Shame is a powerful feeling. It is a “painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior”.
Some of us have just one moment that brings so much shame it changes the rest of our lives. We make promises never to be put in that position again, never to be made to feel that way again. A life lived to prove that one moment of shame was a fluke. Some of us have this underlying feeling of shame that we just can’t seem to get rid of. It doesn’t matter what we do, it returns after every triumph and lingers like an unwelcome house guest. Shame can greatly shape our lives.
Sources of Shame
There are two main categories of shame that come to mind: relative and absolute. The first comes from comparisons to those around us, and the second comes from comparing our actions to a moral standard.
We can feel shameful at times, not because we did something that would be considered wrong, but because we seem to be deficient or less than those around us. This is the first category of shame: relative comparison. The comparisons can vary greatly from one context to another and depend greatly on whatever the particular group you are in values. Consider the example: a child whose family has less money than his peers and it shows in his clothes. If the child’s peer group places great value in their clothes, the child could feel shame. Adults can have a similar feeling when a credit card gets declined in front of a group of people. Or maybe a musician plays with a group of other musicians. If the rest of the group is noticeably better than him, he could feel shameful by comparison and may not want to play in front of others in the future. This type of shame comes from feeling less valuable than those around us. These feelings of worthlessness can be powerful.
Another type of shame comes from behavior that is definably wrong. This is the second category of shame: absolute comparison. Someone can feel shame for an outburst of anger where they said extremely hurtful things they didn’t mean. Or if someone has been inconsiderate in his relationships and comes to realize how much he has been hurting those around him, feelings of shame can flood in. Once we realize how much we have affected those around us we may feel shame for our failure to live up to the moral standard.
Tipping the Scales
The world will often treat shame with encouragement, building someone’s self-esteem. The goal is to convince the person that she is exceptional in a way that makes her valuable. This method tries to outweigh the shame with talents and actions the person can use as a sign of her value. There are problems with this, though.
One problem with this method is that the very thing the person is building her value on could all be taken away in a moment. Let’s go back to the example of the child who felt shame because his family was poor. When I was in high school, I watched this documentary about billionaires in the U.S. It was interesting because many of the billionaires grew up poor. Several of them had experiences of shame and great need when they were younger that drove them to gather great amounts of wealth as an adult. I thought this pattern was interesting. Their great wealth became proof that they were better than the poverty in which they grew up. They succeeded in tipping the scales in their favor. Their worth is secured, and the shame is gone.
What if they were to lose their money, though? It may be improbable, but it’s happened before. It could be just a few bad financial investments that don’t pan out. What would these billionaires have to build their worth on in that moment? All of their worth was based on the great wealth they were able to acquire.
Well, you could say that they still have their incredible business acumen. I mean, people don’t usually become billionaires by accident. Their value could then be placed in the fact that they have a skill set that many don’t possess. But even this could be lost. They are one accident away from losing their physical or mental capabilities. What would they have then to counterbalance their shame?
Another problem with this method is that you can only counterbalance shame to the amount that the person has skills or abilities to point to as encouragement. The more talent and ability the person has the more shame can be counterbalanced.
Mike Tyson is a great example of this. Tyson is one of the greatest boxers of all time. He dominated the heavyweight division during his career. He also went to jail for being charged with rape in 1992. Despite having done something terribly wrong, he still had a somewhat positive image. It’s interesting to see the public’s treatment of individuals that have extreme talent. It’s as if their talent and abilities make up for the wrong things they have done. The more talented they are, the more forgiveness we are willing to extend towards their shameful actions.
And this is the way the world treats shame. But what would you tell the person who is seemingly average? This method doesn’t work for the person who seems not to have anything extraordinary about him. Or what about the person that does have some talent and is above average but carries more shame than her abilities can outweigh. The solution to shame can’t be convincing yourself that you are great. This simply doesn’t work for everyone. This does not work in every situation and will leave some hopeless.
The Gospel’s Response to Shame
The gospel is the only solution that completely erases every aspect of shame.
The first way the gospel erases shame is by giving us worth and value. The worth we get from the gospel isn’t the same type of worth the world gives us. We already talked about how the world will try to give us worth in proportion to our talents and abilities. The worth we get from the gospel is much greater and more stable than the world’s worth. And it’s because it’s not from us. If our worth comes from us, it can come and go depending on who we are around and how we are performing at that time. The gospel says we have worth because God, who is more significant than any other, values and loves us.
Now this can be easily confused with the world’s worth, and Christians do confuse it often. Jesus didn’t die for you because you are so great and bring so much to the table. Jesus died for you because he is great and he is loving. Jesus’s sacrifice is a testament to how great he is, not how great you are. I know some will not agree with this, but the Bible says in Acts 17:25 that God is not served by human hands because he doesn’t need us; on the contrary we need him. Our worth doesn’t come intrinsically within ourselves. Our worth comes from the fact that God, who is more significant than any other person, loves you so much he was willing to die for you. The confusion is that some would say Jesus died for us because we are valuable; because we are able to benefit him somehow. The Bible says God doesn’t need anything from us. So our worth comes not from ourselves, but from God. Our worth is rooted in his love for us. Apart from God, we have no worth.
And this is good news! God’s love is unchanging and doesn’t depend on anything you do. God’s love is completely dependent on Jesus’s performance, not yours. So no matter what you do or how badly you mess up, your worth is constant because Jesus’s love is constant for you.
The second way the gospel erases shame is that God forgives you for all the wrong and foolish things you have done. The world tries to counterbalance shame, wrongs, and foolishness with worth. The gospel not only brings a great amount of worth you could never produce on your own, but it also brings forgiveness for all the wrong and foolish things you have done.
I have had many times in my life where I said something or did something that hurt someone only to feel shame afterward. One important step in lifting my shame and embarrassment was hearing that person say “It’s ok. I forgive you”. These words can be so powerful to hear. Receiving forgiveness doesn’t lift all the shame but it does lift most of the shame. Shame comes from “the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior” that negatively affects others. When the other person says, “I forgive you,” it means that your actions didn’t permanently affect the relationship. So much of the shame is lifted. Shame comes from hurting others around us, but it also comes from rebelling against God, from spitting in his face. In Psalm 51, David says to God “Against you, you only, have I sinned”. The cross of Jesus brings a depth of forgiveness that no other person can give you. This forgiveness from God ensures that our wrong and foolish behavior towards God will not continue to affect our relationship with God.
There is one last provision in the gospel that is necessary to completely erase all of our shame. Jesus not only forgives us, but he also uses our wrong and foolish behavior for our good (Romans 8:28). Even your deliberate rebellion against him he will use for your good. Isn’t that what we see in the cross? They intended to kill God not knowing God was using their sin to save the world. What a great God we have! There is no need for shame when we hope in him. As Paul said our weakness only goes to show how strong he is. And he is strong. He is strong enough to use your worst moments to draw you and others closer to him. The gospel is so powerful in its eradication of shame. Who else could you go to that promises to even use your shameful actions for your good and the good of those around you? Only God has the ability to do this.
There’s something honest about shame. It comes from a realization that we aren’t that great. It’s the realization that instead of being great, we are actually in great need. Let shame bring you before God. The answer isn’t to ignore or counterbalance shame, but to bring our shame and lack of greatness to him. Trusting in the Gospel is the only way to completely erase our shame.