Breaking the Power of Shame

by John Beeson June 11, 2019

I was eleven years old and our Little League season had just come to an end. At my insistence, my parents dropped me off at the mall with my teammates to hang out. Not long after my parents had left, my friends hatched a plan: they wanted to go to see the new hit movie Die Hard 2. A knot formed in my stomach as the plan was hatched. Die Hard was rated R. I’m not sure I had seen a PG-13 movie. I told them that we couldn’t see it because we were too young. My friends scoffed: “I go to rated R movies all the time! They never stop me.” I shrunk back. We paid and walked in. 

I felt sick through the whole movie and afterward. When my parents picked me up, I doubled down with a lie when asked what we did: “We just hung out.” I felt sicker.

Even after asking for forgiveness, the cloud over my heart remained. Guilt was gone. Shame remained. 

Shame has power.

Shame is one of the most destructive forces on this earth. Shame is destructive because it attacks our spiritual and emotional life. Unlike guilt, shame can come from actions that aren’t even wrong. People experience shame over their body and over their family of origin. Shame is a visceral and physical experience that can manifest itself in depression and self-medicating. Shame tells us totalizing truths about ourselves, often truths that cannot be remedied. “You’re always” or “you will never,” shame whispers.

Shame is different from guilt in that where guilt is connected with our actions, shame is connected to our identity. Further, many Christians are taught how to deal with guilt but never taught how to deal with shame. 

“Oh God,” David cries out, “in you I trust; let me not be put to shame; let not my enemies exult over me” (Ps. 25:2). Again and again in the Psalms, David cries out that God would remove his shame. Almost all of these Psalms are clustered around David’s exile from Israel as he ran from Saul. David was not on the run because he had sinned against God or done any wrong to the kingdom, but the shame of being a man falsely accused by Saul and desperately on the run weighed heavily on David’s heart. 

How can we deal with the weight of shame? As Christians most of us know how to deal with sin: we come to God, repent of our sin, and ask for forgiveness on account of Jesus’ death on the cross. But what about sin? 

Jesus did not just bear our guilt on the cross; he bore our shame. Often minimized in the telling of the story of the cross is the shame that Jesus endured. Much more significant than the physical pain (and I am not minimizing the physical pain) Jesus endured was the emotional and spiritual pain – the shame – that he endured. Consider the layers of shame Jesus endured:

  • Religious: Jesus was taken in front of the most powerful body in Judaism – the Sanhedrin—who brought up false witnesses and false charges against him because of their jealousy and hatred of Jesus. Shame.
  • Social: Pilate encouraged the crowd to release Jesus, but they begged for the criminal Barabbas instead. Jesus was then taken and had a crude crown and robe placed on him in mockery of the claim that he was the King of the Jews. As the soldiers flogged him, he was spit upon and mocked. Shame.
  • Relational: In all of this, which of his friends was near him? None of them. One of his friends, Judas, betrayed him, turning him over. Nine others fled as soon as Jesus was taken away, and Peter denied he knew Jesus when he slunk into the courtyard near Jesus’ trial. Only his closest friend, John, his mother, and two other female friends were with him as he died on the cross. Of the thousands Jesus had dramatically impacted during his ministry, four remained with him. Shame.
  • Physical: Unlike most of our sanitized portrayals, Jesus was stripped naked on the cross. The soldiers gambled for the clothes of the bloodied and naked man that hung above them. Shame.

In Hebrews, we hear that we are to run the race as Jesus did: “…who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of God” (Heb. 12:2). Peter talks to a church that was despised and shamed and tells them that “whoever believes in [Jesus] will not be put to shame” (1 Pet. 2:6).

How are we to deal with shame, then? By looking backward and forward. We look backward to the cross where Jesus endured our shame. He is a sympathetic high priest who has endured more shame than we could ever imagine. When we see Christ enduring shame on the cross, we see one who endured shame for a purpose, the purpose of bringing us into God’s family, as beloved, adopted, and holy children. And we look forward to the day when we will be welcomed, not begrudgingly, not shamefully, but joyfully and warmly by our Savior.

It is only the reality of our identity in Christ, and in what he has accomplished and what we know he will accomplish on that final day, that shame can be washed away. It is only in the truth of our identity in the one who endured shame that we can overcome the lies about our identity that shame speaks to us. 

Ashamed friend: look to the shamed one on the cross and know his shame was for you. His shame was so that you might not be ashamed, that his welcome would overcome the world’s rejection.