The Goodness of Shame

Repentance vs. Emotional Healing

The western world is not united on much. However, there may be one thing that draws nearly everyone together. It is the attempt to banish the idea that we should ever be ashamed of ourselves or our actions. You see this mentality everywhere you turn. Oprah Winfrey recently commented on her use of a weight loss drug, despite the stigma attached to such weight-loss “cheating”: “‘I now use it as I feel I need it, as a tool to manage not yo-yoing,’ Winfrey said, adding that she’s ‘absolutely done with the shaming from other people and particularly myself.’”

I’m not particularly interested in how people feel about taking weight loss drugs, but I am interested in the modern quest to banish shame to the outer darkness of polite society. As a part of thinking through how modern therapeutic thinking has gained ground (and done much harm) in the church, I keep coming back to the idea of shame. Shame is also treated in Christians circles much like the plague: we must rid ourselves of shame at all costs. And by this I do not mean rid ourselves of shame by taking our guilt to the cross to find forgiveness from the Lord. No, many in the evangelical church, taking their cues from the wider culture, insist that we must instead make sure that we never feel shame. Shame is treated as a disease. And the cure is convincing ourselves that we have nothing to be ashamed of in the first place. Are you a mom who feels shame because you can’t live up to the Instagram ideal? Are you a dad who struggles with shame because you work too much due to anxiety about paying the bills? Banish the thought.

There are, of course, all sorts of unrealistic, and frankly unbiblical, expectations we can face in life. Mothers are called to be faithful to what God commands, not to some bogus influencer lifestyle, and so on. But the contemporary evangelical aversion to shame goes much further than that. It is an attempt to eliminate the very idea of shame, to portray shame as a harmful feeling to be jettisoned, like any other injurious emotion. Popular authors such as Brené Brown have had a large impact on many in Christian churches. She defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance, connection or belonging.” Following her lead, one Christian author (selected at random from countless possibilities to be found online) insists that “living in shame is neither healthy nor part of God’s plan.” Dealing with shame is routinely put in therapeutic terms by Christian counselors adopting the therapeutic models of worldly psychologists:

Shame is one of the most difficult emotions that can affect you. It is hard to spot on your own, yet it can pervade through almost every area of your life. Overcoming shame is difficult to do. Yet by meditating on Bible verses about shame, you can walk toward the light of healing that God provides.

In a culture defined by the “triumph of the therapeutic” shame needs healing, not repentance.

Scripture, however, is quite clear that shame is a good thing, or at least is a necessary aspect of living in a world defined by God’s moral law. Shame is like the heat gauge in a car. When the needle rises you know that disaster will come if something is not done, and done quickly. Shame is the sign in the human heart that one has sinned, that things are not as they should be. Shame always comes in the wake of sin, unless one’s heart has become hardened through repeated, unrepentant indulgence so that it no longer feel shame (Philippians 3:19; Hebrews 3:13). The Apostle Paul repeatedly calls fellow believers to account by telling them that their actions are shameful: “I say this to your shame” (1 Corinthians 6:5; 15:34); “it is shameful for a woman to speak in church” (1 Corinthians 14:35); etc.

Our world needs more shame, not less. In Romans 1:26, Paul, writing about lesbian sexual sin, says that it is a “dishonorable passion.” While dishonorable is a different Greek word than shame, the thought is nearly identical: there are certain actions that bring shame upon those who carry them out, that (should) disgrace them. Homosexual actions and desires fall into that category. They are “shameless acts” (Romans 1:27) in the sense that shame has not led, as it is meant to, to revulsion and repentance, but has been flaunted and abandoned. In Ephesians 5:12 Paul writes of such sinful sexual actions that “it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret.” When an entire society attempts to rid itself of shame by celebrating that which should be abhorred, sin spreads its destructive power all the more (see Romans 1:32). Shame, on the other hand, is a powerful force to limit open evil in society.

It is not just sexual sin that falls into this category. All sin creates shame. The desire to suppress it cannot be successful, though it may for a time appear to be so. God will not allow the human conscience to suppress the effects of sinful rebellion completely. Gay “pride” is a perfect example: the attempt to suppress shame and celebrate wickedness may seem outwardly successful: look at all the happy marchers, and happy couples on TV commercials. Are they feeling the effects of their shame? Yes, in fact. Their attempt to crush the voice of their consciences comes out in other ways, especially in the fanatical, even violent, zeal with which they attempt to prevent anyone from calling their sin what it really is. A teenager in Florida will be charged with a felony for doing circles in his truck on a gay pride rainbow painting in the middle of an intersection. He was caught after a weeklong manhunt. We still don’t know who planted the pipe bombs at the Republican and Democratic headquarters in January 2021. The cake maker Jack Phillips has been relentlessly hounded for refusing to create cakes celebrating homosexuality or transgenderism. Can you imagine similar treatment for someone who refused to create a design celebrating a potential client’s favorite football team? No one would care. They would simply find another cake maker. Jack Phillips delenda est. Shame—the voice of conscience—cannot be wholly extinguished, though it can be re-directed.

