The Origins of Guilt-Shame-Fear

From where do we get the categories of “guilt,” “shame,” and “fear”? People do not use these terms to classify themselves. Rather, they are outside (etic) terms that researchers have used to describe the primary relational patterns in groups. In The 3D Gospel, I introduce the topic with these words:

Christian missiologists identify three responses to sin in human cultures. Eugene Nida said, “We have to reckon with three different types of reactions to transgressions of religiously sanctioned codes: fear, shame, and guilt” (Customs and Cultures, p. 150). These three moral emotions have become the foundation for three types of culture… (p. 10, 2017)

Some recent publications in mission journals have questioned the validity of the guilt-shame-fear cultural model. They imply, and at times argue, that there is no scholarly support for the idea. They note that Nida did not have in mind three “cultural categories,” and then conclude that there is no scholarly support for such categories, so there is no warrant for developing the concepts as I do in The 3D Gospel. But this argument does not work. There has, in fact, been a considerable amount of scholarship in various disciplines that parallels the guilt-shame-fear paradigm.

I agree that Nida did not intend for the three types of moral reactions to classify cultures. His comment was only a passing reference. I did not cite Nida to prove the culture types, but, rather, to (1) introduce the basic idea of different moral values/responses and (2) explain from where the labels originated. Readers have critiqued the jump from Nida’s comment to my explanation of three culture types. The 3D Gospel is introductory, not an academic book, so it does not explain every logical step or cite all of the relevant sources. Therefore, this post identifies five academic disciplines that have proposed various paradigms similar to guilt, shame, and fear.

1. Psychology

Western psychologists, emphasizing personal and internal aspects, usually identify “anxiety” as the third emotion along with guilt and shame. For example, the journal article “Anxiety, Guilt and Shame in the Atonement” (Theology Today, 1964) draws from the psychology of religion. The psychological understanding of “anxiety”— feelings of dread over future events—is quite similar to spiritual fear. David Augsburger (Professor of Psychology/Counseling at Fuller Seminary) expounded the categories in several of his publications, including Conflict Mediation Across Cultures (1986). He was a leading Christian psychologist of the late twentieth-century, and clearly identifies the three cultural types. Here is his explanation:

“Anxiety, shame, and guilt are the normal and sequential control processes that emerge in the first, second, and third years of a child’s development in every culture. Each culture has its own balanced and its own integrative hierarchy of these internal controls. Tribalistic cultures are dominated by the fear/anxiety motive. Individualistic cultures generally seek to minimize anxiety and shame while socializing the child to have more of a guilt orientation, while many collectivistic cultures generally tend to encourage a shame orientation. … The three function together, although the intensity of each influence varies significantly from culture to culture.” (pp. 82, 126)

2. Missiology

Charles Kraft (Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and Intercultural Communication Fuller Theological Seminary) has an article in Perspectives  titled “The 3 Encounters of Christian Witness.” This article, adapted from his 1991 EMQ article, speaks about ministry approaches in terms of “truth,” “power,” and “allegiance” encounter.

Doug Hayward (Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Biola University) reaches similar conclusions in “The Evangelization of Animists: Power, Truth or Love Encounter?” IJFM (1997). Though they do not use the language of guilt-shame-fear, the overlap with their categories is remarkable. These articles influenced the final section of The 3D Gospel which outlines some ministry applications and approaches. 

3. Moral Psychology

Richard Shweder (Professor of Cultural Psychology at the University of Chicago) researches the cross-cultural concepts of self and moral reasoning. In 2003 he co-authored an article “The ‘Big Three’ of Morality (Autonomy, Community, and Divinity) and the ‘Big Three’ Explanations of Suffering.” They analyzed hundreds of interviews from India and noticed three clusters of “moral themes”: autonomycommunity, and divinity

Shweder’s three categories (autonomy, community, and divinity) mirror the explanation of guilt, shame, and fear cultures, though with a slight difference. Shweder’s three “moral discourses” focus on the basis of personhood (whereas guilt/shame/fear focuses on moral emotions). The labels explain how cultures define the value and essence of human beings. The three options are: rights and freedoms, status and connection, or spiritual harmony and sacredness. Then by extension, cultures develop an appropriate moral system to protect and preserve their definition of “truly human.”

