baby for a poopy diaper. Yucky, mommy doesn't want to be with you. Harsh and destructive result. Toddler is walking around with a poppy diaper that mommy wants to change. He is laughing running away from mommy until he runs into a room full of adults who are no longer happy to see him. He responds by stopping and turning to his mommy asking her to change him. The room full of adults are happy again to be with him even though he still has a poopy diaper. There is a place for healthy shame messages. Where people communicate relationally I am not glad to be with you because of your hurtful actions. Promoting no shame as Brene and others have enboldened a generation of narcissists who like Jeremiah in the bible says, don't show shame, they don't even know how to blush. Had had a big problem with those people who stiffened their neck and refused to let their heads drop and show shame.

Jim Wilder has a much more balanced perspective on how toxic shame and healthy shame play out.

At 6:46 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

To add to that. Do you what happens when people think all shame is bad? When you go to correct them they rage and stiffen, how dare you make me feel bad. Guilt is about failing to do what the standard requires or doing what it forbids. Healthy shame is about relational interaction where one is confronted that their actions are hurtful, destructive, not helpful. The best result is for the person to hang their head, realize they are loved, do what they need to, reconnect with the person again.

As a parent this isn't just theory for me. I want my sons to see the effect they have on others relationally.

At 8:19 AM, Anonymous Derek said...


Brene Brown makes a distinction between shame and guilt. She defines guilt as saying "what I did was bad" and shame as "I am bad" and argues that guilt is healthy and shame is unhealthy. I think with those definitions she is essentially saying the same thing you are. Note that when you say "Healthy shame is about relational interaction where one is confronted that their actions are hurtful, destructive, not helpful" the decisive verb here is a person's actions, that is, "what I did" as opposed to what you call "identity shame" that is "who I am."

The relational focus of wanting your kids "to see the effect they have on others relationally" which you mention adds something more which is empathy. Empathy is a really important aspect of moral development that moves us from a self-focus to a social-focus.


Post a Comment

<< Home

This website and its contents are copyright © 2000 Derek Flood, All Rights Reserved.
Permission to use and share its contents is granted for non-commercial purposes, provided that credit to the author and this url are clearly given.