Cain, from malice, killed Abel his brother, and what immediately happened to him? From Genesis, Chapter 4:
13 And Cain said to the Lord, "My punishment is greater than I can bear! 14 Surely You have driven me out this day from the face of the ground; I shall be hidden from Your face; I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond on the earth, and it will happen that anyone who finds me will kill me."Cain felt (and objectively was) guilty, and guilt, as always, brought fear of punishment with it. Notice, please, that there is no record of Cain repenting. He simply complains about his punishment. (Nevertheless, our all-merciful, compassionate and kind Lord places a mark on him to serve notice to others not to kill him.)
15 And the Lord said to him, "No so; whoever kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold." [More nearly literally: seven vengeances shall paralyze him.] And the Lord set a mark on Cain, lest anyone finding him should kill him.
When Adam and Eve sinned, there was a difference. They, from distrust of God and from pride stirred up by the serpent, ate of the forbidden tree. And their reaction? They didn’t repent, either; they tried to hide themselves from God. They were ashamed, and indeed had done a shameful thing.
Adam and Eve experienced shame. Cain experienced guilt.
They aren't the same, although it's common to experience shame and guilt both together. But guilt feels like squirming little worms gnawing at your soul, whereas shame makes you want to run and hide. Shame makes you embarrassed, while guilt makes you want to kick yourself, or flagellate or starve or otherwise deprive yourself. Martin Luther famously tried this approach, performing all sorts of ascetical tasks in fullest measure, and found out self-punishment really does not help. See Footnote 1.
Most sins, the ones proceeding from lust, pride, gluttony, sloth, or greed, bring forth shame. People fornicate or overeat secretly. It’s the sins proceeding from hostility toward God and man (i.e., envy or anger) that produce the experience of guilt. That is, it is not the specific behaviors that bring shame or guilt; it’s mostly the “sin behind the sin,” the attitudes giving birth to those misdeeds. If you merely feel sorry for specific acts, yet hold on to the pride or hostility or whatever was behind them, your feelings of shame or guilt will persist and even Confession of the particular misdeeds won’t help. Both the objective and the subjective guilt will remain. (And failure to give up the underlying wrong attitudes is the ONLY reason shame or guilt persists even when you regret the specific things you've done.) See Footnote 2.
This is why neither shame nor guilt is an appropriate reaction to sin. They are both forms of wounded pride, both ego-centric, both are unhealthy, morbid. Worst of all, both are (highly unsuccessful) substitutes for what’s really needed.
What is the right reaction to sin? For anyone who loves God, it is sorrow. Sorrow that has nothing to do with embarrassment and is equally free of self-loathing. Sorrow is not wounded ego, but wounded love. It’s a cherished relationship disrupted, a love betrayed (in fact, THE Love of all loves betrayed), and not a wish to hurt yourself, but a recognition of the hurt already done to your innermost self, as well as to others.
It’s a sweet sorrow, too, for at least two reasons; first, because it immediately brings with it not fear of punishment, as guilt does, but profound and joyous awareness of God’s tender mercy. (“Perfect love throws out fear.”) And secondly, because this sorrow brings not only fresh joy but also new hope: yes, God has granted me a change of mind; now He will help me change, truly change, everything else: heart, attitudes, behaviors, everything, from the inside out! Starting right now. See Footnote 3.
Guilt and shame, then, are false postures, failures or even evasions of true contrition, for which there really is no substitute. Implication: religions that center around relieving our shame and guilt are dealing with the wrong problem! The problem is how to cure the passions infecting our hearts. Then all the rest will follow.
Kyrie, eleison! Open unto me the doors of repentance!
1.) Pseudo-ascetical tasks Luther did, really. True asceticism is not an effort to punish oneself for ones sins. It is rather an effort to wean oneself from addiction to the things of this world, to achieve greater inner freedom to offer God in His service. It is, in other words, a labor of love.
2.) Some degree of hostility toward God is going to be extremely tough to get over, maybe even impossible, if you believe in God as He is usually preached outside of Holy Orthodoxy, Who commits what you'd call atrocities if anyone else did them. Hostility toward that kind of deity is only natural in us, as those very religions also admit and teach; thus, it is absolutely persistent. Nevertheless, unless we get over that remnant of hostility lurking in some dark corner of our hearts, we will never get past the subjective guilt, nor indeed the objective guilt, either.
I'm sorry, but only Holy Orthodoxy consistently teaches you about the God Who is entirely loveable, entirely delightful, “in Whom there is no darkness at all,” the God you can love unambivalently from the core of your being.
3.) If you belong to a religion that teaches you can never really change appreciably this side of the grave, that says at best you can only be like a manure pile covered with snow, then I suppose you’re deprived of this blessed Hope of renewal, and with it, of any genuine, lasting, or non-superficial relief from guilt. You just really do need to become Orthodox.