In the library of popular worship songs, guilt and shame are often referred to in the same breath – ‘you took my guilt and shame’ – but herein lies a trap, as the Bible does not treat them as interchangeable concepts. The Bible is an Eastern book, and its concept of shame is an Eastern concept. In Biblical terms, shame is closer to embarrassment, to losing face, than it is to guilt.
Shame is fundamentally harmful, and in this, secular agencies, thinkers and counsellors can be way ahead of the Church. If science is the exploration of verifiable truth, it must ultimately be a ladder to God, and this includes the science of psychology. It’s important to draw from modern wisdom, just as we draw from medical advancements, but the understanding we need has already been spelled out in the Bible.
Luke 1, 24-25 (NIV): ‘After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant…25 ‘The Lord has done this for me,’ she said. ‘In these days he has shown his favour and taken away my disgrace among the people.’’
Barrenness was considered a great personal embarrassment in ancient Jewish culture. A woman’s inability to bear children was a source of shame, as seen in Isaiah 54 (NIV).
‘Sing, barren woman,
you who never bore a child…
Do not be afraid; you will not be put to shame.
Do not fear disgrace; you will not be humiliated.
You will forget the shame of your youth…’
Shame involves turning on ourselves, and when we associate that with reverence for God – needing to feel bad in order to then feel forgiven – we tie a high view of God to a low view of ourselves, creating significant cognitive dissonance. The good news, as I understand it, is that when we talk about biblical shame, we are not talking about guilt. We are talking about embarrassment, exposure and humiliation. Certainly, this seems to be Paul’s understanding. In 2 Cor 7,14, he wrote of Titus’ visit:
NIV: ‘I had boasted to him about you, and you have not embarrassed me.’
NKJV: ‘For if in anything I have boasted to him about you, I am not ashamed.’
Shame and embarrassment are interchangeable concepts, which seems to be exactly what Paul is saying – “I spoke well of you, and you’ve not made a fool out of me (paraphrase, my own).”
My view is that shame, which by necessity involves turning on ourselves, is an inherent and fundamental aspect of human brokenness, and the first consequence of the fall. Whether we read the creation story in Genesis as a literal account or a ‘big story’, relaying the key truths of creation and the relationship between God and humankind, the message about shame is the same – we did this to ourselves.
Gen 2, 25 (NIV): Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.
Gen 3, 10 (NIV): He answered, ‘I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.’
God didn’t ask Adam and Eve to hide, or to feel anything but self-acceptance about their naked bodies. It was their self-judgement that separated them from God. When we embraced judgement we lost innocence, along with the easy connection between creator and creation. Only God can judge, and in elevating ourselves to that level, we embraced shame. Human-kind turned upon itself.
Shame also discriminates. It exposes, humiliates and belittles those who are suffering in ways they are not responsible for. In Zephaniah 3, 19 (NIV), we see its impact on those with disabilities (the lame):
‘At that time I will deal
with all who oppressed you.
I will rescue the lame;
I will gather the exiles.
I will give them praise and honour
in every land where they have suffered shame.’
Throughout history, the disabled have been exposed, humiliated, mistreated and isolated because of their conditions, and society’s lack of willingness to include them. This verse spells out God’s desire to liberate the disabled from shame, receiving praise and honour instead.
Shame discriminates against those with a low social position. Consider the old caste system in India, which the Hindu authorities have been working to make more compassionate since 1949. Under the old order, a person was born into one of several castes, and were unable to move from that caste for the duration of their lives. If a person were born Untouchable, or Dalit as they are now called – the lowest of all castes – they had to live in poverty beyond the walls of any settlement, segregated from others and considered unclean. Forbidden from entering temples and schools, and barred from drinking water from certain wells, their very touch was considered a pollutant.
Biblical shame is not so different. Consider the woman with internal bleeding in Mark 5. Her condition made her an outcast, and because of strict hygiene laws she was forbidden from physical contact with others. By pressing through the crowd and touching Jesus she risked being stoned to death, but when she touched him, the source of her shame was relieved, and that is rather the point. Jesus came to free us from shame, among other things; not to encourage us to feel it.
As with every other matter of faith, Jesus is our perfect example, and we can learn from how he responded to shame. In Luke 18, 32 (NKJV), Jesus prophesied of the shame he would know on the cross:
‘For He will be delivered to the Gentiles and will be mocked and insulted and spit upon.’
Hundreds of years before this came to pass, Isaiah wrote of the shame of the coming saviour in Isaiah 53, 3 (NKJV):
‘He is despised and rejected by men,
A Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.
And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him;
He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.’
In Hebrews 12:2 (NKJV), we see how Jesus responded to that shame:
‘…looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.’
He despised the shame – the humiliation, the exposure, the mockery of Almighty God, reviled and ridiculed by his own creation. There are many who reject the Christian faith because they can’t get their head around this – that God would choose to suffer at the hands of those whose lungs he had filled with the breath of life, but this despising of shame is what makes the Christian message unique. Jesus was willing to go through that, along with the extraordinary agonies of the cross, to draw us to himself.
He chose the joy set before him (the salvation of humanity) and considered shame beneath contempt. Perhaps then, this could be our attitude too. When tempted to turn on ourselves, or to examine every reason we might be rejected, or to measure ourselves against others, we can rise above it, looking to Jesus. When we see others, exposed, belittled and humiliated, we can be part of God’s answer for them. We can stand side by side with Jesus, and despise the shame.