Is shame ever a good thing?
That’s a question I’ve been wrestling with for the last year.
About a year and a half ago I wrote a post for Her.meneutics called How “Modest is Hottest” is Hurting Christian Women. In it I criticized the way women are shamed for the way they dress, and my remarks about shame invited some push back from the readers. According to some of the commenters, there are times when shame can be a good thing. In fact, they explained, the Bible describes instances of appropriate shame.
Initially, I found this response to be cold and callous. How does shame square with the “good news” of Jesus Christ? As the church, is shame really the kind of message we want to be proclaiming?
However, the readers did raise a valid point. There are times in Scripture when shame is not always bad or wrong, but fitting. Twice in 1 Corinthians Paul rebukes believers for their blatant sin, writing, “I say this to your shame.” (4:14, 6:5) In 1 Peter 3:16, Peter urges the believers to keep a clear conscience so that “those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.” And then there is 1 Corinthians 1:27, in which we are told, “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.”
On the other hand, we have verses like Romans 10:11, which promises, “Anyone who believes in [Christ] will never be put to shame.” This same sentiment is echoed in Romans 9:33 and 1 Peter 2:6.
In the Bible, sometimes shame is appropriate, and sometimes it is not. What are we to make of the differences?
To figure out the distinction between “good shame” and “bad shame,” I first looked at the Greek and Hebrew. What I discovered is this: For the one word that we translate “shame,” there are about 5 different Hebrew words and 5 different Greek words. This means that we lose a lot of nuance when we translate the Bible into English. For instance, the Greek word that Paul uses to “shame” the Corinthians (entrepo) is different than the Greek word for shame in Romans 9:33 and 10:11 (aischyne).
At first I thought this distinction was a major breakthrough. Perhaps, I thought, the Greek words that connote positive shame do not describe “shame” as we English speakers understand it. Perhaps we need to translate positive shame as “conviction” or “disgust at the ugliness of sin.”
Unfortunately this solution doesn’t work. The Greek word aischyne is used positively and negatively. Aischyne is both the shame from which believers are free, as well as the shame God uses to disgrace the wise, and the shame that, at times, we should feel about wicked actions.
After reading a lot of commentaries on the Greek words for shame and how to understand them, I didn’t find a real concrete answer. Scholars have a pretty good idea about what these various Greek words mean, and the closest translation is indeed “shame.” However, the meaning also depends a bit on the context. In fact, some of the Greek words for “shame” can also mean “disgrace,” “humiliation,” “embarrassment,” or even “reverence,” but the context is the key.
So where does that leave us?
Well-Placed Shame v. Misplace Shame
As I looked through sermons and commentaries, the best explanation I could find was a sermon by John Piper that he preached in 1988. In it he makes a distinction between Well-placed Shame and Misplaced Shame. He explains, “There are some situations where shame is exactly what we should feel. And there are some situations where we shouldn’t.” Piper then offers the following markers for misplaced shame:
1. When well-placed shame lingers too long–Think of that mistake you just can’t let go of, or the “accuser” in Rev. 12:10, who brings up past sins to shame us
2. Feeling shame for something that glorifies God–Think of Paul declaring that he is “not ashamed of the gospel” in Rom. 1:16
3. Feeling shame for something we didn’t do –Has anyone ever made you feel ashamed, either for something they did to you, said to you, or said about you?
One of the reasons I find this distinction to be so helpful is that it speaks to the inappropriate shame that often accompanies modesty. Shame is misplaced when it shames the body (since the human body is not shameful but, according to God, quite “good”), and when it assumes sin on the part of the woman. Too often, women are shamed for something they didn’t do, accused of seduction or some other devious intention, though their actual motives weren’t sinister at all.
This has happened to me a number of times. Since modesty is such a relative principle, I have worn outfits that I thought were perfectly modest, only to be reprimanded by a Christian whose standards were different from mine. In those instances, I felt shame about my body and shame about myself, but that shame was entirely misplaced.
What strikes me about the difference between well-placed and misplaced shame is the function. In the Bible, well-placed shame functions as an eye-opener, or a moment of recognition. It is the point when we become convicted about the true ugliness of a deed. The Bible repeatedly affirms this kind of shame as being spiritually significant; many times Scripture admonishes those who are “without shame.”
However, shame is not the dwelling place of the believer. It does not motivate transformation, transparency, restoration, or freedom. Instead, you can identify misplaced shame by the following characteristics:
- It clings to hiddenness
- It paralyzes us from acting, or it produces legalistic behavior modification without heart change
- It destroys rather than restores
- It enslaves rather than sets free
- It rejects and condemns the person, not the action
While well-placed shame can be a manifestation of the Holy Spirit, misplaced shame is surely the tool of the Devil. As already mentioned, the “accuser,” Satan, repeatedly hurls condemnation at the saints, shaming them with their sins and burdening them with guilt (Rev. 12:10). However, the gospel reminds us that this shame is misplaced. In Christ, we are forgiven and restored. We are reconciled to God, and NOTHING in Heaven or on earth can separate us from the love of God (Rom. 8:38-39).
