Shame

Preaching and Worship Resources about Shame

Shame is distress at our deficiencies, deformities, or absurdities and, especially, at the uncovering of these things. It is also a feeling of distress at the uncovering of our mere privacies. Shame is so primitive and so potent an emotion that once we feel it as children it can drive coping behavior for the rest of our lives. Lots of high achievers are busy burying their youthful shame.

In Scripture

Examples “The man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed” (Gen. 2:25). “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves” (Gen. 3:7). “I am the scorn of all my adversaries, a horror to my neighbors, an object of dread to my acquaintances; those who see me in the street flee from me. I have passed out of mind like one who is dead” (Ps. 31:11-12). “After mocking him . . . they led him away to crucify him” (Matt. 27:31). “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands” (Luke 15:18-19).

Warning and Comforts “The Lord God made garments of skin for the man and his wife, and clothed them” (Gen. 3:21). “You, O Lord, are a shield around me, my glory, and the one who lifts up my head” (Ps. 3:3). “I will exalt you, Lord, for you lifted me out of the depths and did not let my enemies gloat over me” (Ps. 30:1, NIV). “They shall be turned back and utterly put to shame—those who trust in carved images, who say to cast images, ‘You are our gods’” (Isa. 42:17). “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (Mark 8:38). “I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (Eph. 4:1). Jesus, “who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2-3).

Points to Ponder

Not always appropriate “Distress at our deficiencies, deformities, or absurdities” may include an appropriate shame over our sin. Sin is, after all, spiritual deficiency, deformity, and absurdity. But feelings of shame attach to much else. We may feel ashamed at being incontinent, for instance, or being paunchy, or being an alum of the University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople. Impotent men feel crestfallen. People may be ashamed of having been adopted, or divorced, or used up by a lover. People are ashamed of being duped or betrayed. People fret over being fat, skinny, mousy, gauche. In these respects, shame attaches not so much to what we have done or failed to do, but to who we are.

Vs. guilt The difference between shame and guilt centers on culpability. Roughly put, guilt, whether an objective status or a feeling, always includes blameworthiness. Shame does not. At one time, most Western accounts of human fallenness centered on sin and guilt, making the gospel of justification of guilty sinners opaque in (often Eastern) cultures that center on shame and honor. This is no longer nearly as true. Since the 1970s a host of writers (Donald Capps, Robert Karen, Donald Nathanson, Lewis Smedes) have helped Christians see that as much as we need forgiveness on account of our guilt, we also need healing on account of our shame.

Mild vs. devastating Some shame is mild and some devastating. Feelings of shame range on a spectrum from mild embarrassment (you discover, too late, that the reason other partiers averted their gaze was that you had food on your face) through serious humiliation (in middle age you lose a job and can’t find another) to a desperate and persistent sense of mortification that is the residue of terrible parenting or of vicious bullying or of assault—particularly of sexual assault, with its violent invasion of privacy.

True meaning Though people now use the word “shame” promiscuously for almost any dip in self-esteem (I was ashamed of being runner-up), what is especially characteristic about real shame is the sense of being inappropriately exposed, of being painfully open to prying eyes. Ordinarily, the skin of privacy protects us. But when we have been exposed, we feel as if our bark has been stripped off and now we are vulnerable. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, the fallen Adam and Eve couldn’t look at each other anymore. They especially had trouble looking into each other’s eyes for fear of what they might find there.

Mockery Mockery is an ancient and wicked way of stripping. The mocker wants to expose absurdity, real or imagined, and thus to strip the victim of dignity. Mockery is a form of mortification. This is why torture often starts with stripping the victim. This is also why Matthew’s gospel describes brutal mockery of Jesus and then says, matter-of-factly, that “after mocking him . . . they led him away to crucify him” (27:31). Where mockery is concerned, crucifixion is just a way to finish it off.

False vs. true shame Shame can be false as well as true, because shamed people always measure themselves against a standard, and the standard might be silly or evil. If I am conceited, for instance, I stack myself up against the delusion that I am superior. I ought never to forget a name or mispronounce a word. I ought never to act like a nincompoop, not even accidentally. Nincompoopery is for losers. So are moderate praise, limited recognition, humble relatives, and middle income. These shame me because I am a superior being who dwells among peaks. If I belong to the Mafia, I might be ashamed for having mercy on the target of a hit. My standard is mercilessness, and I have just shamefully come short.


Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.