'I am having trouble lately distinguishing between proper humility and feelings of shame. When I look at my (pathetic, sinful) self, I know very well that humility is in order but I have difficulty going there without feeling really bad about myself. Can you help me to see this in a more helpful way?'
A problem being able to understand the difference between humility, shame and guilt is not uncommon. Our culture, including the Christian Culture, often conflates the three, making it hard to understand how different these concepts are. This is not suprising, considering that Christianity first spread in the Roman Empire, which is often used as a primary example of a shame society. Religion can never be completely separated from the culture it grows in. Let's examine the concepts with some definitions. Canadian writer Paul Hiebert characterizes shame this way:
"Shame is a reaction to other people's criticism, an acute personal chagrin at our failure to live up to our obligations and the expectations others have of us. In true shame oriented cultures, every person has a place and a duty in the society. One maintains self respect, not by choosing what is good rather than what is evil, but by choosing what is expected of one. "
Shame is externally initiated. It is the feeling we have when we know other people disapprove of us for our actions, lifestyle, appearance, or any other part of who we are. Guilt, by contrast, is internally initiated. Once again, Paul Hiebert:
"Guilt is a feeling that arises when we violate the absolute standards of morality within us, when we violate our conscience. A person may suffer from guilt although no one else knows of his or her misdeed; this feeling of guilt is relieved by confessing the misdeed and making restitution. True guilt cultures rely on an internalized conviction of sin as the enforcer of good behavior, not, as shame cultures do, on external sanctions."
Shame and guilt are similar - the difference is whether pressure to conform to community norms comes through sanction (shame) or through internal processes (guilt). Although both guilt and shame are considered exclusively negative in parts of our culture, it is hard to deny that they can sometimes be used for positive purposes. For example, a corporation who is polluting the environment in a way that is legal but immoral might be stopped by protest (shame) or by a whistleblower (guilt). On the other hand, both have been used for centuries by majorities to ensure compliance to norms of behavior that are often harmful to the populations the norm is being enforced on. An example might be the lingering idea (based on a particular interpretation of original sin) that women are inherently more sinful due to the Eve's actions in the Garden of Eden. The resultant shame was used to argue against women's equality.
Shame should almost never be a part of the Christian faith. We are specifically forbidden to judge others (Matt 7:1). Shame requires a judgement and then the application of punishment to bring the offender back into line. In the Episcopal tradition, the Book of Common Prayer ( p. 400) contains the 'Disciplinary Rubrics;"
If the priest knows that a person who is living a notoriously evil life intends to come to Communion, the priest shall speak to that person privately, and tell him that he may not come to the Holy Table until he has given clear proof of repentance and amendment of life.
The priest shall follow the same procedure with those who have done wrong to their neighbors and are a scandal to the other members of the congregation, not allowing such persons to receive Communion until they have made restitution for the wrong they have done, or have at least promised to do so.
When the priest sees that there is hatred between members of the congregation, he shall speak privately to them, telling them that they may not receive Communion until they have forgiven each other. And if the person or persons on one side truly forgive the others and desire and promise to make up for their faults, but those on the other side refuse to forgive, the priest shall allow those who are penitent to come to Communion, but not those who are stubborn.
In all such cases, the priest is required to notify the bishop, within fourteen days at the most, giving the reasons for refusing Communion.
In this case, shame is being used to bring a "notoriously evil" person back into the fold. As to exactly what "notoriously evil" means, that's a really good question. In seminary, we had discussions of when we might use this rubric, and we were all uncertain of what could possibly be so bad (and known to the priest as well) that might warrant using it. Most things we could come up with (murder, theft, abuse, etc.) would probably only be known to the priest after it had become public. (Confession is a different issue, but such things would be dealt with BEFORE the Sunday service.) Shame is a "Nuclear Option" that is as likely to send the sinner out of the church as it is to bring them to repentance, and it is very hard to determine if human judgement on divine matters is that secure.
Guilt, on the other hand, has the possibility to be a much more positive force, as it comes from an internal compass rather than being cohersive. The fact that someone might feel guilty after committing murder, robbery, etc. really is a good thing. Where it ceases being helpful is when we feel guilty about something that is either beyond our control or is actually good.
Sin is defined as anything that separates us from God. All sorts of things separate us from God, and only some of those are under our direct control. For instance, if my nation wages an unjust war, sin is imputed to me even if I speak out against it. If a company pollutes the environment and I buy their product, sin is imputed to me even if I have no idea about their practices.
Sin should be thought of as a state, not a set of actions and must not be confused with blame. It is a common state that all humans share. Being human means sinning. Although we can avoid specific sins, we cannot avoid the general state. One of the questions in the Episcopal baptism rite is: "Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?" (BCP 304) Not IF you fall into sin, but WHEN you fall into sin.
Humility is, in Christian terms, the acknowledgment of the proper state of relationship between ourselves and God. It is acknowledging that we are not God (not omnipotent, not omniscient and fallible) and that God is not us (Not an abusive parent, not irrational and loving without condition.) As far as our nature as sinful humans goes, we really should not feel guilty about it. Did we create ourselves in the image of God but without the other divine attributes? No. We are not to blame for the fact that we are sinners in general. When guilt convicts us of our sinfulness for specific acts, that is good, but guilt over our nature which we cannot control is not helpful.
Let's use the example of an alcoholic. A recovering alcoholic can feel guilt over the things that he has done under the influence, but to feel guilty over being an alcoholic and having the desire to drink is to feel guilty about something they have no control over. We are all members of "Sinners Anonymous." We are all tempted to sin. We all have "sinful thoughts." But guilt is not appropriate unless we either act upon them or obsess over them. Too much obsession over sin can actually be sinful in itself because it convinces the human that there is no way God can love them, thus creating a voluntary separation.
And even when we do sin, its not the end of the road. Indeed, in the end all things will be transformed to God's good. A powerful account of this is found in the Showings of Julian of Norwich:
"And God showed that sin will be no shame, but honor to man, for just as there is indeed a corresponding pain for every sin, just so love gives to the same soul a bliss for every sin. Just as various sins are punished with various pains, the more grievous are the sins, so they will be rewarded with various joys in heaven to reward the victories over them, to the degree in which the sin may have been painful and sorrowful to the soul on earth." (Long Text, Chapter XXXVIII)
Our forgiven sins are kind of like battle scars to God. The memory of them should inspire us with thanksgiving for the grace and love of God rather than guilt.
So in summary - Humility is the acknowledgment of our correct relationship to God. Shame is only appropriate in cases of "Notorious Sin" that harms the family of God. Guilt is only appropriate when we have done something specific that we need to make penance for. Otherwise, we simply need to acknowledge that we, like every other human who has been or will be( other than Jesus - a different topic), is a sinner in need of the grace of God, which is offered freely. God does not wish us to dwell on our sin. God wishes us to acknowledge our state (sin), confess and receive forgiveness for those sins which are known to us, and exalt in our beloved status with our loving creator.