When Ed Welch begins a lecture on shame he often asks the audience if they have ever experienced shame. He pauses and adds ‘debilitating shame.” Most of the time, everyone in the room raises his or her hand. When describing what shame is, one author likens it to the response of a supreme court justice who when asked to define obscenity responded with “I know it when I see it.”
And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed. (Gen 2:25)
Now Absalom, David’s son, had a beautiful sister, whose name was Tamar. And after a time Amnon, David’s son, loved her. And Amnon was so tormented that he made himself ill because of his sister Tamar, for she was a virgin, and it seemed impossible to Amnon to do anything to her (2 Sam. 13:1-22)
In you, O LORD, do I take refuge; let me never be put to shame! (Psa 71:1)
Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” (Rom 9:33)
…looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Heb 12:2)
Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. (Phi 3:19)
Shame is often associated with guilt. Whereas guilt is related to something we have done or not done, shame is related to who we are. We might say, “I crashed my father’s favorite car.” Guilt says, “I broke the trophy.” Shame says, “I crashed the car.” Guilt might go on to talk about how devastated my father will be when he finds out about the car and how many years I’ll have to work to pay for the damage. Shame will talk about what a terrible person I am and how can such an unworthy person ever drive a car again.
Another difference between guilt and shame comes when your father actually finds out about the car. He might approach you and say something like, “I heard you crashed my car today. I understand that it was an accident, but you still need to work extra hours to pay for it.” And that’s it. He has handled the guilt. But if he responds with, “I heard you crashed my car this afternoon. What kind of a bozo drives like that? I can’t believe you take my stuff and are so irresponsible. You’re a complete failure as a child. You’ll have to work extra hours to pay for it and I doubt if you’ll ever get to drive my car again.” This is a shame filled response.
Guilt has to do with what you have done. Shame with who you are. Guilt is outside you, in a sense. Shame defines you. It is your identity. It goes to the core of who you think you are. It is you.
You feel like an outcast. You don’t belong.
You feel naked. While everyone else is walking around with their clothes on, you feel exposed and vulnerable. You are seen, and what others see is not pretty.
You feel unclean. Something is wrong with you. You are dirty.
Even worse, you are contaminated. There is a difference between being a bit muddy and harboring a deadly, contagious virus. (Ed Welch, Shame Interrupted, p. 27)
Where Shame Comes From:
Shame, according to some, is ubiquitous. Everyone feels shameful and it is so much a part of humanity that it is part of each of us in an ontological way. It is as much human as having opposable thumbs is human (cf. Jill McNish, Transforming Shame, p. 2, 14, etc.). Dr. McNish even sees shame as a “uniting force because it moves us to try to fit in and conform to societal conventions and standards” (p. 3). While this is a very interesting observation it is clearly one that tries to observe humanity from an incomplete vantage point.
The Bible specifically tells us that mankind was created without shame; “And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed” (Gen. 2:25). Shame did not enter into human experience until after the fall. The Bible says that after Adam and Eve ate from the forbidden tree, “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked” (Gen 3:7). I find it interesting and significant that instead of feeling guilty, the text draws our attention to the fact that the first thing they did was cover their nakedness. They felt ashamed because of what they had done. They covered themselves with fig leaves and went and hid in the bushes (3:8). Of course we can see that they knew they were guilty because when god asked them about it, they said they were hiding because they were afraid, and naked: guilty and ashamed (3:10).
The NT writers explain to us that because Adam sinned we are sinners (Rom 5:12) and because we are in Adam we will die (1 Cor. 15:22), in fact death came to all the world through Adam (1 Cor. 15:21). In other words, we are guilty of Adam’s sin and his sin made us all guilty (Rom. 12:14-21). And this is why we feel guilty, even when we haven’t committed any sin. Of course, no one hasn’t committed sin and so we also feel guilty for our own sin as well (1 Jn. 1:10, etc.). This explains why we feel guilty. In the first place, we feel guilty because Adam made us guilty. In the second place we feel guilty because we have committed sins of our own and thus are also guilty for our own sins.
But in the same way that Adam was guilty of having eaten the fruit, he was also ashamed because he had eaten the fruit. He had sinned and had also become a sinner. He had sinned. And he had sinned. At the same time, we were in him sinning, and we were in him sinning. Thus we became guilty and ashamed as part of who we are. This is why shame is so ubiquitous. Why we all feel ashamed. Why everyone raises their hands when asked about shame.
So far we have located two sources of shame: Adam’s sin and our sin. But shame comes to us in more ways than these two. In 2 Samuel 13 we read the story of Tamar’s rape and degradation. As a result of her terrible treatment she became filled with shame. She tore her robe, put ashes on her head and went about weeping and wailing to express her shame. She was not guilty of anything, other than trying to help her brother, but he raped her and defiled her, filling her with shame. When Jonathan helped David and Saul found out about it, Saul tried to fill Jonathan with shame for having helped David (1 Sam. 20:30). The Bible is full of passages that show that shame can be piled on to another person by sinning against them, by degrading them, embarrassing them, or by betraying them. This is a third way of becoming shame filled. Someone can cause another to be filled with shame. Bad parents, friends, relatives, events, misunderstandings, etc. all can bring shame to us and fill us with shame.
