The Ineffectiveness of Shame

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height… The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

1 Samuel 16:7

When engaging in social issues, we must remember that the above scripture verse is true of the victim and the victimizer. God sees people differently than we see them. We see a “scary black man” and the Lord sees a gentle friend and father. We see a “blue collar white guy” covered in demonic-looking tattoos and the Lord sees a teacher and a mentor to young men.

One thing we learned when we started a nonprofit to fight human trafficking in the Baltimore area was that you can’t create cultural/systemic change with shame. We saw some organizations trying to do just that. But shame creates either defensiveness or hiddenness in the person who needs to hear your message. They will either become more entrenched in defending their sin or just learn how to hide their sin better. Trying to shame people into change is the opposite of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Not only that but, practically speaking, shame doesn’t work.

Instead, the message must be delivered with hope. We must see people the way God sees them, past their sin and into who God created them to be. In our case, instead of trying to shame men into not buying sex or pornography, it looked like inviting men to be the protectors and defenders of the vulnerable that God had created them to be. It meant not only raising awareness but raising hope and rejecting shame.

Shame disempowers and debilitates people into inaction. It does this to the very people you need to be active and engaged. If shame is your primary way of trying change the culture of racism, it’s time to find a more effective tactic and one that aligns with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

This is what is so radically different about the gospel. God looked at Saul (who would become Paul) and instead of just seeing someone who was persecuting the Church, He saw the future apostle who would write most of the New Testament. If Saul the persecutor lived in our culture today, one group would try to shame him into changing and another group would just want to sentence him to life in prison. If it was up to these groups in our country, Saul would have never become Paul.

Whenever one person dehumanizes another, they themselves become dehumanized. Whenever one person degrades another, they themselves become degraded. Both the victim and the victimizer simultaneously get degraded and dehumanized in the same act of injustice. The antidote is seeing the image of God in the victim and calling out the injustice. The antidote also involves seeing the image of God in the victimizer and bringing conviction instead of shame. Conviction is a combination of hard truth mixed with hope and love. Conviction says your actions are wrong but your identity was created for more. It speaks to the heart of who God created a person to be.

True conviction always carries with it hopefulness. This is what allows a person not to retreat into defensiveness or hiddenness. It’s hope and love that help someone face their sin long enough to move into repentance. Shame can never do that.

Jesus, help us to have eyes to see people the way You see them. Help us to see past the sin in a person’s life and into who You created them to be. And move us past shame, Lord. Convict us of our own sin and give us the hopefulness of the gospel, that You are changing us from the inside out through Your Holy Spirit. May we not shame ourselves or others. Instead, Jesus, may we move from conviction into repentance. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Start with the Holy Spirit

Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it—I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while—yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done.

2 Corinthians 7:8-11

One of the main jobs of the Holy Spirit is to bring conviction to our hearts that leads to repentance. Paul calls this “Godly sorrow.” The Holy Spirit has a way of bringing both conviction and comfort. Our sin is exposed, but we are never shamed. We see how far short we’ve fallen, and yet the Spirit shows us how God sees us with eyes of love and compassion. This is the inner work that the Holy Spirit does from the inside out.

Paul contrasts this with “worldly sorry” which brings death. Worldly sorrow often comes in the form of guilt and shame. These are counterfeits of true conviction and repentance. Worldly sorrow exposes sin but it does so in a way that keeps the focus on us. Rather than leading to repentance it leads either to a folding in (despair, hopelessness, shame,) or an exploding out (rage, hatred, violence, revenge). Worldly sorrow is not an inner work of the Spirit but an external work trying to use external pressures to bring inner change. It never works.

As followers of Jesus we must allow Godly sorrow to lead us to repentance. This is the beginning of change. We must allow the conviction of the Spirit to do its work. But if we find ourselves slipping either into despair or violence, shame or revenge, then we’ve entered the realm of worldly sorrow. And worldly sorrow always leads to the death of things rather than new life.

Godly sorrow will always start with repentance. And true repentance will lead to “fruit in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8). Paul lists some of the fruit of real repentance: “earnestness“, “indignation“, “alarm“, “longing, concern, and readiness to see justice done.”

