It’s actually easier to identify the effects of shame than it is to define its essence. But I’ll try. Shame is the painful emotion that is caused by a consciousness of guilt, failure, or impropriety, that often results in the paralyzing conviction/belief that one is worthless, of no value to others or to God, unacceptable, and altogether deserving of disdain and rejection. As you can see, shame and guilt are not the same thing.
The difference between guilt and shame is a very fine line. Guilt is the objective reality of being liable to punishment because of something we’ve done. Shame is the subjective feeling of being worthless because of who we are. It’s the difference between making a mistake and believing we are a mistake. Feeling guilt when we sin is a good and godly and healthy response. So we run to God and seek his forgiveness. But feeling shame when we sin is a bad and destructive response that compels us to run from him for fear of his disdain and contempt.
Shame can lead to a variety of emotions and actions. It leads to feelings of being not just unqualified but disqualified from anything meaningful or of having a significant role in the body of Christ.
People enslaved to shame are constantly apologizing to others for who they are. They feel small, flawed, never good enough. They live under the crippling fear of never measuring up, of never pleasing those whose love and respect they desire. This often results in efforts to work harder to compensate for feeling less than everyone else.
Shame has innumerable effects on the human soul. Those in shame have a tendency to hide; to create walls of protection behind which they hunker down and hope no one will see the true you. They are terrified that their true self will be seen and known and rejected by others. So they put on a false face, they adopt a personality or certain traits that they think others will find acceptable. They are convinced that if someone were to see them for who they really are, they’d be repulsed and disappointed. So they are led to be less than their true self. They deliberately stifle whatever strengths they have. They say to themselves: “Whatever I do, don’t be vulnerable. It’s dangerous.”
Breaking free from shame is almost always a process, but it begins with a miraculous breakthrough. One can be enabled by the Spirit to see the lie of shame and the truth of forgiveness but there is often a lifetime of behavior and attitudes that must be progressively brought into alignment with the truth of who we are in Christ.
I want us to explore the only lasting and meaningful cure for shame. It comes from embracing in your heart the simple truth that your value and identity are not determined by what others have said to you, about you, or perpetrated against you. Your value and identity are determined by who you are as an image-bearer and what Christ has done on your behalf.
There are several things that help break the power of shame and deliver us from its paralyzing grip.
(1) We wage war against the lies that bring shame by fighting for faith in the forgiveness of God. In other words, belief in the truth of the gospel is the power to overcome shame.
The prostitute who anointed the feet of Jesus with ointment and wet them with her tears had much of which to be ashamed. She was a “sinner” and an outcast. But Jesus pronounced that her sins were forgiven and told her to “go in peace” (Luke 7:36-50). Jesus overcame her shame by promising that her sins were forgiven and that she could now live “in peace.” She could have chosen to believe the condemnation and judgment of the other guests, and remain mired in shame. Or she could choose to believe that Jesus had truly forgiven all her sins. The way to wage war against the unbelief that we are not truly forgiven is to trust the promise of Christ.
The solution to sin in our culture is to celebrate it, brag about it, join in a public parade to declare your pride in it. Thus, people tend to cope with the pain and weight of guilt by simply declaring that the behavior in question isn’t bad after all. It’s actually quite good and will contribute to my sense of identity and flourishing in life. As someone said, “By denying sin, they attempt to take away its sting.”
But the solution for shame isn’t celebration or denial but forgiveness. The message of Scripture is that you are probably far worse than even you can imagine, but that you are far more loved than you could ever possibly conceive. You can’t solve your struggle with shame. Only Jesus can. And God’s immeasurable and inconceivable love for you was demonstrated and put on display by his sending of his Son Jesus to endure the judgment you deserved.
Some of you think that the solution to your shame is to try harder, do more, obey with greater intensity. Sometimes you are tempted to create even more rules and commands than are found in the Bible and by legalistically abiding by them all you hope to suppress or diminish or perhaps even destroy your feelings of inadequacy and shame and worthlessness. No! The solution is found in only one place: the cross of Christ, where Jesus took your shame upon himself and endured the judgment of God that you and I deserved.
(2) We overcome the crippling power of shame when the Holy Spirit strengthens us to trust and experience the reality of God’s immeasurable love for us in Christ.
“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:14-21).
The Holy Spirit is directly responsible for making possible our experience of feeling and rejoicing in the love God has for us in Christ.
(3) We break free from shame when the Holy Spirit awakens us to the glorious and majestic truth that we are truly the children of God.
“For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom. 8:15-16).
“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God” (Gal. 4:4-7).
Notice that in both texts the experiential, felt assurance of our adoption as the children of God is the direct result of the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts.
(4) We win in the war against shame when, by the power of the Spirit, we turn our hearts to the unbreakable promise of Christ that nothing can separate us from his love.
“But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me. Follow the pattern of sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you” (2 Tim. 1:12b-14).
Here we see that Paul overcomes the tendency to be ashamed by trusting the truth of God’s promise that he will guard him. It is “by the Holy Spirit” that we find the strength to guard the good deposit of the gospel. “The battle against misplaced shame,” says John Piper, “is the battle against unbelief in the promises of God.” As Paul elsewhere says, “everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame” (Rom. 10:11).
(5) When we are made to feel shame for something that we didn’t do, we conquer its power by entrusting our souls and eternal welfare to the truth and justice of God.
“But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore, do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God” (1 Cor. 4:3-5).
In other words, explains Piper, “for all the evil and deceitful judgment and criticism that others may use to heap on us a shame that is not ours to bear, and for all the distress and spiritual warfare it brings, the promise stands sure that they will not succeed in the end. All the children of God will be vindicated. The truth will be known. And no one who banks his hope on the promises of God will be put to shame.”
(6) We overcome the enslaving power of shame by confidently believing that the promises of God of a glorious and more satisfying inheritance are true.
“By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered the reproach [or shame] of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward. (Heb. 11:24-26).
The “reproach of Christ” likely means the public disdain, rejection, and shame that one experiences from unbelievers for having prized Christ above all earthly praise, possessions, or promotion. He strengthened his soul to endure undeserved shame by fixing his faith on the promises yet to come.
And so, let us pray:
• That the Spirit would bring into conscious awareness the cause(s) of shame. What specific incidents in one’s past were the reason why one now feels shame? Ask the Spirit to bring light and insight into what happened, when, and by whom it was done.
• That the Spirit would awaken you to the realities of the gospel; that the Spirit would strengthen your faith in the truth of all that God has done for us in Christ to secure for us the complete and comprehensive forgiveness of sins.
• That the Spirit would awaken you to who you are as an adopted child of God (Rom. 8:15-16; Gal. 4:4-7).
• That the Spirit would break the stranglehold the enemy has exerted on you. Satan wants to undermine your intimacy with Christ by convincing you that he would never want fellowship with someone who has done the things you’ve done. Satan wants to paralyze your usefulness to the church and to others by convincing you that you are an embarrassment and a reproach. Thus, we must pray that the Spirit would silence the voice of the Enemy that has led you to believe that you are beyond the hope of God’s love and forgiveness.
• That the Spirit would indelibly imprint on your heart the deep and abiding conviction that God rejoices over you and sings over you in delight (Zeph. 3:17).
• That the Spirit would shine the light of truth into your heart and dispel the darkness of lies.
• That the Spirit would quicken your heart to feel the love of Christ (Eph. 3:14-21).
• That the Spirit would bring to mind any sins committed that led to bondage and shame.
• That the Spirit would enable you to repent honestly and openly and thoroughly.
• That the Spirit would enable you to openly confess your sins to others.