The fourth way that shame can come to us, is when we deny the Lord. When Jesus went through his trial and crucifixion Peter denied that he even knew Jesus and after the third denial and the cock crows, Peter “broke down and wept” (Mt. 26:75; Mk. 14:72; Lk. 22:62).
The Biblical Understanding of Shame:
As I’ve pointed out before, the non-Christian world recognizes that shame is a problem. And as we have noted with other problems with life, the non-Christian world either spins it—trying to making it a good thing, denies it—trying to pretend it doesn’t really exist, or spins their wheels trying to treat it—psychology. But again, as always, the Bible has a solution sent straight from God. I know, you know the answer—Jesus. But how does Jesus solve the problem that goes to the very core of our being? He does it by killing us and raising us from the dead as new creatures with new identities. We are no longer ashamed, we are joyful. We are no longer fearful, we are bold. We are no longer guilty, we’ve been cleansed. We are no longer sinners, we are Christians. This is why the Bible calls this Good News. Jesus changes us in a fundamental way. Here’s how it works:
We’ve already seen how we got in the mess in the first place—Adam and his sin. What we need to point out is that many years later when Moses was sent to lead the Israelites out of Egypt God gave them the Law. The purpose of the Law was to organize the nation in such a way as to put feet on the expression “I will be your God and you will be my people” (Ex. 6:7; etc.). The Law included how the people were relate to God as he blessed them and cared for them. It was a document that lined out how sinful people could live with a holy God. Consequently, because the people were sinful, much of the Law contained directions for what was sinful and how to “fix” what was sinful. The Sacrificial system, feasts, holy days, special places, behavior, clothing, foods, animals, and sicknesses, were all addressed in the Law.
Because we don’t have a lot of time, it is necessary for this to be simplified, but suffice it to say that concerning God there is a very large rift between what is holy and what is profane. And some things that were previously holy, after touching something unholy, become unholy as well. God calls some things clean and others unclean. Sometimes these unclean circumstances could become clean if certain protocols were followed. Sometimes there was nothing anyone could do to make something clean. And at the center of this uncleanness was shame. For example, if someone contracted leprosy, they were to cover themselves in a certain way and avoid others. When they couldn’t avoid others, they were to cry “unclean!” so that no one would come near and take the chance of touching them and becoming unclean as well.
The point here is this: the Law was meant to help people worship and relate to God. It did delineate those who were clean and those who were unclean; those who were filled with shame and those who were honorable before God. From the beginning it was a grace filled system with rituals, whereby unclean things could become clean. But, because of a lack of faith in God, Israel became a culture of shame. They were measuring honor and shame as if they were badges of human merit and achievement—ladders to nowhere. Of course this attitude was why Israel was ultimately destroyed, but the fact remains that God’s plan was for people to worship him with their whole hearts, minds, souls, and strength.
Into this nation and world came Jesus. Jesus didn’t have anything to commend himself even from before he was born. When you look at his ancestry you see prostitutes, adulterers, and non-Jews. Any one of which makes Jesus’ suspect in terms of honor and shame. Add to this that his mother was unwed when he was conceived and it was only because Joseph believed and obeyed the angel’s message that Jesus had a father at all. In fact Joseph’s plan had been to divorce Mary quietly so that she wouldn’t have to go through the open shame of it all. Jesus was born in a dirty old manger where animals lived and did what animals did. He spent his early years on the lam in Egypt, only coming home because an angel told them it was safe. On top of it all he grew up in Nazareth. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (Jn. 1:46). People said he was out of his mind (Mk. 3:21). They tried to throw him off a cliff (Lk. 4:29-30). Throughout his ministry he had no home, nowhere to lay his head (Mt. 8:20). He was born and raised in shame.
Jesus didn’t help his case any when he went to John to be baptized. The baptism was a baptism or repentance (Mt. 5:6, 11) so everyone coming to him was admitting that he was sinful and in need of forgiveness. Jesus joined those ranks and became one of the hoi palloi, one of the riff raff. From then on, even though he did a lot of public speaking and did some cool miracles, he proceeded to hang out with the low-lifes of the culture. He spent way too much time with those, who were unclean according to the Law; prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers, demoniacs, Samaritans, Gentiles, a woman who was bleeding, sinners, and other reprehensible people. Not only did he hang with them, he touched them and let them touch him. And instead of working with the religious and cultural leaders, he insulted them and bested them at every turn. With every meal, walk, conversation, sleep, and stop along the way, Jesus became more and more unclean and thus more and more shameful.
