“Shame on you!”
If you grew up in my generation, this is a sentence you probably heard as a child. You were told that you should be ashamed of the way you treated your sister, for stealing that candy bar, or for talking back. These are also words that I’ve probably never spoken to my own children. Why? Because I’d feel shame for simply telling my children they should be ashamed. The very word shame has come to mean a crippling sense of condemnation. Unlike guilt, shame hits the core of our identity. It’s about far more than what we’ve done wrong and speaks into what our failures say about us.
Yet I wonder, is there a healthy place for shame?
One way to understand the difference between guilt and shame is this: guilt is feeling badly about what we’ve done and shame is feeling badly about who we are. We are guilty when we do something wrong. We feel clouded in shame because of what our guilt reflects about us. Most people would agree with the importance of feeling guilty for something you’ve done wrong. How about feeling shame?
Is not shame an appropriate response to the vile actions of people like Jeffrey Epstein, Ravi Zacharias, and Larry Nassar? If those who abuse their power to harm others are not ashamed of their actions, something is seriously wrong. If shame is the right response in such blatantly horrible situations, where do we draw the line? What sins are “bad enough” to merit appropriate shame?
The Gospel doesn’t simply say that we’ve done something wrong, it says that our very nature is sinful and rebellious. We have a sickness that goes beyond the things that we’ve done. We need salvation because of who we are. The apostle Paul wrote, “Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst.” Paul didn’t say, “Of whom I was the worst” but “of whom I am the worst.”
Yes, the Bible says that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. He does not condemn us, but there is still a healthy realization that we are seriously flawed people in need of a Savior. The Bible actually uses several different Greek and Hebrew words that carry the meaning of shame. We are told many times of things we are not to be ashamed of (like the gospel of Jesus Christ), and we also are assured that God removes our shame. But there are also Scriptures that indicate a healthy shame stirs our need for our Savior.
I was struck this morning by this passage in Jeremiah 8, as God described the leaders of His people:
How can you say, ‘We are wise because we have the word of the Lord,’ when your teachers have twisted it by writing lies? These wise teachers will fall into their own trap of foolishness, for they have rejected the word of the Lord...They offer superficial treatments for my people’s moral wound. They give assurances of peace when there is no peace. Are they ashamed of these disgusting actions? Not at all -- they don’t even know how to blush!
While shame can be debilitating, so can its absence. In our war on shame, we may neglect the possibility that shame is necessary for our spiritual and relational health. There are many Christian teachers who strive to abolish the concept of shame by erasing truths about sin, hell, and judgement. Would God say in response: Your leaders are twisting my words by writing lies? Offering superficial treatments for your mortal wounds?
I have done, thought, and said many things of which I felt rightly ashamed. Bringing back the memories of these past failures causes a sting in my heart, but I’m not paralyzed by them — because I know who I am in Christ Jesus. Yet I have also experienced shame that has felt like the enemy’s stranglehold on me. There are times when shame has caused me to run to the grace of Jesus and other times when shame makes me feel as if God would never open His arms to me. As I think through both the constructive and destructive roles that shame plays in my life, I see three critical distinctions that determine the difference between them.
I have felt shame for my sin, and I have felt shame for things that were out of my control. Some people might also call this the difference between “true guilt” and “false guilt.” Feeling ashamed for cheating on your husband is very different from feeling ashamed that your father is an alcoholic. One reflects the truth that you’ve done something sinful; the other assumes guilt for someone else’s behaviors.
Healthy shame is a warning light that we have broken fellowship with God. We have a mortal wound of sin that requires drastic intervention. The apostle Paul criticized the early church for not recognizing things that should have caused shame and repentance (see I Corinthians 5). To neglect healthy shame is a dangerous trap because it gives us the false impression that we are at peace with God. Without healthy shame, we never confess and turn from the sinful patterns that separate us from fellowship with God.
Often the shame people feel related to sexuality is rooted in things that have been done to them. Unhealthy shame speaks lies like: “You are forever ruined and dirty” or “You deserved the abuse you experienced.” Some women feel shame for having sexual desires or for the way their body looks or responds. This shame is from the enemy because it is rooted in lies. However, there is a healthy, biblical awareness of our desperate sinfulness that is meant to drive us to our Savior. How do you know the difference?
When you experience shame, ask the question: Does my shame tell the truth? Is there something you genuinely need to confess before the Lord? If so, bring it before Him. But if you feel shame about something for which you do not bear guilt, the enemy is lying to you.
