Because the Sovereign Lord helps me, I
will not be disgraced.
Therefore have I set my face like flint,
and I know I will not be put to shame. (Is. 50:7)
Shame stifles the free flow of the Spirit in us, and inclines us to be shy
and secretive. Whereas an objective assessment may suggest we need to
improve in some area of our life, full-blown shame causes us to curse
ourselves. It not only makes us miss out on many worthwhile possibilities,
therefore, but accelerates and deepens the sense of disintegration in our
Where shame has obtained a strong hold on us, we may even come to the point
where we fear lest any sign of weakness on our part – let alone any genuine
failure – may prove unacceptable. ‘Three strikes and you are out’ is a hard
enough standard to have hanging over us – but we are afraid that in our case
it may be more like one strike and we will be on the way out! Does
this ring any bells? Jesus not only gives the power to succeed, but also the
freedom to fail!
Subconscious feelings of shame make us strive extra hard to maintain our
external image. When prickles of shame rise up, we paste a smile on our face
– but the discerning see through our posturing. We kid ourselves in
supposing that if we look good on the outside and perform well, then we must
Another unwanted by-product of shame is that we end up striving to attain
standards the Lord was never asking us to live up to. Does the fact that we
are neither mega fit, stunningly attractive nor overwhelmingly ‘successful’
consign us to living with our heads bowed in shame? Mike Bellah warns that,
‘It is the labels we place on ourselves that become self-fulfilling
prophecies, resulting in either shame or success.’ (http://www.bestyears.com/shame.html).
Will we allow the fact that certain people dislike us, and all that we stand
for, to dominate our thinking and influence our actions? The way we respond
to such challenges is crucial.
does shame affect you?
Here are three contrasting attitudes that may help to show us to
what extent shame is operating in our hearts.
I feel easily ashamed, because I . . .
‘am too young . . . old . . . can’t keep up with . . . am never
listened to . . . am too thin, overweight, single, divorced,
unhappily married, have a lousy job, never get anything out of
church, have made a complete mess of, never thought anything like
this would ever come my way . . .’
Customise and continue this list as it affects your circumstances!
For a much more comprehensive test to discover the degree to which
shame affects your way of thinking, go to:
Ideally, we should trust that Christ (X) plus ourselves (o) = good
results for the Kingdom (K) (X+o=K). Many of us have grown used to
taking ourselves out of the equation, however. X+c=d-. In this
equation, c = (outside circumstances such as ‘the work’, or ‘a
stroke of good luck!’) and d- = 'the not very good results I always
seem to come up with’.
Shame tells us that our contribution is bound to make things worse,
and that God can work much better if we keep out of the way. At
times that may be sound counsel, but in this context it is important
to remember that shame-based feelings always distort the true
picture, even though they may contain a measure of truth.
Many of us need to put ourselves back into the equation. Our active
presence and participation is essential to what the Lord wants to
do. Christ in us = overcoming shame = Kingdom life and living!
Shame is losing its effects on me because I know that God has called
me according to His purposes. I am learning not to berate myself
when I fail and falter. When I feel down I simply pray for the Lord
to turn things round for His glory. I make the enemy wish he had
never bothered trying to slow me down and make me feel ashamed!
If we confess
our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins,
and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)
A young preacher was called out of a
life of sin to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. While in the
pulpit one day, he received a note in which someone had written all
his past sins. “Aren't you ashamed of yourself? And you're up there
telling people to get right with God!” The young preacher read the
note, bowed his head in prayer, and said, “Ladies and gentleman I
have received a note, and here is what it says.” In front of that
whole crowd, he read every one of those sins. Then he said this:
“Yes, I am ashamed of myself, but I am not ashamed of my Saviour!”
Lord, Your Word says
that ‘No one who trusts in You will ever be put to shame’ – but I
want to confess that shame has scarred my soul. It has made intimacy
with both You and those I would like to be closer to harder to
Help me to identify the roots of shame in my life and to confront
these things with the Word of God and the power of Your Spirit. Come
to my heart, Lord, as you came to Peter, to cleanse my backlog of
shame and guilt and failure, so that both my expectations and my
trust are enlarged again. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
enjoys the company of the meek,
their boast is only in Him.
5:5-7; 1 Cor. 1:28-31)
You would expect those who suffer from a ‘shame and inferiority complex’ to
hang their heads and to walk with a stoop. Sometimes, however, the opposite
is true. Though it may not be immediately apparent, there is a close link
between shame and pride. The shame-filled-but-outwardly-proud are often to
be found occupying senior positions in organisations, using the authority
that comes from their position as a ‘mask’ to deflect people’s attention
away from their inner shame.
