I was at a coffee shop one night, enjoying the luxury of catching up on some adult conversation with a friend while our children were at home. I told her I was writing my first book, and being the supportive friend that she is, she asked eagerly, “What’s it about?” I answered, “Shame.” I was caught off-guard when her smile faded, her eyebrows crinkled into a look of concern. “Oh, Lindsay. Why? What’s wrong?” This was the first of several conversations with other people who responded similarly, as if they wondered, “What terrible thing happened to make you feel ashamed?”
Shame is the five letter word that no one wants to fess up to.
I had had no idea that shame was a problem for me until the Lord revealed it through scripture study. Then, as I studied the work of Brené Brown, I began to understand that though we may not like to admit it, we all experience shame (with the exception of sociopaths).
Shame is the fear of losing connection with others due to our perceived unworthiness. Guilt results from a discrepancy between our values and our behavior (i.e., “I’ve done a bad thing”) and motivates us to change. Shame is when I feel that I am a bad person and am unworthy of love. This feeling is so devastating that it is difficult to move from shame to a change in behavior. Our instinct is to cover up rather than lean into the pain of allowing our shame to be revealed. We use various coping strategies to protect ourselves when we feel ashamed, such as people pleasing, deceit, boasting, feigning apathy, defensiveness, withdrawing, and hustling for worthiness as we place our self-worth in accomplishments. When shame prevents us from dealing openly and honestly with sin, we can’t experience the abundant life God offers.
Hebrews 12:7-8, 10-11 says:
Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all. …but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.
Four truths from this passage can help us deal with shame in a healthy way.
1. God is good. This is so simple and overly familiar to seasoned believers, but many of us perceive God as waiting to catch us misbehaving so that He can retaliate. Verse 7 says that He is treating us as his children when He disciplines us. We need to know and believe, deep down, that nothing we can do will cause us to lose favor with the Lord once we belong to Him. All discipline from the Lord is for our good. When we struggle with this, we can ask God to reveal His goodness and we can study His character in scripture. He delights to reveal Himself to those who seek Him.
2. You are not the exception. Verse 8 says, “…and everyone undergoes discipline…” (emphasis added). One of the lies shame tells us is that we are the exception. Other people may experience God’s love and forgiveness, but shame tells us that we cannot or will not, that our sin is worse, our shame runs deeper. Shame does not want to be spoken, so one of the most effective ways to deal with it is to connect with someone you trust who will listen without judgment and say, “Me too.” When we connect with others who are open about their struggles, shame loses its power to isolate us.
3. If you want the inheritance, you have to have the discipline. Verse 8 also says, "If you are not disciplined…then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all.” A true son or daughter has inheritance rights. When God reconciled us to Himself through the death and resurrection of Jesus, we (believers) became coheirs with Christ. We have an inheritance of abundant life that God desires us to experience here and now, but the way to accepting the inheritance comes through the refining chastening of the Lord.
4. Shame does not lead to righteousness and peace. Verse 11 says that though discipline is painful at the time, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace. Shame keeps us from taking an honest look at our sin and bringing it before the Lord. As we are refined through trials, God allows us to experience the painful process of having our sin exposed so that He can heal and forgive us. This process sanctifies us and moves us toward our inheritance of righteousness and peace.
Though shame is part of the human experience, we can learn to move more quickly to bringing our shame to Jesus for healing as we grow in faith and trust in His goodness.
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.