The world wants nothing to do with shame. Many Christians, as is so often the case, simply follow the signals the world sends them. Shame is extremely unpleasant. In the world of therapeutic thinking, unpleasant feelings must be eliminated at all costs. The real shame (literally) in this is that it completely bypasses the biblical answer to shame, which is the cross of Christ (Romans 10:10–12):

For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him.

We all feel shame when we do wrong. We should. It shows us that our consciences are working as God intended. But if we will lay down our claims to self-righteousness and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ we will be saved, we will be justified, we will be in the right with a holy God. And that is the only way sinners can find the solution to their shame: not by hiding it, not by pretending it doesn’t exist, not by lowering God’s standard so they can more easily meet it, but by admitting their sin openly to God, and seeking his forgiveness. He will freely grant it. He bestows his riches freely on all who call on him in faith.

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Ben C. Dunson is Founding and Contributing Editor of American Reformer. He is also Visiting Professor of New Testament at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (Greenville, SC), having previously taught at Reformed Theological Seminary (Dallas, TX), Reformation Bible College (Sanford, FL), and Redeemer University (Ontario, Canada). He lives in the northern suburbs of Dallas with his wife and four boys.

4 thoughts on “The Goodness of Shame

  1. Unfortunatelly, I think something even more nefarious is going on. Given the frequent insults of “racist”, “nazi”, “islamophobe”, “sexist”, “incel”, “transphobe” and all those other “ists” and “phobes” that they can think of, they are quite good at resorting to shame tactics and namecalling. Instead of truly abolishing shame (which would be bad enough on its own), they praise and celebrate vices and sin, while shaming and abhorring virtue and righteousness. In the gospels, (some) prostitutes are presented as ashamed and repentant, while the pharisees are presented (most of the time) as prideful. Our society has managed to create pharisaic prostitutes (just using prostitution as an example, there are any number of similar situations) who say things like: “I might stream myself having sex on camera for money, but at least I’m not a jugdemental person like you”. Thank you for the article Mr. Dunson

  2. Regarding shame and the therapeutic, it is unfortunate that we take all-or-nothing approaches to them. The modern revulsion to shame is, perhaps, an overreaction to the overuse of shame by the Church during Christendom. While the total rejection of the therapeutic by some in the Evangelical world is an overreaction to the overreaction to the overuse of shame.

    When plagued by feelings of shame, we need to first ask ourselves before whom do we feel ashamed. Do we feel ashamed before God, or before people, or before both. IMO, the overuse of shame in the past included an attempt to make people feel spiritually/morally inferior to other people because of some transgression, and quite often a sexual one. In those cases, making people feel ashamed was a way of dominating them. That idea of feeling ashamed before people, for the most part, does not belong in the Christian’s arsenal of weapons used to battle sin. Why? It is because we all sin, and we do so everyday. And not only that, we are all vulnerable to committing horrible sins. And it isn’t just the Scriptures that remind us of those facts, Church history does too.

    However, when we cannot honestly pray the prayer of the Tax Collector from the parable of the two men praying on at least a daily basis, we’ve lost too much of a sense of the kind of shame we should feel. And the loss of that kind of shame might suggest that we have forgotten the disparity between God’s perfect holiness and our own “goodness.” A true sense of shame also helps us to empathize with other struggling sinners. But that kind of shame should never confuse us into feeling shame before others. Why? It is because unlike God, all people are our peers in sin. That does not mean that we all commit the same sins or that we are all equally sinful, but it simply means we all should feel the need to pray that prayer of the Tax Collector.

  3. Professor Dunson, thank you for this article. It’s title reminds me of a book entitled “The Grace of Shame” by Tim Bayly and others out of Warhorn Media. I too don’t think that shame should/will ever be eliminated…however I do think the word’s usage makes it sometimes slippery to define.

    I’d like to know your thoughts on all the ‘…put to shame..’ verses in the Psalms. David clearly doesn’t want shame, but prays for it to be put upon his enemies and the wicked. Seems more tangible than conscience in this usage…but a conscience stricken by the truth can be pretty painful when you’re not living it.

    In other usage, it seems that shame is the bottom of a spectrum where pride is the top. Neither of those are to be commended, but is humility a midpoint? I expect that God gives no more grace to the ashamed than he does to the proud, short of repentance.

    Lastly in Christian recovery circles, I think that shame is often juxtaposed against condemnation (Romans 8:1). I don’t think they are opposites, however once someone has been forgiven and walking in the light, there seems to still be a form of shame or embarrassment that often keeps believers from experiencing the fullness of joy that freedom in Christ secures.

    Grandma had the status, had proved she wanted my good, and spoke from a position of maturity when she told me I should be ashamed of myself for some flippant word or indiscretion. Clearly the Holy Spirit wields that ability to convict perfectly and at all times. I’m hesitant when you say there should be more shame in the world unless you consider shame as part of that ‘megaphone of pain’ that God uses to rouse the deaf world. Blessings.

  4. A bit of friendly pushback here: in spite of the inappropriate emphasis given to it in the culture and the church these days, I do believe there is still a valid category of shame, “brokenness”, trauma, etc. actually being the result of someone else’s sin against a person, i.e., actual victimhood, which calls for other aspects of discipleship along with personal repentance of sin, though the sin of unforgiveness is often involved. Sometimes shame is misplaced and the conscience is warped through the sin of others, especially during childhood.

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