Our culture, which promotes worldly sorrow and its toxic fruit, so often wants to skip past the inner work of the Spirit and get straight to “doing something.” This approach so often produces self-righteousness. I saw this when I was helping to start a nonprofit that addresses human trafficking. When we don’t begin with personal conviction of our own sin and repentance, we will so often approach justice issues with an air of self-righteousness and a messiah complex. Without the Spirit, we will forget that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12).

If we want change in our society, we need to ask the Spirit to clean out our own heart first (Psalm 51:10; 139:23-24) . Then we repent for the sin that gets revealed. Start there. We all need to start there.

It was Jesus, through the unity of the Holy Spirit, who managed to bind together two groups that hated each other and then call it the Body of Christ. Jews and Gentiles couldn’t have been more different and their distain for each other couldn’t have been greater. Yet the Spirit managed to bring them together and create the Church out of the two groups. Jesus brought peace and the Spirit gave both groups access to the Father.

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

Ephesians 2:14-18

It all begins with the work of the Spirit. It all begins with Godly sorrow that leads to repentance. When that comes first, the fruit will be exactly what our culture needs–one new humanity out of the two.

Overcoming Shame

Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves. 

Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”

He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”

And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”

The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”

Genesis 3:7-12

Have you ever noticed that humanity swings from shame and guilt about sin to pride and blame about the same sin? We see it start all the way back in the Garden of Eden, and it is still happening today.

Here’s the pattern:

  1. We sin.
  2. We feel guilt about sin. Instead of surrendering to conviction and repentance, shame begins to tell us we are our sin. Shame makes us want to hide.
  3. Then we reach a breaking point with shame and we realize we can’t hide anymore.
  4. Instead of repenting, we pridefully embrace our sin (essentially agreeing with shame that we are our sin) Instead of hiding, we are proud of it. We stop calling it sin. We call it our identity.
  5. We blame others for making us feel ashamed in the first place.

This is the pattern we see with Adam in the Garden. As a pastor I have seen this pattern play out over and over again in every possible sin you can image. Can you see it? Let me give an example. Promiscuity:

  1. We sleep around.
  2. We feel guilt about our sin. But instead of surrendering to conviction and repentance, shame begins to tell us we are our sin. We begin to believe we are promiscuous. That is who we are. Shame makes us want to hide.
  3. Then we reach a breaking point with shame and we realize we can’t hide anymore.
  4. Instead of repenting, we pridefully embrace our sin (essentially agreeing with shame that we are our sin) Instead of hiding, we are proud of it. We stop calling it sin. We call it our identity but with a new name. We call it sexual freedom.
  5. We blame others for making us feel ashamed in the first place. We attack the purity culture and anyone that would disagree with a lifestyle of multiple sexual partners. We call them oppressive and repressive.

We see this same pattern in the LGBTQ community. We see this same pattern with those who battle addiction. I’ve seen men do this when they get caught in infidelity. Over and over again, humanity seems to do the same thing in response to shame.

But the problem is that changing the definition of sin in order to identify with it doesn’t get rid of shame; it partners with shame. Pridefully embracing our sin so as to not feel ashamed anymore is like putting a hard cast over an infected wound. We think we are throwing off the shackles of shame, but really we are just burying it under a thick layer of pride.

You see, shame and pride are both saying the same thing. They are saying, “You are your sin.” Shame calls sin what it really is whereas pride gives sin a new, friendly name. But both declare the same thing, “You are this thing and you will never be anything else.”

This is not how we throw off the shackles of shame! We were never meant to live in shame. We are not our sin! That is not who we are, it is something we’ve done. It is no longer our identity.

To truly get free from shame, we need to repent of our sin and embrace who God says that we are in Christ. We need to hear His words of love and affirmation for us even while we embrace His words of conviction about our sin. When we call sin what it really is, when we name it and reject it as a part of our identity, and when we receive our true identity in Christ, shame has no place to plant its evil roots in our life.

Paul explains it like this:

Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

1 Corinthians 6:9-11

Embracing your sin as your identity will not get rid of shame. It simply covers it with pride. Just as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that,” the same is true of shame. Pride cannot drive out shame; only finding your identity in Christ can do that. Repentance opens us up to receive the perfect love of the Father and hear Him speak to us about who we really are in His eyes.