Have you noticed how people use the word “shame” in different ways? What is the relationship between these perspectives on shame? These questions motivated me to write a newly published article in Themelios called “Have Theologians No Sense of Shame? How the Bible Reconciles Objective and Subjective Shame.” In it, I hope people will better grasp shame’s theological and practical significance.Everyone agrees that shame is a pervasive problem. Yet, in books and articles, we find writers often talk past one another. Missionaries and anthropologists speak of “honor-shame” cultures. Psychologists describe shame as an individual, emotional experience. Strangely, theologians typically say little about the topic, despite it being a destructive part of the human experience.
What is “Shame”?
Christian scholars tend to treat guilt as “objective” and shame merely a “subjective.” This misunderstanding undermines our ability to develop a practical theology of honor and shame. Therefore, this article demonstrates how the Bible helps us have an integrated understanding of shame in its theological, psychological, and social dimensions.
Why do Christian scholars seemingly overlook such an important biblical and life theme? Within Western theology, why do people have a shameless preference for legal-metaphors? No doubt, there are many reasons for this.
People have several hidden assumptions about “shame” that are based on partial truths. For instance, many in the church have the impression that shame is a “subjective” problem. It is concerned with psychology and culture, not theology, which is primarily about “objective” truth. As a result, honor-shame language seems ill-suited to describe ultimate realities, like God and salvation from sin.
A Unified and Biblical Perspective of Shame
The essay first corrects this misunderstanding by clarifying the meaning of “shame.” I present a unified view of shame, one that includes a subjective and an objective dimension. The following definition of “shame” brings together the primary ways that people use the concept of shame.
Shame is the fear, pain, or state of being regarded unworthy of acceptance in social relationships.
Shame is multi-faceted. It is a theological, psychological, and social concept. The Bible helps us reconcile the various understandings people have about this topic. In fact, the Bible uses honor and shame language both to describe the world’s most serious problem and its solution. Evangelicals want to have biblically faithful theologies and culturally meaningful ministries.
To attain this goal, one needs a more robust view of shame.
So, the latter half of the article demonstrates the theological significance of distinguishing subjective and objective shame. With a more holistic perspective of shame, we can explain the meaning of sin and its consequences. In addition, we will find a corresponding perspective of salvation. Specifically, I identify six ways that Scripture uses honor and shame to depict humanity’s problem and its solution.
In short, the Bible shows us how Jesus overcomes human shame and displays divine honor.
When we recognize that Scripture provides an integrated framework for understanding shame (and honor), we can discern fresh ways the Bible can shape our ministries, whether evangelism, counseling, missions, etc.
I hope the article spurs long-needed conversation about the significance of honor and shame in theology and in ministry practice. Pass it around your own ministry team and see what ideas percolate among you.