In his popular book The Righteous Mind (p. 16ff), social psychologist Jonathon (Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business) adopts Shweder socio-moral taxonomy for various global cultures.

4. Cultural Communication

British polyglot Richard D. Lewis developed another cultural model called LMR to forecast cultural behavior. According to his book When Cultures Collide (1999), there are three main styles of cultural communication.

  • Linear-active cultures are factual and decisive organizers, planners and schedulers (i.e., Germany).
  • Multi-active cultures are lively multi-taskers who live according to the moment (i.e., Brazilians).
  • Re-active cultures are courteous and calm listeners who respond carefully (i.e., Japanese).

Similar to the guilt-shame-fear model, Lewis’ LMR model involves three categories plotted on a triangle. Lewis’ LMR describes communication styles, not cultural values or ethics. Though not academic, this model has been influential in the world of international relations and business.

5. International Relations

 Joerg Friedrichs (Faculty Member of International Development at University of Oxford) wrote an article “An Intercultural Theory of International Relations: How Self-Worth Underlies Politics Among Nations” (International Theory, 2016). He introduces an intercultural theory of international relations based on three distinctive ways of establishing self-worth: honor, face, and dignity. This cultural model of self-worth broadly aligns with guilt (intrinsic dignity), shame (internalized honor), and fear (externalized face).


Scholars in various fields have proposed three-fold cultural models similar to guilt-shame-fear. Yet recent critics of the idea seem unaware of the broader scholarship on the topic. They do not engage or cite the above-mentioned publications. Thus, they leave the impression that the entire concept comes from one sentence in Eugene Nida’s book and my self-published introduction. I, too, would question the idea if that were the case! But it is not. 

I am not arguing here that guilt-shame-fear is perfect or faultless paradigm, as though it should not be critiqued, nuanced, or enhanced. Rather, I am noting that the three broad umbrellas has some academic precedent. I appreciate engagement and critique of my publications and the culture model of honor-shame, especially from like-minded believers who are grappling with the theological and missional implications of the concepts. However, such critiques would benefit from knowing the the idea’s intellectual history.

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4 Comments on “The Origins of Guilt-Shame-Fear

  1. Well said! It’s too bad you have to defend your 3-D model, yet it was so helpful to read this article and know that many others have written (and researched) about the same concepts. As Jayson Georges has expressed multiple times, the 3-D Gospel was never intended to be the perfect, bullet proof, one-and-only model to describe all cultures for all times everywhere.

  2. Jason, this is an interesting explanation with some fascinating examples that I find ‘flesh out’ and reinforce the 3D paradigm. It would appear to me that there is a relationships between 3D and some of the examples you give, which can inform pre-field training of cross-cultural workers.
    For example, I would think that your 3D model and #1 Augsbergers insights into the psychological aspects are on the same ‘innermost’ ‘foundational’ level in humans, and that the dynamics of #3 Moral Psychology and then #4 Cultural Communicatrion and #5 International Relations styles are results / conequences/ fruits/ evidence of those innermost dynamics, and finally, that finally, we see the 3-fold Missiological approach of your #2 which cross-cultural messenges need to be mindful of in sharing the Gospel. If I was to diagram this, it would look something like the diagrams often used to excplain the relationship of worldview (at the core), beliefs, values and behaviour/products in different cultures [usually shown as concentric circles or as layers in an iceburg. Just a thought.

  3. This is a great summary of these three dominant culture-types previously described and the scholars of some major disciplines. I look at these and other newer writings about other positive-negative labels or models to find which biblical constructs are likely to speak to the heart of a person. Various anthropologists have also touched on some of these concepts directly although not in the same trilogy. One such work is Ruth Benedict’s 1946 The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, where she contrasts American guilt and Japanese shame. Her earlier 1934 work, Patterns of Culture, possibly helped define and lay the groundwork for many of today’s discussions on culture. No matter what our preferred way is of viewing our choices of understanding cultural dynamics may be, the contributions already written about “guilt,” “shame,” and “fear” can be a great help reaching people and addressing their concerns. My favorite is The 3D Gospel.

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