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

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

Illustration of boy hiding behind a desk, Ron and Joe /
Illustration of boy hiding behind a desk, Ron and Joe /

"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.

Derek Flood ( is the author of Healing the Gospel and a featured blogger on the Huffington Post.

Image: Illustration of boy hiding behind a desk, Ron and Joe /