So yes, there is a place for shame. Shame can be a source of conviction, but it can also be a weapon of tremendous destruction. In a world that is simultaneously wracked with shame yet also shameless, I suppose this Scriptural tension is fitting. But let us also remember this: shame will not inspire the faith and salvation for which Jesus died. In John 3:17 Jesus explains, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
Jesus saved us, not by shaming us but by showing us the most abundant grace. God’s grace is the antidote to misplaced shame, and it is that same grace that we Christians are called to share with the world.
What do you think??
Another thing about shame is that we use the word to mean both a state of being and a feeling about ourselves. It’s one thing to be in a state of shame, which I think is what Paul means in 1 Corinthians 4 and 6, and another to feel shamed, which is what I think Satan tries to do to us by accusing us.
In one of those bloggy coincidences, Sharon, I wrote on some of this today too, about how no matter what we do that might be shameful we still are fully loved by God and fully accepted by him.
If being ashamed makes us to be hopeless of Gods grace then its bad. Otherwise shame and humility toward God can be necessary for a believer because none of us is without sin.(By the way, why I cant comment on previous post?)
John, regarding the last post, I had requested that you message me privately about any further comments on the issue you raised. Instead, you continued to comment publicly. That is why your comments never posted. Again, you are free to message me privately if you wish.
I really liked your post. And I’m proud and happy to see you stand up against negative and shameful comments about your appearance. My question is: yes, we should never feel shameful about our bodies because they are beautiful and we have no control over how we look and how others perceive us (aka someone thinks our outfit is seducing but that was not your intention) BUT why should we feel shame for thinking lustful thoughts? Why is lust inherently shameful when it is a completely natural part of human sexuality? Lust for your husband within marriage is acceptable whereas lust for a stranger is not. But we can’t prevent it from happening. We are human. I think the shame around this, something we can’t control, represses our sexuality and makes it more difficult for us to eventually flip the switch (get married) and suddenly allow ourselves to un-repress our natural, sexual being.
My question above is somewhat inspired by this article http://www.patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism/2011/11/the-purity-culture-and-sexual-dysfunction.html
which I can personally relate to. I would be curious to hear your thoughts on this.
Hi Kelly, that’s a great question! I won’t try to speak too much into that other blog because it sounds like there is a lot more going on with her than I could ever know or try to speak authoritatively about. I can only speak about my own experience, and what the Bible says.
That said, I think it’s important to make a distinction between sexual attraction and lust. Sexual attraction is never condemned in Scripture. The feeling of sexual attraction is normal and not at all sinful. In a lot of ways, I think it is your body’s recognition of the beauty in another. In fact, Song of Solomon is almost entirely devoted to the beauty of sexual attraction.
Lust, on the other hand, is a step beyond sexual attraction. Lust is what the Bible calls a sin, and Jesus himself likened lust to adultery. According to Jesus, the heart of lust is the heart of adultery, and this connection between the heart and the body is important. Jesus really tried to emphasize the significance of the heart. The Pharisees were all about good works, but their hearts were as hard as stone. In response, Jesus said that honoring God is not just about our actions, but our hearts as well.
That said, what you think about other people, how you view other people, how you fantasize about other people, etc. all matters to God. Not because God is constantly looking over your shoulder judging you or suppressing your sexuality, but because your heart is the wellspring of your soul. God wants you to love Him and love others in a healthy way, and the Bible tells us that lust is one way to short-circuit that healthy love.
I don’t think God calls us to be asexual until marriage at all. I certainly wasn’t, and neither was my husband. We tried to honor God’s instruction not to lust, and we waited until marriage to have sex, but we we found other ways to express our sexual attraction, such as going on romantic dates, writing love letters, spending time together, holding hands, kissing, etc. Once we did get married, we were really glad we waited. It’s not that waiting inherently made our sex life better (it annoys me when Christians make that promise about abstinence) but I think we did prepare ourselves for a very healthy and whole understanding of sex.
So I don’t know if that answers your question, but I hope at least it’s a start!
One more quick thought–In Scripture, lust does not apply to the relationship between a husband and wife. Lust only describes one’s heart orientation toward a person who is not one’s spouse.
Thanks so much for your response! I’m still not understanding the difference between sexual attraction and lust. Is sexual attraction recognizing that someone is attractive and lust is fantasizing about being sexual with him/her?
Kelly, yes. It’s what you do with that attraction, where you let it wander–specifically into the realm of sexual fantasy–that is a matter of lust.