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??