Pride makes us quick to blame others, but slow to accept wise suggestions,
let alone open criticism. It makes us compare ourselves continually with
others because we want to appear in a superior light. At the same time, we
are keen to avoid too close an inspection, in case the image we are
projecting is found to be false. (2 Cor. 10:12; Rom. 12:3)
There are, unfortunately, plenty of shameless people around. It is often
necessary for a sense of genuine shame to be aroused before a fully
functioning sense of right and wrong can develop in their hearts. Repentance
is still the gateway by which God brings souls to life. As such, it is by no
means to be dismissed, just because certain psychologists consider it their
duty to tell us to ‘accept ourselves as we are’, and to explain such
embarrassing convictions away.
Such attitudes quickly become a vicious cycle. The more ashamed we feel, the
less we anticipate that anyone would even want to come anywhere near
our self-absorbed orbit. The more humble we are, the easier people find it
to relate to us.
How self-centred are you?
- Do you find it hard to rejoice when others do well?
tug at your heart and bug you every time you think about it?
- Does your desire to ‘protect’ your image make you quick to put
anyone down who dares to call it into question?
- Do you have a BSE mentality – ‘Blame Someone Else?’ - whether it
be the boss, our parents, children, partner or even our dog – some
people will go to any lengths to avoid facing their own
Shame-based people are those whose emotions have closed down, at least in
part. As surely as those who are Spirit-led are quick to affirm and bless,
the shame-filled find it hard to make positive emotional affirmations. They
rarely tell people that they love them, for example, because they have never
realised how important it is to learn a supportive ‘emotional’ vocabulary.
It does not mean that they are filled with hate – it just means that they
Are you shame-filled or
- Shame makes you so tense and rigid that it chokes your
discernment. Instead of responding calmly, you find yourself lashing
out, or laying down the law with far more harshness than is called
- Just when God gives you insight into some issue, you hold back,
because you assume your perspective must be faulty.
- You make various efforts to share your perspective, but if you do
not appear to be getting anywhere you quickly become discouraged –
especially if you feel rebuffed. All this does is to allow shame to
suppress your real gifting – which in turn robs other people of
benefiting from what you have to offer.
- Your fear of confrontation is so great that you cover over things
that really do need bringing out into the open.
- When challenges come your way, do you feel a complete failure and
crumple inside? Storm off and protest that it isn’t fair? Or do you
humble yourself acknowledge the rightness of at least some aspects
of the challenge and trust the Lord to deal with the rest?
Shame-based families rarely encourage others to express their opinions. This
is either because they are so sure that they are in the right that they
refuse to see things from any one else’s perspective, or because they do not
trust their own grasp of situations. They discourage people’s hopes
and dreams, in case they come to nothing – or because they suppose that they
will be left behind if they do come to pass. Talk about
In a remote rural region, a woman ‘blew the whistle’ on a man over a
morality issue with an under-age girl. To her intense surprise and dismay,
the local community turned on her. One day, the owner of the only shop in
the township hurled her change back at her. ‘You should have swept the
matter under the carpet,’ she hissed. What happened to the man in this
shame-based, yet also shame-denying community? He was rewarded with
promotion, both in his place of work and at church! Shame that is not faced,
let alone confessed, often causes people to go on the offensive, pouring out
accusations faster than bullets from a machine gun. If we do not protect
ourselves vigorously against these barbs, they risk making us believe the
complete reverse of what is really going on.
God’s Word penetrates to the heart of our shame. ‘I
live in a high and holy place,’ He declares, ‘but also with him who is
contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to
revive the heart of the contrite.’ (Is. 57:15) The more we
respond with humility to the challenges that come our way, the more likely
it is that they will succeed in jump starting us into a greater
transparency, accountability and inner honesty.
We have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do
not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by
setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man's
conscience in the sight of God. (2 Cor. 4:2)
‘Hearts bruised with
loss and eaten through with shame.’ (Swinburne)
Anything that makes us feel ‘different’ from
other people takes special handling, lest it increases either our sense of
pride or our worthlessness. An elderly man I was with the other day was
recalling his school days with shame because he used to write his numbers
backwards. His teacher used to pick on him continually. ‘You blockhead!’ he
yelled, ‘I’ll crucify you to the wall!’ These words, along with regular
hefty thwacks around his ear, savaged his confidence and cowed his spirit.
With the potency of a curse these words dogged his steps throughout his
In this example, all our sympathy is with the boy who was being humiliated.
Later on in life, issues are often more complex. Take the example of a
couple who have separated, with the man being somewhat unfairly excluded
from having any contact with his children. The man’s already low self-esteem
is almost certain to plummet still lower in proportion to the freefall in
his public reputation.
At the deepest level, people fear total abandonment, convinced that if
others knew how bad they really were, they wouldn’t want to have
anything to do with them. However guilty they may feel for what they have
done, they feel still more ashamed for what and who they are.
Shame pushes the person into still deeper hiding, thereby greatly increasing
the chances of more wrong deeds being committed out of resentment,
bitterness or frustration.
