Let’s face it. No one likes to feel shame. The idea of our worst thoughts and actions being exposed for the world to see is enough to send us into hiding. We spend a lot of time and energy trying to outwit and outrun our shame; but what if there is a purpose for it? What if the God we read and sing about, who “… will give a crown of beauty for ashes, a joyous blessing instead of mourning …” (Isa. 61:3), takes our shame and uses it to transform us into His likeness?
Shame is a natural part of life. Social scientists and psychologists have determined that it is one of the basic neurological responses that is wired into us from infancy. Shame brings with it the inclination for us to disappear into the shadows and darkness where we were never meant to live. We learn quickly from the reactions of others which thoughts and behaviors are acceptable and which are not. On the opposite end of the scale is pride, which moves us courageously into the spotlight.
When Adam and Eve were in the garden and made the conscious choice to disobey God, they experienced shame for the first time. As they realized the error of their ways, they made a frantic, albeit feeble, attempt to hide themselves. They did so for fear of being exposed, as if God in His omnipotence, was not already aware of their failings. He asked, “Where are you?” To this Adam, perhaps calmed and comforted at the thought that God would still care to seek him out, responded with an admission of guilt.
Only a chapter later we find their offspring in a similar position. Cain, who has just murdered his sibling, is approached by God with the question, “Where is your brother?” While Cain’s response is not quite the same turning point as his father’s, there is a marked similarity. These passages paint a picture of a God who enters into our darkest moments where shame abounds and desires to draw us out. His questions are an invitation to confess, which is the only key to freedom.
“But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness.” (1 John 1:9, NLT)
I believe this is the purpose for our shame. It points out the areas in our lives that we have not yet surrendered to Jesus, and the point at which we strayed from His good and perfect will. The paradoxical beauty of shame is that while it doesn’t feel good, it can be the catalyst to propel us forward into the good things God has in store for us. Without shame, it would be difficult to admit, let alone recognize, when we have wandered down the wrong path. Without this realization of sin, there can be no repentance.
We read in 2 Samuel 12 that David sinned against God in the matter of Bathsheba and Uriah. Both he and the woman caught in adultery (John 8) felt overwhelming shame. We can certainly empathize with them as their deepest, darkest secrets were exposed. And yet, in these moments of utter humiliation, they were presented with the opportunity to repent. By the riches of His grace, they (and we) can be forgiven. “He is so rich in kindness and grace that He purchased our freedom with the blood of His Son and forgave our sins” (Eph 1:7, NLT).
If shame has the ability to lead us to a place of repentance, how can we begin to embrace it? We find the answer in the Scriptural examples—David and Bathsheba; the woman freed from adultery; Peter following his third denial of Christ in His final hours (Luke 22); and the woman at the well, who was reminded of “everything [she] ever did” (John 4). These examples teach us that shame alone is just a warning, a red flag to alert us that something has gone horribly wrong. When our shame comes face to face with the Savior, it can be conquered by the hope of transformation. Even the ultimate shame that Jesus endured on the cross became the picture of triumph over the sin and evil that vainly attempted to hold Him there. There is glorious victory in His resurrection. “It is by His stripes that we are healed” (Isa. 53:5). When the presence of God enters into the very places that we long to keep secret, He meets us, not with condemnation, but with grace. For it is the kindness of Jesus extended to us in our darkest moments that leads to repentance.
How do we begin to come out of hiding and step into the marvelous light of Christ? Scripture hints at the answer: “It is not good for man to be alone” (Gen. 2:8). While this verse is earmarked for weddings, it speaks to the importance of the accountability we find in community. This can be a frightening thought. More than the discomfort that shame’s presence brings, the disapproval and judgment of others can be a heavy motivation for concealing the things that, when revealed and confessed, can actually free us.
James challenges the church to be different by praying for those whose shame leads them to confession (James 5:15, 16). The church must be the safe place where sins can be named in assurance that the One whose name is above every name can heal and forgive. By ushering one another into the restorative presence of Jesus, shame fulfills its purpose. It loses its power and surrenders to the forgiveness of God.
As long as we are on earth, shame will be a part of our reality. But that doesn’t mean it has to end in our ruin. The enemy desires nothing more than to render us ineffective for the kingdom of God. As long as shame relegates us to the shadows, he wins. May our broken and contrite hearts be the place where Christ’s presence is welcome and makes us more like Him.