NO MORE SHAME
Written by Doug Ponder on June 14, 2015
No More Shame
In the first letter bearing his name, the apostle Peter writes:
“Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone,
a chosen and precious cornerstone,
and whoever trusts in him
will never be put to shame.” (1 Pet. 2:6)
These words were borrowed from the Old Testament as the fulfillment of God’s promise to address one of the deepest needs that we have. This promise is one the Bible’s most significant themes, though it often goes unnoticed because we don’t often recognize what shame is.
Shame likes to hide in guilt’s shadow, so we often talk about “guilt” when shame is the real culprit. The difference between them is this: Guilt is acknowledging that something is wrong; shame is what you experience because of the wrong.
At its root shame is the feeling that you are unacceptable, disgraced, or worthless because of something you did, something done to you, or even something you are associated with.
Shame is exposure to ridicule and dishonor. Shame is isolating and makes you unloved and unlovely. Shame brings feelings of self-disgust, unworthiness, even defilement. Shame is humiliation, rejection, and dirtiness.
Pictures of Shame
In the Bible shame is closely linked with images of being naked, of being an outcast, or of being unclean.
You are naked. Faces are turned toward you. Everyone sees you and they stare at you as if you were hideous, stupid, or worthless.
You are an outcast. Faces are turned away from you. Everyone despises you, or worse: They ignore you and wish that you didn’t exist.
You are unclean. Because of what you did, or because of what someone did to you, you can’t stop feeling dirty, corrupted, or used.
Naked. Outsider. Unclean.
Exposed. Shunned. Tainted.
Humiliated. Rejected. Dirty.
It’s all shame.
Shame Targets Everyone
Shame has no prejudices or preferences; it affects both rich and poor, majority and minority, famous and unknown, quitters and winners, guilty and innocent. Sometimes especially the innocent. Just talk to the spouse who was cheated on and abandoned by their partner. They are the one who feels like something is wrong with them.
Also consider the tragedy of sexual abuse. Someone else’s sin makes the victim feel ashamed—even though they didn’t do anything wrong. Often the shame is so great that they tell no one, quietly living with the pain of that shame for years.
Or maybe you were the perverted uncle, or father, or brother in the previous example. You regret what you did—you wish you could take it back more than anything. But you know you can’t. So you have never spoken about it to anyone. You have never even apologized for what you did. The shame feels too great.
Shame Feels Everlasting
Embarrassment is only temporary, but shame feels like it lasts forever. So you picked your nose in public and got caught. You broke out in acne and someone points it out. You were late for a meeting. Again. You forgot your wallet in the checkout line. You remembered your wallet but you don’t have enough money to buy the groceries.
We feel awful in moments like those, but they are experiences that almost everyone has had at some point in their life. Given enough time, you will be able to laugh about these things. They become “a funny story about what happened to you one time”—but it’s not like that with shame. You never laugh at shame. It’s more like unending embarrassment. Shame feels like a part of you, not just a story about you.
Shame Is Common
Shame is not a rare occurrence. It lives in the everyday of life. If you lose your job, are kicked out of school, or simply show up to the event wearing the cheapest clothing of anyone there, a voice inside your head tells you: “You’re a screw-up. You failed again. You’ll never be good enough.”
And these things may feel worse, not better, when others know about them. You want to talk with friends to get their support—but you also want to avoid those same friends because, who wants to tell them that you messed up?
Have you ever looked up someone else’s résumé just to see how you measure up? Are you ashamed because you don’t even have a résumé?
Are you tempted to name-drop in conversations in the hopes of getting a little glory by association? (Maybe if they think this person is great, they’ll think I’m great too.)
When we identify shame and recognize it for what it is—the feeling of rejection, humiliation, and dirtiness that comes from something you did or something done to you—then we begin to see shame everywhere. That’s because shame is everywhere. We are a culture filled with shame.
False Remedies, False Hope
No one likes to feel shame, but we all do. To help ourselves cope, we tend to adopt one of three ways of dealing with our shame.
We turn to lies to avoid the humiliation and rejection we fear would come “if everyone knew the truth” about us. So we lie when asked directly about something we don’t want to admit. We hide from others when we sin, covering our tracks in the hopes that we won’t be found out. We make excuses for ourselves.