When certain people in authority pronounce their verdict against us, it is
easy to allow footholds to shame. ‘You’ll never amount to much’, they storm,
openly revealing their contempt for us – or perhaps just projecting their
anxieties for our future. Parents, teachers and pastors are often amongst
the guiltiest here, usually when they give voice to layers of shame in their
own life that they have neither acknowledged nor overcome.
Praise God for people who refuse to accept such things lying down! Just
think of all that would have been lost had the likes of Thomas Edison, Billy
Graham and D.L. Moody believed that they would never amount to anything much
– despite authority figures telling them so repeatedly.
Others feel guilty because people are praising them far more highly than
they think they deserve. The way I handle these contradictory thoughts is to
remind myself that when God allows certain people to think that I am worse
than I really am, He makes up for it by permitting others to think that I am
much better than is really the case!
Rather than assuming that it is ‘unworthy’ to receive anything in life
unless we have earned and paid for it, our Heavenly Father invites us to
celebrate a wonderful mystery: He freely gives us all things
to enjoy. When the Lord created children with the instinct to play, He
deliberately put something of His own nature into them. We need to go one
better than the old slogan for Mars’ Bars and: ‘work, rest, play and pray!’
Do not allow the sense of shame you are carrying as the result of people’s
attitudes to overcome your will to prosper in the Lord. By making yourself
available to Him, and by consciously refusing shame’s downward spiral, you
will be in a far better position to help others overcome it too.
Do you see what this means – all these
pioneers who blazed the way, all these veterans cheering us on?
we'd better get on with it.
Strip down, start running – and never quit!
extra spiritual fat, no parasitic sins.
Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both
began and finished this race we're in.
Study how He did it.
Because He never
lost sight of where He was headed
– that exhilarating finish in and with God
He could put up with anything along the way: cross, shame, whatever.
now He's there, in the place of honour, right alongside God. (Heb. 12:1-2
The more we refuse the sting of shame’s lash, the easier we will find it to
experience the Lord’s approval. Often we will need to catch ourselves in the
middle of thinking destructive thoughts, and redress the balance by
affirming the Lord’s perspective.
If we are called to go through ‘shameful’ situations, in which the Lord
allows us to be misunderstood, we are in the very best of company. Jesus
endured the extreme shame of the cross, and so too have many of His finest
saints. The glory that lies ahead is our ultimate hope – but there are,
unfortunately, other occasions in which indignities are forced upon us and
our souls fill up with shame.
Over the years we have encountered many situations where one person is badly
treating another (often, this is in a marriage context). We have often been
amazed at how long it has taken the person being abused to realise that ‘it
is not all their fault’ and that they do not deserve the abuse they are
The reasons for this are complex, but they often centre around them feeling
too full of embarrassment and shame to be able to face the issues directly.
Wanting to show mercy, and to keep faith with the ‘hurt person who is
hurting them,’ they may also be afraid of the fallout if they do launch a
challenge. They are usually eager, too, to preserve the look of things, and
so they strive to keep up external appearances. Complex lines of
co-dependency thus keep the abused person locked in to the relationship with
their abuser. So-called ‘love’ that looks more like control to outsiders
rotate in complex patterns making this a hard cycle to break into.
Knowing when to persevere in the hope of change, when to insist on making
the other person face what they are doing, and when, finally, to accept that
‘enough is enough’ is a decision that calls for a great deal of wise
counsel. When someone realizes that they need to escape from a controlling
person’s orbit, the potential for abuse increases many-fold. Abusers and
controllers hate losing face, let alone full control. As the proverb puts
it, Exploit or abuse your family, and end up with a
fistful of air; common sense tells you it’s a stupid way to live. (Provbs
11:29, The Message)
As we continue to explore the shame that comes from matters related to
abuse, we thought you might find it refreshing to read Scripture verses from
Eugene Peterson’s distinctive paraphrase of the book of Proverbs.
‘We justify our actions by appearances,
but God examines our motives.’ (Provbs. 21:2)
‘People who shrug off deliberate deceptions, saying, “I didn’t mean it, I
was only joking,” are worse than careless campers who walk away from
smouldering campfires.’ (26:18).
Nothing clever, nothing conceived, nothing contrived,
can get the better of God. (21:29)
There comes a moment when we rise up inwardly and realise that we no longer
need to put up with being treated in the way that we have been. This is a
crucial moment, when we realise that our response until now has largely been
born of fear or misplaced optimism. Slowly it dawns on us that it is
entirely permissible for us to respond more robustly.
As we begin to assert this new perspective, we are effectively declaring war
on the source of our shame, and affirming our right to take action. The
person who has been causing us shame will almost certainly disapprove, and
do all he can to make us regret launching the challenge. We must be prepared
Those who have been holding us back and pegging us down have long since
worked out exactly how much pressure to exert in order to get their own way.
