by Phillip Maxwell
Recently in a class at Redeemer Seminary, one of my professors assigned us a book intent on tracing the theme of shame through many of St. Paul's letters. I found that not only was this theme present, Paul actually spent an enormous amount of time addressing the causes, expressions, and effects of shame among those in the church. What’s more, the concept of shame is not unique to Paul’s writings! On the contrary, it is a reality that is as old as the Garden of Eden and as pervasive as human life.
The reality of our world is this: all people feel shame at various points in life. If the Israelites of the Old Testament experienced shame and the Apostle Paul worked arduously through shame with those in churches he planted, how could we expect it to not be a part of our Christian experience? Shame is not something to just protect against; it is a reality that must be confronted if we want to see how the Gospel transforms life.
To get a real sense of the gravity of our shame problem, think back to the very beginning, to our first parents, Adam and Eve. After God creates woman as the only suitable one for man—the only one worthy of accompanying him and him worthy of her—the section closes with a peculiar detail, one that seems out of place. Genesis 2:25 reads, “The man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.” The inclusion of this description leads us to ask why this detail is here. Well, if you know what comes next, you know that Adam and Eve’s freedom from shame is about to disappear forever. Shame is so close, so germane to our experience as humans that God points it out here at the beginning of our story, almost as if to say, “You’ll recognize this when you see it.”
And we do recognize shame, but often we are paralyzed by it. In fact, the effects of shame can so cloud our minds and entomb our hearts that we see isolation, not freedom, as the preferable way of life. We choose willful imprisonment instead of liberation. A young man overcome with feelings of worthlessness once said to me that he would rather go through life friendless than have friends who know him as he really was.
There is a large segment of Christians, however, who would rather discount and ignore the reality of shame than deal with the mess that it brings. And although the fear of getting mired in the mess that talking with someone in their shame—much less publicly and appropriately bearing our own—brings is reasonable, it must be resisted. Why? Because we will not understand the significance of the work of Christ to undo our shame until we see ourselves for the shameful people that we really are.
So what are we to do with our shame? First, uncover shame in your life and in the lives of those around you. If shame were given a voice, it would not say, “You have done something bad,” but rather, “You are a bad person.” Shame seeks to rob us of our worth, value, and dignity as men and women made in God’s image. Uncovering it and laying it bare begins the movement toward a life unencumbered by shame. To begin, take a spiritual inventory by asking yourself questions like:
- “What things would cause me great embarrassment if they were made known?”
- “What have I hidden, past or present, from the people in my life who know me best?”
Be ruthlessly honest.
Second, we must seek to know real freedom from the captivity of our shame. Because it feeds on dignity, inherent to all persons, shame cannot be purged abruptly. It also does not attack once and then leave us alone. Repeated truth telling about who we are in Christ by others and ourselves is required to continually kill feelings of shame and restore us.
Third, maintain hope for the day when we, as God’s people, will no longer know shame. Since shame exists as a social reality, when Christ comes to consummate His relationship with His people, our relationship with God and with one another will be perfectly restored and glorified, and shame will see its final death. We need to encourage one another to long for this day, to pray for it, and to live in the reality that it is indeed coming.
Shame is so vile that the Psalmist, after crying out to God for relief, wishes it upon his enemies (Psalm 31:17). He expresses this punishment primarily in terms of silencing them forever. To the righteous, however, God gives a voice. He inclines His ear to them, hears them, and relieves their distress. In fact, God has promised us that He will hear us whenever we cry to Him. “And this is the confidence that we have toward Him, that if we ask anything according to His will He hears us” (1 John 5:14).