Shame-Conviction and Guilt-Conviction

Christopher Flanders (PhD, Fuller Theological Seminary) is associate professor of missions at Abilene Christian University. He served as a missionary in Thailand for eleven years. This post is from his recent article This post is based on his article, “Bringing Shame upon an Honored Missiological Paradigm: A Study of Conviction and Elenctics,” IJFM 37 (2020).

I used to have a hard time opening potato chip bags. I always struggled to tear the bag open at the top, ripping it down the middle, usually seeing chips fly out of the bag and onto the floor. It was my friend Laurie who one day saw me trying this, asked for the bag from me, and calmly grasped the bag just below the top seal on both sides and pulled it gently outward. The bag opened effortlessly. No chips flew out. I was stunned. I had no idea that my (very ineffective!) way was working at cross purposes to the design of the potato chip bag. Once I learned about the bag seams, I was forever able to open up chip bags effortlessly.

People are like bags of potato chips. They “open up” according to a particular design. That is, we all have certain heart preferences, what we often call the “conscience.” This connects with the specific notion of “conviction,” or in theology and missiology what we call “elenctics” (from the Greek word elengcheo, which we typically translate in English as “to convict”).

Conviction is such a prominent biblical theme that we often simply assume it and its meaning. But conviction is not generic. That is, it is not possible to convict neutrally. A particular type of internal pain or anxiety must constitute the experience of conviction. The state of being convinced of one’s error must be activated by one or both of two negative emotions of self-assessment—guilt or shame. If you want to go deeper here, Pride, Shame, and Guilt: Emotions of Self-Assessment by Gabrielle Taylor is a classic and the single best place to begin.

Some of us react to sin as a type of law-breaking, which typically leads to feeling guilty. This guilt experience typically comes when we view sin as infraction of a code or law. Others react to failure in ways consistent with the experience we term shame. Shame results when we view our sin as failure to measure up to a standard, a type of falling short. So, guilt typically occurs when people view their failure as a type of infraction (rule- or law-breaking) and shame when people view their failure as not meeting obligations or measuring up.

When humans mess up in moral terms (viz., sin), what is God’s desired response? When people become aware of God and the good news of Jesus, what should their experience be when they consider their moral standing before God? What should they feel in response to their sin? There is a strong biblical case to answer these questions with shame.

The Greek term translated as “convict” in most English translations, actually has a strong shame sense (the term as either a verb or noun appears in Mt 18:15; Lk. 3:19; Jn. 3:20; 8:9, 46; 16:8; Acts 6:10; Eph. 5:11, 13; 1 Tim. 5:20; 2 Tim. 3:16; 4:2; Titus 1:9, 13, 15; Heb. 12:5; Jude 22). So, add in the notion of “shame” to your translation (as in “to be convicted by shame”). Besides this term, Paul often uses shame to point to sin of the world and sin of believers (Ro. 6:21; Eph. 5:12; 1 Cor. 6:5, 15:34; 2 Thess. 3:14; Titus 2:8). Despite what some theologies lead us to believe, the answer, from the New Testament, seems to be that conviction is deeply connected to shame.

Consider how we frame our message. In evangelism, do we assume a certain mode of conviction whether explicitly or tacitly? When we are engaged in teaching, discipleship, or leadership training, do we pay sufficient attention to the way(s) we assume people might respond to failure and shortcomings? It is important to think critically about how we might work with rather than work against the default experiences people have in these areas.

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3 Comments on “Shame-Conviction and Guilt-Conviction

  1. Hi.
    Thanks for the important clarification here.
    A strong component of conviction by shame seems to be a strong feeling that comes out of a ‘failure to honor a relationship’. This seems to be pretty clear from the Adam & Eve story, for instance. Can’t think of a clear cut NT example of this right now.
    Steve Maskell

    • Good observation, Steve. Indeed, the Adam & Eve story leads us to view the original sin in terms of failing to live up to relational obligations (your words, “to honor a relationship”). The term Paul uses in Romans 3:23 (ὑστεροῦνται- to be lacking, deficient, inferior, fall short) expresses this quite well. I think the idea of not honoring a relationship is likely implicit in Paul’s description of the world’s rejection of God in Romans 1. The failure there is the failure to render proper honor to the Creator, the shameful act of exchanging the honor of God for the honor of created things. God’s punishment is essentially giving them what they want- shame (v. 26).

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