I spend an inordinate amount of time talking with women about terrible things that have happened to them. For most, these experiences have brought about a lot of shame. Sometimes our loudest shame comes from things we have done, sometimes it comes from someone else’s grievous and horrific sin against us. Regardless, we desperately need someone to help us hear the voice of God louder than the voice of both our own sin and our perpetrators.
The Voice of Shame
Shame is a dreaded emotion. No one likes it. No one likes the circumstances or feelings associated with it, and in most conversations it is seen as the ugly scarlet letter reminding the enduring person of pain, heartache and sin. While guilt is about what we have done wrong, shame often goes much deeper, speaking about who we are.
Shame tells us we are condemned. It says that who we are—because of what we have done, or what has been done to us—is unworthy of love, flourishing, or maybe even life. Shame tells us there is no hope for us; that we are unique and singular in an unprecedented nature as one who is filthy, unfit and doomed. Shame tells us that if people knew our true depravity, we would be rejected.
The Voice of the World
In our psychologized culture we are told that because of our immense, inherent worth, we have nothing to be ashamed of and therefore, shouldn’t feel shame. We deserve better than to feel bad about ourselves. We deny shame, seeking to experience emotional freedom from it by reframing it as something that shouldn’t exist. Our culture tells us that if we feel shame, there is a problem with the way we are thinking.
The problem is, we do still feel it. The world doesn't offer an answer to the problem, it tells us to just try a little harder, think a little better and be a little more. The world guides people to be tortured or slowly killed as we shut down emotional quadrants to escape deep pain. We self-talk, self-build and seek to shift blame from oneself to something other. Too often we seek to die for our own shame. This is tragic because scripture tells us there is One who has died for it already.
The Voice of God
Our Creator tells a different story than we often tell ourselves. He says that those who look to him are never covered in shame (Ps 34:4-5). He says he will help us, not disgrace us, and if we set our face toward him, we will not be put to shame (Isa 50:7). He says that the righteous One suffered for the unrighteous to bring us to the Father and put our sin to death (1 Pet 3:18). The Bible teaches that we get to stand in the shadow of the Almighty and bask in the reality of no condemnation for those in that shadow (Rom 8:1).
Our shame is a consequence of being broken people in a cursed world. Instead of attempting to conquer it on our own, we must realize there is only One who has conquered it for us.
Acknowledging Shame, Embracing Jesus
Telling someone not to feel shame is like giving them blinders and asking them to put them on. Embracing shame doesn't mean that we sit or wallow depressed in our shame, but instead we leverage it as a sweet reminder of God’s outrageous grace and shocking forgiveness. If we are willing to listen, the Bible talks about shame from the beginning to end. In fact, Jesus explicitly came for shameful people, for marginalized, hurt and wounded individuals. Acknowledging our shame is a prerequisite to receiving a Savior. Embracing our shame is the starting point to experiencing that Savior. And knowing our Savior brings deeper repentance, heightened gratitude and freedom from shame only he can provide.
Speaking to Simon, Jesus said, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has washed my feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head. You gave me no kiss, but this woman has not ceased to kiss my feet since the time I came in. You did not anoint my head with oil, but this woman has anointed my feet with fragrant oil. Therefore I say to you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little” (Lk 7:45-47).
The contrast here is between a woman who deeply knew her shame and therefore what Jesus meant for her versus a man who had no clue how sinful and desperate he should have been and therefore how amazing Jesus truly is.
Being Controlled by Love
Shame should never control us, but it should draw us closer to the One who promises joy, hope and peace. Jesus doesn’t promise these things because of who we are, but because of who He is. "For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised" (2 Cor 5:14-15). So we don’t need to fight the impending sense of doom that we are unworthy. Left to ourselves, we are unworthy; it’s just the truth. That's why Jesus put himself in our place, we couldn't pay the debt of sin on our own. Embracing the humility of that truth may at first be painful, but understanding God’s reality of goodness toward unworthy sinners is the balm that covers all shame with joy in Christ.
Instead of teaching people to ignore or deny their shame, let's use it for the purpose God intended: to point to him, to reveal our need for him, to draw us into relationship with Him, and to see his incredible beauty and his kind grace. We should not and do not need to stay in shame, but if we truly want to “conquer it,” we must run to the One who covers it with his blood.
He is more than able to save and free us from even the darkest, shame-filled pits.
Rebekah Hannah is a biblical counselor at The Grace Center for Biblical Counseling in Jacksonville, Florida. She is married to Andrew and has three daughters.