Our world is seriously confused about shame.
Strike that, the church is seriously confused about shame. We’ve made Jesus into a Rogerian therapist, the Bible into a book of self-actualizing pablum, and the gospel into a perpetual reminder that, hey, you’re awesome! The only shame left is saying or doing anything that leaves one feeling ashamed.
Shame is not a small matter in the Bible. The English word “shame” occurs 174 times in 161 verses in the ESV (and “ashamed” another 63 times in 58 verses). Clearly, the Bible has a lot to say on the topic.
Shame can be a hard subject to talk about because a massive problem for many people is misplaced shamed. Whether in every day “failures” like a messy house and unwanted pounds, or in more catastrophic situations like the experience of sexual abuse or racial bigotry, almost all of us have elements of our person or our past that wrongly make us feel embarrassed, dirty, and ashamed. The Bible is well aware of this tendency. When Zophar inquired of Job, “Shall no one shame you?” he was castigating Job for sins Job hadn’t actually committed. Zophar thought Job should be ashamed, but Job knew he had nothing be ashamed of.
In the New Testament we see the apostles often addressing the misplaced shame Christians were liable to feel because of their faith in a crucified Savior. This is why Paul says “I am not ashamed of the gospel” (Rom. 1:16) and why he insists that no one who believes in Jesus will be put to shame (Rom. 10:11). Peter emphasizes the same thing (1 Pet. 2:6), reminding the believers that there is no shame in suffering as a Christian (1Pet. 4:16), and that ultimately it is the enemies of Christ who will be put to shame for having opposed God’s people (1 Pet. 3:16). Most importantly, we follow Jesus, who was treated with utter shame (Mark 12:4; Luke 18:32; 20:11), and yet, in despising the shame, gave us the subjective example and the objective means by which we can cast aside the shame that does not rightly belong to us.
Because misplaced shame is such a pervasive human problem, and because the Bible is genuinely concerned to see us address our (often) undeserved sense of humiliation, too many Christians think the way to make hurting people feel better is to simply eliminate the category of shame altogether. Surely, it’s no coincidence that two recent, popular (and misguided) books—incidentally, by women and for women—are entitled Shameless: A Sexual Revolution and Girl, Stop Apologizing: A Shame-Free Plan for Embracing and Achieving Your Goals. Church got you down? Voices in your head making you unhappy? Just follow your dreams, be true to yourself, take a chance, and do what makes you happy. Shame is just another word for the impossible expectations that the church, the flesh, and the Devil put upon you.
But just because you found a hammer does not mean the whole world is actually a nail. To be sure, the Bible knows of misplaced shame, and it is a deep and perpetual problem. But the Bible also knows of well-placed shame. There is no honest way to read the Bible and escape the conclusion that there are a lot of attitudes, practices, and behaviors we are supposed to feel bad about. When our sense of embarrassment and humiliation is tied to disobedience and objective guilt, we should feel ashamed. “Wake up from your drunken stupor,” a hopelessly insensitive apostle Paul once wrote, “and do not go on sinning. For some have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame” (1 Cor. 15:34). And that’s nothing compared to what the Lord spoke through Jeremiah about exposing Judah’s idolatrous and adulterous treachery by lifting her skirts over her face so “your shame will be seen” (Jer. 13:23).
The humblest, most heartfelt, and most contrite prayers in the Bible are honest about shame.
O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens. From the days of our fathers to this day we have been in great guilt. And for our iniquities we, our kings, and our priests have been given into the hand of the kings of the lands, to the sword, to captivity, to plundering, and to utter shame, as it is today. (Ezra 9:6-7)
Or there’s this prayer from Daniel:
To you, O Lord, belongs righteousness, but to us open shame, as at this day, to the men of Judah, to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to all Israel, those who are near and those who are far away, in all the lands to which you have driven them because of the treachery that they have committed against you. To us, O LORD, belongs open shame, to our kings, to your princes, and to our fathers, because we have sinned against you. (Dan. 9:7-8)
These are not the prayers of people looking to stop apologizing or looking to start a shame-free sexual revolution. Rather, this is the piety of those who know there is an objective moral law given by God himself, and that when that law is violated there is objective guilt that brings upon us open and deserved shame. When we sin we should feel bad, we should be embarrassed, we should hang our heads in shame.
But we should not stop there. The Bible does have a remedy for shame, but it’s an objective remedy for objective guilt, not positive and inspirational self-talk for ostensibly self-imposed feelings. The good news of the gospel is not, “Relax, you rock!” The good news says to believing sinners, “You deserve to be humiliated and condemned for your sin, but God sent his Son to be humiliated and condemned in your place.” It’s one of the undervalued elements of our atonement theology that Christ suffered and died for sin and our shame (Mark 15:16-32). God can give us a double portion of honor instead of the shame we deserve (Isa. 61:7). He promises to change our shame into praise and renown in all the earth (Zeph. 3:19). This is the true good news, so much better than the world’s shame-free half-gospel—more freeing, more honest, and more exultant.
So go ahead, take a chance and let yourself feel bad for the bad stuff you’ve done. Own it. Admit it. Turn from it. Then run to Christ. He’ll always be there. With the scars to prove that our shame is real, but it doesn’t have to have the last word.