In Praise of Shame

One is not supposed to talk these days about shame, unless it’s to say that we shouldn’t allow such “negativity” into our lives.  The important thing is that we feel good about ourselves.  This, we’re told, is the sum and substance of good mental health.  Feelings of shame, like everything else that diminishes our self-esteem, must be banished from our psychological experience.  

This is the world’s wisdom…and its folly (cf. 1 Cor. 1:20).

In Praise of Shame
The truth is, shame is good.  It’s a sign of a functioning conscience.  When we do something sinful, our conscience accuses us.  We feel guilty and ashamed—both necessary preconditions of repentance.  It’s possible, however, to develop a hard and unresponsive heart.  Paul describes those “whose consciences are seared” (1 Tim. 4:2).  Jeremiah found fault with Israel for this very thing. 

Were they ashamed when they committed abomination?
     No, they were not at all ashamed;
     they did not know how to blush.
Jeremiah 6:15

Elsewhere he attributes Israel’s shamelessness not to inability or ignorance but to stubbornness.  “You have the forehead of a whore, you refuse to be ashamed” (Jer. 3:3).   Isaiah goes even further.

The look on their faces bears witness against them;
     they proclaim their sin like Sodom;
     they do not hide it.
Isaiah 3:9

This is a frightening condition—to be able to sin, and to sin openly and repeatedly, and feel no shame, but even to take pride in it. [1]   

The capacity to feel shame is a divine gift.  Like the body’s pain reflex, it alerts us to something harmful.  Touch a hot stove, and you pull your hand away faster than you can even think to do so.  The pain is unpleasant, even if momentary, but it saves you from receiving a terrible injury and teaches you to be more cautious in the future.

Some people suffer from a condition that makes them insensitive to pain.  This might be thought a blessing—never to experience pain—but it poses a tremendous danger. 

“This lack of pain awareness often leads to an accumulation of wounds, bruises, broken bones, and other health issues that may go undetected.  Young children with congenital insensitivity to pain may have mouth or finger wounds due to repeated self-biting and may also experience multiple burn-related injuries.  These injuries often lead to a reduced life expectancy.”[2]

Shame is like the pain reflex, except with ethics.  The pain the soul experiences in wrongdoing (guilt and shame) is intended to alert us to the dangers of sin.  If allowed to do its proper work, it leads to repentance.  There is a shame that leads to despair and self-pity that only furthers a downward spiral into greater sin.  There is also such a thing as false shame, when one is made to feel guilty for things that are not sinful.  Neither of these are good, of course.  But there is a shame that leads to repentance and results in the forgiveness of sins through Christ.  This is a blessed shame.  Without it, there is no motive to repentance.  It’s not until we become repulsed and disgusted by our sins, not until we become ashamed of them, that we find the will through grace to turn away from them.   

A Word of Caution and of Hope
The enemy is crafty (Gen. 3:1).  He is a liar and the father of lies (Jn. 8:44).  If he cannot deceive you into thinking you needn’t feel any guilt or shame for your sins, he’ll tell you your sins are too great for God to forgive.  He’ll tempt you to despair of his mercy.  But no one should ever do so.  No one should ever doubt his willingness to forgive.  He forgave Mary Magdalene, who had been possessed by seven demons (Lk. 8:2).  He forgave Saul of Tarsus, who by his own admission had been the chief of sinners—a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent opponent of Christ (1 Tim. 1:12-17).  And he has forgiven many others, sinners great and small.  Everyone who sincerely appeals to him for mercy will find it.  They will discover that his grace is more than sufficient to cleanse the conscience and remove the bitter sting shame. 

[1] One is tempted to think of “Gay Pride” demonstrations and the “Shout Your Abortion” campaign.  The brazenness of those who participate in these things is stunning.  “There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Rom. 3:18). 


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