When I was in 9th grade, I had a conversation with a teacher I will never forget. He taught British lit, but he wasn’t your stereotypical English teacher. He was big and muscular. He was gruff. He coached the football team. He was from somewhere up north, and he had that tough “Yankee” edge to him. He was sarcastic, funny, and a great teacher.
One of my lifelong struggles has been speaking without thinking. I have put my foot in my mouth more times than I can count. Words come easily to me, which is both a blessing and a curse. So as an immature teenager, I interpreted my teacher’s sarcasm as an invitation to return it. Quite often, my classroom comments bordered on disrespectful.
Finally, my teacher called me out on it. Right there in front of the entire class, he reminded me of my place. He was the teacher, and I needed to respect that. I can’t remember exactly what he said, but it shut me up quick. My face burned from the humiliation. I was embarrassed and ashamed, not because he had singled me out, but because I knew he was right.
When I went home that night, I did exactly what my parents had taught me to do: I fell on my sword. I typed out a letter of apology, printed it off, and signed my name. My teacher’s office was only accessible through the boys’ locker room, so I had a guy friend deliver the letter.
And that was the end of it.
When I think back on that incident, it still stings. I still feel embarrassed about my behavior, which, I think, is a common experience. Most of us can look back on moments from our childhoods (and adulthoods!) when we acted inappropriately, carelessly, or recklessly. Some of those memories still hurt to think about.
Now that I have my own children, I’m beginning to witness their own experiences of shame and remorse. Already, my two year-old bows his head and cries when I scold him, which hurts me just as much. In fact, there’s a part of me that wants to take away the sting altogether.
And yet, there is something about my experience of shame as a high schooler that actually seems…healthy. My response was neither indignant entitlement nor paralyzing remorse. It was a reasonable and proportionate sense of shame.
All of which begs the question: was the shame I experienced somehow right? And if so, what does that means for how I parent my own kids?
Throughout most of Scripture, the word “shame” appears in a very particular context. Mostly, we read about our deliverance from shame. There are prayers and promises that we should “never be put to shame” (Psalm 31:17, Isa. 45:17), and those who believe in Christ are specifically freed from it (Rom. 10:11). Shame is not the identity of the Christian.
However, there are also verses in which shame isn’t exactly positive, but it isn’t negative either. In Jeremiah 3, 6 and 8, for example, God bemoans those who are without shame, who don’t “blush” at their bad behavior. Then in 1 Cor. 6:5, Paul declares, “I say this to shame you,” seemingly astonished that the Corinthians have no shame about their sin.
These two depictions of shame can be confusing. They almost seem contradictory. But I think they give us an important tension for our lives: we should never become callous to our sin, but we shouldn’t be consumed by shame either. The question is, how do we get to that middle ground?
After looking at what the Bible says about shame, I have learned two things:
1. There is an important difference between actions and identity.
This distinction has been made famous by author Brené Brown, who draws a line between shame and guilt. She describes guilt as “psychological discomfort,” and connects it to action (the thing we did). Shame, on the other hand, is rooted in our identities. It makes us feel “unworthy of love and belonging.”
I am not convinced the Bible makes this distinction between shame and guilt per se, but the heart of the idea is there. In fact, Brown’s notion of shame and guilt helps us to reconcile the passages that condemn people who are without shame (for their actions), with the passages that declare our freedom from shame (in our identities).
As a parent, that distinction helps me to guard my language when disciplining my sons. I want them to feel remorse for their sins, but I don’t want their sins to define them. Instead, I want to shape their identities based on how God sees them in Christ. They aren’t “bad”; they are loved, they are good creations, they are forgiven.
This distinction also helps me to shepherd my children’s hearts. Too often shaming assumes motives, which condemns people regardless of intention. However there is an important difference between intentional disobedience and accidental wrongdoing, so I want to discipline bad behavior while acknowledging the heart behind it.
Granted, it’s not always easy to separate action from identity. 1 Corinthians 6 suggests that sexual sins are uniquely tied to identity, which makes it difficult to sort out the two. In those cases, making a distinction between action and identity requires an extra amount of patience, mercy, and care–for others, and for ourselves.
2. Jesus was ashamed so that I don’t have to be.
Until recently, it had never occurred to me that Jesus was literally ashamed and humiliated so that I don’t have to be. Hebrews 12:2 alludes to this: “For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
I don’t know why, but it had never dawned on me that Jesus’ humiliation–being stripped naked and mocked by on-lookers–was bound up in taking on my sin.
But it is. Adam and Eve are Exhibit A of how sin leads to shame, and I am a sinner. I could have shame imprinted on my soul, but Jesus took it from me. Because of him, I don’t have to exist in that place of condemnation. He bore my shame so that I don’t have to.
As a parent, I’ve been thinking about how to model that sacrifice for my children. One option is to avoid disciplining my kids out of a place of personal embarrassment. If my kids throw a tantrum in Target, or if they fail in some public way, it would be tempting to respond out of my own humiliation–to snap, to blame, to tear down–all to alleviate the shame I feel.
But taking on my children’s shame means I bear the shame with them. When they fail, I don’t distance myself by telling others, “They didn’t learn that in OUR HOME!” I don’t abandon them at their loneliest. Instead, I walk through the shame with them, letting them know they are loved unconditionally, and never responding out of my own wounded pride.
Because that is what Jesus did for me.
Those are two ways we can navigate the Bible’s language about shame in a faithful way. It’s important in a culture like ours, that either errs on the side of crushing shame, or bald shamelessness. In that context, Scripture reminds us that there can be conviction without condemnation, and freedom without moral apathy.
I hope to raise men who reflect that truth. And I hope to be that kind of woman myself.