The Goodness of Shame

Shame has gotten a bad rap. Undeservedly. Shame is a good thing. A gift from God.

Obviously, like every good thing that comes from our Heavenly Father, we have found ways of misusing it. We make a child feel shame because of a substandard report card that is not the result of laziness. We shame someone for a body that doesn’t match our stereotype of health and beauty. These are misuses of a good thing. In addition, our sense of shame is impacted by the fall like every other part of our human experience. For example, a woman might feel shame when engaging in sexual intimacy with her husband. Sex is not a shameful thing when enjoyed within the covenant relationship of husband and wife, so in this instance, feeling shame is a reflection of our broken ‘shame meter.’

Despite the “misfiring” of shame, shame is, like pain, a good gift from God to warn us of behavior that is sinful, harmful, and out of step with God’s design for human flourishing.

In the New Testament the word shame appears a few dozen times, depending on the translation you prefer. Without getting too technical, sometimes this word means to treat someone in a dishonorable manner, to mistreat or to make him suffer the way he should not (Louw and Nida). For example, in Jesus’ parable of the tenant of the vineyard, he says that the owner sent his servant to collect what was due but “and they [the tenants] struck him on the head and treated him shamefully.” That’s not the kind of shame I’m talking about (though this is also a gift from God is we are being treated dishonorably for Christ’s sake).

The other uses of the word refer to an inner sense of embarrassment resulting from one’s own actions (Louw and Nida). Throughout the NT, Paul appeals to this inner sense of shame to motivate people to change their behavior. In 1 Corinthians 6:5-6 Paul writes, “I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers, but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers?” In other words, they should be embarrassed, feel shame, that they are acting like unbelievers, taking one another to court to solve their problems. Shame is used to induce them to repentance; stop acting this way, stop suing one another!

Later in the same letter, Paul writes, “Wake up from your drunken stupor, as is right, and do not go on sinning. For some have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame” (1 Cor 15:34). Again, shame is a tool used by God, wielded by his apostle, to wake up those who “go on sinning” and are in a [metaphoric] “drunken stupor.”

Paul’s instructions to the church at Thessalonica is particularly instructive. Paul writes, “As for you, brothers, do not grow weary in doing good. If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.” The ex-communication (breaking of fellowship) is meant to stoke shame in the wayward believer. Paul is clear though, this isn’t an act of war against an enemy, but an act of love directed towards a brother/sister in order to bring them to repentance and reconciliation. Shame is a grace, a part of the process that God uses to confer the gift of repentance.

As a minister of the church, and as a brother in sister in Christ, it is not my job to erase all shame or help people mask their feelings of shame. If you come and say to me you are ashamed because you are cheating on your spouse, I’ll say “Good, you ought to be ashamed. Repent.” Or if you say you’re ashamed because you’ve been lying to a business partner, or falsifying your taxes, or mistreating your children, or ____________________, I’ll say “I’m glad you feel ashamed. It’s a sign that God’s grace is operative in your life still. DO NOT harden your heard, don’t numb the shame. Listen to it, and repent.”

Likewise, the shame of disordered sexuality, or the shame of failing to control bodily appetites in God honoring ways – this shame is a gift from God calling us to repentance.

The world tells us the feelings of shame are the problem. They can be if it is being misused or weaponized by opponents of God and his ways. Shame can “misfire” as a result of the fall. So, as Christians, part of our job is to dig down into the shame and discover the cause. Is God speaking through my shame, addressing sin, beckoning me to repentance? Christian, it may seem like the loving thing to help others cover over their shame, to say “you have nothing to be ashamed of.” Be careful you aren’t quenching the work of the Spirit in the life of your brother or sister. Instead, help them another discover the root of the shame by listening to the Spirit as he speaks through the inspired Word of God.