But lying, hiding and excuse-making don’t work, because whatever caused the shame is still there. (When you fall into a pit of mud, lying to others or to yourself won’t take the mud away.) Lying just covers up a problem—but the problem is still there, gnawing at you, even worse than before because you lied about it and now have one more thing to be ashamed of.
Fronting is bragging and pretending to be something that you are not. Fronting, in other words, is a form of hypocrisy.
We front to cover our shame because we feel worthless and fake and are afraid of being exposed. So we make a preemptive strike, creating a new image for ourselves that will make it look like everything is great so that we don’t even have to lie.
Fronting comes in many forms, for example, from outright boasting to the only slightly subtler “humblebrag.” Even religious devotion can be a form of fronting, as it is when everything you do is “to be seen by others” (Matt. 6:1).
Like lying, fronting doesn’t work. Fronting is like putting a coat of cheap paint on a condemned building. What good is some new paint when the whole building is about to fall down? And far from removing our shame, fronting only increases it—because we know what lies beneath the fake image we sell to the world
Judging is what we do when we make fun of others (even if in only our minds) because they are different. We are insecure and ashamed of ourselves, and we try to feel better about ourselves by putting others down. If they look stupid, we think, then we won’t feel so ashamed anymore. Judging tries to turn them into the object of shame so that no one is left looking at us—not even ourselves.
Judging happens on massive scales (like prejudice and racism), but a great deal of judging happens on smaller scales. For example, we judge others when we gossip about them or when are envious of what they have. (“I would never buy that, even if I could afford it. They are so greedy.”)
As with the two previous attempts to deal with shame, judging doesn’t help. If we are shameful, bringing other people ‘down to our level’ doesn’t remove our shame. It just increases the shame of everyone else. We heap shame on other people because—note the irony—we don’t want to feel shameful! Judging only makes things worse.
How God Removes Our Shame
Not only do our strategies for dealing with shame not work, they also reveal how shameful we truly are. We are liars, hypocrites, and self-righteous judges.
Thus both our sins and our sinful strategies for dealing with shame have brought further shame upon us. We have fallen short of honoring God, and we have made ourselves unworthy of his love, outcasts from his holy presence, and impure and unclean in our wickedness. In other words, sin bring shame. Sin is the cause of all the humiliation, rejection, and dirtiness we hope to avoid.
But the power of Jesus is greater than the power of sin and shame. Throughout this life Jesus never sinned or disgraced himself. He only brought honor to God instead of shame, and he did this on our behalf. That’s because the honor that Jesus brought God was more than enough to cover our shame. So instead of humiliation, rejection, and dirtiness, because of Jesus we receive honor, acceptance, and holiness.
This means we don’t have to fear humiliation before God (or others). Our Father in heaven knows us, better than we know ourselves—and he loves us. We have no need to fear him or hide from him. He looks on us with grace.
We are not rejected by God anymore. Because of Jesus, God accepts us warmly, not with gritted teeth. “Do I have to love this guy” is something that God will never say about us. He loves us and accepts us because of Jesus.
We are not dirty anymore. Jesus has taken away our shame. He has cleansed us, and he will give us a robe of pure white to wear for eternity. Everyone will wear white on the church’s wedding day.
Shaming the Shamer
Jesus did not just cover our shame; he actually defeated the source of shame itself. Paul says that Jesus triumphed over his enemies at the cross and put them to open shame, which means that Jesus shamed the shamer. “God disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in Christ: (Col. 2:15).
The name “Satan” means the accuser, the slanderer, or the shamer. Satan likes to make you feel humiliated, rejected, dirty. He tells you that you need to hide from God and from others. To lie to yourself and to others. He tells you that you will never be clean because of what you’ve done. But none of that is true. Jesus took the tools of the enemy right out of his hands.
This means that if you believe the gospel, shame cannot touch you anymore. Satan may tell you that you are dirty, worthless, exposed, rejected, defiled, disgraced, unclean, unlovely, and unloved. But you know that God says differently: “Covered. Accepted. Loved. Honored. Clean. Pure.” It’s all true because of Jesus. He is why the people of God will never be put to shame.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter.