Have you ever heard another believer tell you, “You should be ashamed of yourself!”?
Perhaps you’ve sat in church and heard your pastor say how disappointed he is in you (and the rest of the “guilty” in the congregation) for not serving in this year’s Vacation Bible School or for not giving enough to God to meet this year’s budget.
Or, maybe you’ve heard that inner voice telling you that you will never be worthy of God’s love and forgiveness because of what you’ve done.
Shame is damaging to the soul—and to the church. And it has no place in the body of Christ.
Guilt vs. Shame
There is a difference between guilt—feeling sorry for what we’ve done—and shame, which is feeling badly about who we are. Guilt, often a gentle conviction by the Holy Spirit, can motivate us to change and try again. Shame drives us to despair and resignation, and ultimately makes us give up.
Guilt is a reaction to something we’ve done (I’ve sinned!), whereas shame is an identification with who we are (I’m a sinner). Adam and Eve felt both guilt at their sin (disobeying God) and shame at their nakedness (their condition as sinners before God). Yet, a believer—who has been redeemed and restored in his relationship with Christ due to Christ’s atonement on the cross –can still be sorry for his sin (disobedience to God), yet never regretful of who he is (a sinner), because when he is in Christ, he is a new creation.
Shame is a tool of Satan’s – and can, at times, become a tool of other Christians – to beat down a person in order to manipulate their actions. Conviction by the Holy Spirit, on the other hand, is gentle and results in repentance and restoration of the believer’s relationship with God.
As believers, we should have nothing to do with shame – we shouldn’t be receiving it from other believers or our own thoughts, and we shouldn’t be casting it upon others. With a clear distinction between what is conviction by the Holy Spirit and what is shame—from our flesh or the fleshly actions of others—here are five ways shame is damaging the church and believers:
1. Shaming others obstructs the work of the Holy Spirit.
Shaming a person to get them to serve, volunteer, or stop their sinful ways is hurtful and degrading to the person as an individual. Yet, Scripture tells us “The kindness of God leads [us] to repentance” (Romans 2:4 NASB). And once we’ve repented, we have no reason for guilt or shame, because shame is not from God. Romans 8:1 tells us “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (ESV).
Remorse over our sin is a direct result of the Holy Spirit’s conviction on our hearts. Just as you and I cannot atone for our sins (we need Christ’s work on the cross to do that), we also cannot cause another person to feel sorry for their sin—we need to allow the Holy Spirit to do that. While it is our responsibility to lovingly confront sin within the body of Christ (Matthew 18:15-20), the key to that biblical process is the word lovingly.
Evangelist Billy Graham once said: “It is the Holy Spirit’s job to convict, God’s job to judge, and my job to love.” The wonderful thing about loving others (believers and unbelievers) and letting the Holy Spirit convict them of their sin, is that the Spirit does it kindly and gently (Romans 2:4). Shaming isn’t kind. Guilting someone into service isn’t kind either – it’s manipulative.
Instead of taking on the Holy Spirit’s role in someone else’s life by guilting or shaming them into repenting of their sin or volunteering to serve, pray for your patience to allow the Holy Spirit to work on His own, and pray for your fellow believer to be receptive to God’s voice, not necessarily yours.
2. Shame keeps people away from the body of Christ.
We might tend to think that if someone becomes so ashamed of themselves and their lifestyle, they will seek change and start coming to church. But it doesn’t usually work that way. People come to church when they see something in us, the church, that is attractive to them – something like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). They will seek to be a part of our fellowship if they know they will find hope, love, acceptance, and forgiveness among us.
When you and I desire to live like a Christ-follower, the Holy Spirit will convict us when our intentions aren’t right, when our behavior doesn’t glorify God, and when we compromise on our values and biblical convictions. When an unbeliever has experienced God knocking on the door of their hearts, they will seek to find their answers about God in a community where they are loved and accepted, guided, mentored, and exhorted in the Word. That is what the church is to be – a sanctuary for those who seek Christ, not a place to be personally shamed.
Ephesians 4:29-32 (ESV) illustrates the loving way believers should speak and act toward one another: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (ESV, emphasis added).
That instruction leaves no room for shaming, guilting, or manipulating another believer through our speech or actions. Rather than seeking to set other believers straight, let’s be a community of people who love one another and sincerely desire to build one another up, spiritually.
3. Shame focuses on our own efforts and failures to win God’s approval.
Ephesians 2:8-9 says we are saved by grace through faith and even that faith is not our own. It too is a gift from God. And our salvation is not a result of our own good works, so that we cannot boast that we’ve earned it. The boasting belongs to Christ alone, who earned our salvation and gifted it to us by faith. Yet, in our ambition and drive to succeed, we can beat ourselves up over our failures, and our inability to come to God from our own worth. In that case, our shame in how we performed is rooted in a self-focus and an inerrant theology that we must perform to win God’s approval. A healthy conviction of sin and a remorse over breaking the heart of God should lead us back to Him where we can confess our sins and receive the truth that our fellowship with the Savior and Father is restored (1 John 1:9). No shame attached.
As we forget about ourselves and our own success or failure, and focus on what Jesus has done for us, shame will melt way. And as we are ever aware of Jesus’ grace toward us, we can extend that same grace toward others.
4. Living with shame—or shaming other believers—ignores what Christ accomplished on the cross.
Our sense of shame is often connected to our wounds from the past. How you were once shamed can affect how you view yourself as a person. Perhaps you were told as a child you were worthless or lazy or stupid. Perhaps you had a father who told you that you’d never amount to anything. Or maybe your mother shamed you for not being “a good Christian girl.” Yet, Scripture assures believers that their past (and past labels) are irrelevant when they enter a relationship with Him. Second Corinthians 5:17 tells us: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old is gone, behold the new has come.” Shame has no hold on us when we believe and live as that “new creation” in Christ Jesus.
When we are in Christ, God has removed our sin “as far as the east is from the west” (Psalm 103:12), and therefore neither Satan, nor our own flesh, nor anyone else has the right to bring it back in front of us or shame us with it.
Instead of telling another believer, “You should be ashamed of yourself,” lovingly exhort them to “do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31 KJV). While it is biblical to confront a believer who is living in sin (Matthew 18:15-16), how we do that makes all the difference. Scripture commands, “first take the log out of your own eyes, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye!” (Matthew 7:5 NASB). And there is a reason we are to lovingly confront our sister or brother who is in sin. When we speak in love we will be heard, but a “person who speaks with the tongues of angels but does not have love” has “become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Corinthians 13:1 NASB).
5. Shame refuses to recognize/accept what Jesus bore on our behalf.
Scripture tells us Jesus bore our sin and shame on the cross. So why do we choose to continue to bear it ourselves – or heap it upon others?
Isaiah 53:3-6 tells us of the shame Jesus bore on our behalf:
“He was despised and rejected—
a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief.
We turned our backs on him and looked the other way.
He was despised, and we did not care.
Yet it was our weaknesses he carried;
it was our sorrows that weighed him down.
And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God,
a punishment for his own sins!
But he was pierced for our rebellion,
crushed for our sins.
He was beaten so we could be whole.
He was whipped so we could be healed.
All of us, like sheep, have strayed away.
We have left God’s paths to follow our own.
Yet the Lord laid on him
the sins of us all” (NLT).
As we live in the newness of life that Jesus gave us (2 Corinthians 5:17), we can keep shame from having a stronghold on us. And as we begin to live shame-free, we can keep from heaping that shame onto others, as well.
If you struggle with shame and want to understand more about Christ’s healing power on the cross, see Cindi’s books, Letting God Meet Yours Emotional Needs, and When a Woman Overcomes Life’s Hurts.