When my mother once said, “Shame on you!” the sting I felt as a young girl made me sad and heartsick over the break in my relationship with her. I was eager to do whatever was necessary to confess and repair my wrong. I hated the feeling of disappointment and separation that my failure created. Although no parents are perfect, my mom was wise to quickly show me the pathway to reconciliation: Ask your sister’s forgiveness. Say you’re sorry. Offer to do her dishes tonight as a gesture of kindness. Pay for the candy you stole.
Shame is crippling when there is no way out of it. When it seems to forever mark us as bad, dirty, selfish, cruel. David expresses this experience in Psalm 32.
My body wasted away, and I groaned all day long. Day and night your hand of discipline was heavy on me. My strength evaporated like water in the summer heat.
But God made a pathway for him:
Finally, I confessed all my sins to you and stopped trying to hide my guilt. I said to myself, 'I will confess my rebellion to the Lord.' And you forgave me! All my guilt is gone.
This is the difference between walking in shame and walking in the truth and light of Jesus Christ. The incredible truth is that Jesus took on Himself every label of shame. Before Jesus’ death and resurrection, God provided His people a way to be reconciled to Him through the sacrificial system. By following certain rituals (that eventually pointed to Jesus), they could be blameless again. We can become so familiar with the cross that we forget the power of the words, “It is finished!”
God has made a way, through Jesus Christ, for us to be reconciled to Himself. When we trust in Jesus, nothing can separate us from the love of God. While we once wore the labels of our sin and failure, we now wear new labels: forgiven and redeemed!
Even so, we disappoint God and do things that rightfully cause us to feel shame. We have grieved the Father and trampled on the gift of His Son by continuing to sin. But God makes a clear way back to fellowship with Him. I John 1:8-10 says that if we are honest with God about our sin, He will forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness!
Do you believe this? In Revelation, we see that Satan is constantly accusing us before the Father. But God is our advocate, not because we are good and worthy, but because we have fully trusted in the One who is good and worthy. If shame still hangs over your head even after you have confessed to God, again the enemy is lying. That shame has no place in your life.
Every parent has experienced the sting of being disappointed with something a child has done. But even in our humanity, disappointed parents don’t forget or forsake their children. The very nature of being a mom or dad gives us a shared identity with our children that can endure the greatest of trials. Angry? Yes. Grieved? Yes. In despair? Yes. Feeling like giving up? Yes. But, “You are no longer my child”? Never.
Jesus once said, “If you being sinful parents give good gifts to your children, how much more so will your heavenly Father who is perfect?” If we, being sinful parents, love our children through even great failures and disappointments, how much more so will our heavenly Father embrace us? This is what Paul refers to when He wrote, “The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.”
Unhealthy shame makes me doubt the truth of my identity. Maybe I’m still His child but more like the “black sheep” waiting on the doorstep while the rest of the kids enjoy family dinner. In contrast, healthy shame reminds me of my identity as God’s beloved daughter.
I grieve when I don’t honor Him. I never want to disappoint my Father! My grief is proof that I belong to Him. I remember how pleased He is with a struggling, frail heart that simply runs to Him crying, “Daddy, help me!” Healthy shame is often a reminder to me that God’s Spirit lives within me, reproving me, encouraging me, counseling me toward righteousness. As it says in Hebrews 12, I receive this discipline as proof of my Father’s tender care and love, shepherding me toward His righteousness, not as His rejection.
If you are living a life of rebellion and immorality and you feel no shame, that should literally scare the hell out of you. It is our awareness of our sin and rebellion that causes us to run for our lives to the foot of the cross, asking Jesus to receive us and cleanse us.
I’ve learned a unique and very helpful way to deal with the enemy’s strategy to taunt me with shame. “Juli, you have no right to run a ministry on sexuality. Let me remind you of the ways that you have failed the Lord.” Instead of arguing with the devil, I agree with him, conceding the truth of what my enemy has spoken. “You’re right. I am not worthy of serving God in this role. But that is why I love Jesus so much! He uses the broken things of the world to confound the wise. He calls me worthy because He is worthy.”
To the extent that we try to ignore our shame or talk ourselves out of it, we walk around with a low-grade fever of bondage. You can never get rid of shame by shunning it or convincing yourself not to wear the label. Instead, look it in the face with Christ Jesus standing at your side. Remember that He is your righteousness.
Would you like to learn more about the difference between appropriate and unhealthy shame? Here are a few resources for you:
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