Even his arrest, trial, and crucifixion was filled with shameful elements. He was arrested and tortured by foreigners, mocked, had his clothes torn off him, cursed, beat, railed at, insulted in every way possible, blindfolded and beaten, forced to wear a crown made of thorns and screamed at. He was scorned even by his own people who shouted as one man, “Crucify him!” His closest friends and followers fled from his side. Even his closest friend denied him three times. Finally, he was executed/sacrificed in the most inhumane and shameful way that anyone could be killed. His clothes were torn off, exposing his shame. According to Deuteronomy 21:23 anyone hung on a tree was cursed by God. Shame is about not fitting in and crucifixion is the ultimate “not fitting in.” To top it all off God turned his back on His Son. Jesus cried out to his father, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt. 27:46; Mk. 14:34).
Help for the Shamed: The Resurrection is Huge
This is the story of Christianity. Our leader, our savior, our God is the God of shame. If we leave the story here we end in a deep pit. But the Bible does not leave it here. After three days, Jesus rose from the dead; a victorious resurrection. He was no longer dead, but he was not a dead man living again—only to die again, instead he was a resurrected man—never to die again. God the creator of the universe, is sitting on his throne, capturing followers as fast as he can, building his kingdom with shameful, decrepit, losers and sinners; just like those he hung out with when he was walking among us.
And that’s right where we need to begin to understand all this. Jesus, the second Adam (1 Cor. 15:45-49), became a man and dwelt among us—as one of us. Not only did he live with us, he lived as one of the lowliest of us. He identified with us and became one of us. This is why though sinless, he was baptized with a baptism of repentance. This is why he hung out with the lowly and let unclean people touch him and why he went after the unlovely of society. He was identifying with shameful mankind. In the same way that he became sin for us, he also became shame for us. And in the same way that he died for us, he also overcame shame for us. He cleansed us from our sin when he died on the cross, and he cleansed us from our shame at the same time.
He did all this because in the same way that Adam sinned for us, Jesus died for us. In the same way that we were in Adam when he sinned, so also we were in Jesus when he died. The Bible says that when we identify with Jesus by being baptized into him, into his name, we are baptized into his death (Rom. 6:3). And because in our baptism we are united with him in his death, we are also united with him in his resurrection (Rom. 6:4). The whole point of this is so that we can live new lives—free of sin, guilt, and shame. As I mentioned above, we are free from guilt because Jesus died in our place. And we are freed from our shame for the same reason. Jesus took on our shame, became our shame, and killed it on the cross. We are Christians, we are free.
I generally ask people to read Ephesians and as they do circle every time Paul uses the phrases, “in Jesus,” “in him,” “in God,” “in truth,” etc. From there I might go to pretty much anywhere in the Bible and ask the counselee to pay attention to how Jesus is relating with those around him. Notice how he treats the humble and the proud, and realize that the counselee is one of the humble. We come to Christ with nothing. There’s nothing we can do to prepare ourselves for Jesus. We need to give him our load, the ideas, thought, and actions we think make us someone, the things we take pride in. We can only come to Jesus if we really believe we are nothing and have nothing. Do you believe you are worthless? You qualify. Come to Jesus. Let him transform you. Let him set you free.
Ed Welch, Shame Interrupted. A great book!
Jill McNish, Transforming Shame: A Pastoral Response. Jill is a liberal priestess and professor in the Episcopal church. She has some good insights, but needs to read her Bible and believe it.
Stephen Pattison, Shame: Theory, Therapy, Theology. Very much a non-Christian approach to the topic of shame. He does an admirable job considering that he has no ultimate answers and he is trying to understand something about mankind and viewing it from inside the problem. He has no objective standards or insight.
I’d say that both of these last two authors are non-Christian, even though they both claim to be Christian. However, neither believes the Bible to be the Word of God and neither believes or relies on the power of the resurrection. Without these two planks in the knowledge of God, a person cannot be a Christian. There are other planks of course, but these two are central. Therein lies the weaknesses of both of these authors’ basic foundations.
This came from Shame Interrupted, p. 11
SHAME AND GUILT
Shame and guilt are close companions but not identical. Shame is the more common and broader of the two, In Scripture you will find shame (nakedness, dishonor, disgrace, defilement) about ten times more often than you find guilt.
Guilt lives in the courtroom where you stand alone before the judge. It says, “You are responsible for wrongdoing and legally answerable.” “You are wrong.” “You have sinned.” The guilty person expects punishment and needs forgiveness.
Shame lives in the community, though the community can feel like a courtroom. It says, “You don’t belong–you are unacceptable, unclean, and disgraced” because “You are wrong, you have sinned” (guilt), or “Wrong has been done to you” or “You are associated with those who are disgraced or outcast.” The shamed person feels worthless, expects rejection, and needs cleansing, fellowship, love, and acceptance.
Guilt and shame intersect when a particular sin is regarded, by yourself or others, to be worse than most sins. For example, get caught with child pornography and you will experience both guilt and shame. Same-sex attraction finds itself here too. But what if your anger briefly flares at a reckless driver? You might feel a little guilt but, most likely, no shame because everyone else has done similar things.
Don’t forget that your sensors for guilt and shame are fallible. They can be silent when they should say something, and they can also sound false alarms. But, false alarm or not, when we hear them we must do something. They don’t turn off automatically.