This time, however, we can refuse to back down and embrace our
customary shame-filled retreat (which we try to kid ourselves is a loyal and
loving Christian response). Such a stand cannot be taken by halves. Neither
should it be taken on our own.
There is no shame in realising that the call to honour one another does not
mean automatically giving way to unjust demands. Study Luke 13:31-32, and
chapter 23 of Matthew, and see how scathingly Jesus speaks about Herod and
against the Pharisees. Jesus intensely dislikes both pride and hypocrisy.
In our bid to be courteous and compassionate we cannot afford to lose sight
of truth and clarity – but neither should we use truth as a weapon with
which to dishonour the people and ministries that God has raised up. This
calls for considerable wisdom and clear-sighted discernment – but it is a
vital part of escaping the weakening spiral of shame in our lives.
Sadly, we come across only too many situations like this in church life, as
well as in families, with pastors and leaders making church members feel
ashamed and disempowered. At other times, it is the other way round, with
pastors being on the receiving end of the rough treatment – but that would
be another subject in its own right.
The mind of the abuser is always full of faulty perspectives. In Proverbs
26:12 (which marks the beginning of a mini-series on self-deceit and
sluggardness) we find people thinking that what they are doing is perfectly
justified, because the other person ‘is in the wrong for opposing them’. All
too often we hear men using the argument that wives should simply submit to
them. It is by no means infrequent to hear them blaming their wives for
‘forcing’ them to leave in favour of another woman!
There is little God can do for such people until they are prepared to
acknowledge the games they are playing. Until then, they will continue to
find reasons with which to attempt to justify the unjustifiable. The extent
of shame and confusion people feel at this stage can be right off the
Richter scale – until the penny drops and they begin to see clearly. At that
point they usually wonder why they have taken so long to do anything about
it. Even then they will need a great deal of support in handling the shame
of not having been able to repair or restore the marriage or relationship.
Abusers are past masters at scheming. They have a cold and calculating side
to their personality that twists and turns what people say for their own
ends. Their insecurity causes them to try to obtain by force what can, in
reality, only be received by grace. To win friends, therefore, they resort
to the barbed tool of flattery. Although they are experts at dissembling,
sooner or later people see through their insincerity.
The person who is always cooking up some
evil soon gets a reputation as prince of rogues. (Proverbs. 24:8)
No matter how cunningly (your enemy) conceals his malice his evil will
eventually be exposed in public.
Malice backfires, spite boomerangs. Liars
hate their victims, flatterers sabotage trust. (26:26-28, cf 22:8))
What a bad person plots against the good, boomerangs; the plotter gets it in
the end. (21:18)
The aspirations of good people end in celebration; the ambition of bad
people crash. (10:28).
Rather than simply denouncing extreme cases, however, it might be timely to
bring this whole issue of shame and abuse home to roost by pausing to
consider how easily we ourselves demean each other. When we pause to think
of the anger and cutting words that we ourselves have directed at loved ones
who catch us at the ‘wrong’ moment, we can see how easy it is to cross the
line, and to become abusers ourselves.
The good news is that through repentance and forgiveness, all or any can
change once they become aware of the shame they are inflicting on others.
Ask the Lord to search your own heart . . . and then bring ‘victims’ and
their abusers alike to the foot of the cross – for the cross is the stopping
place, where vicious cycles are finally broken.
Don’t just pretend to love others. Really
love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good. Love each other
with genuine affection, and take delight in honouring each other. (Rom.
We have explored many ways in which we can escape shame’s downward
gravitational pull. It is time to embrace the opposite quality: the ability
to fulfil the Scriptural command to honour and affirm each other in Christ.
To ‘honour’ means ‘to make glorious, to validate, to praise and to esteem
highly.’ Think of the men and women of God you most admire. Is it not their
ability to draw out the best in people that you most appreciate?
Jesus shares with us the honour the Father gives Him, (John 17:22-23) – but
our ability to honour one another depends to a large extent on how we view
ourselves. Without straying into vanity, can you find it in yourself to
honour what God is doing in and through you? Look in the mirror and affirm
that God loves you and is blessing you.
Try and respond well when compliments come your way. Stop yourself, in
mid-track if need be, when you find yourself about to say, ‘Oh it’s nothing
really.’ You need to hear what the other person is saying. By thanking them,
you receive the fullness of their blessing, and honour them by appreciating
The more we esteem each other, the better things usually go for us in the
long run. It certainly makes us nicer people to be around! Like yeast added
to flour, small encouragements go a long way to bolster self-esteem and
raise people’s spirits, and to prise off ugly dead weights of shame. Pause
and consider: do we deliberately set out to honour and encourage those
One of the things I most appreciate about my wife is the way she
deliberately sets out to value and appreciate the ‘back room’ staff who keep
institutions running smoothly. Many of them well up with tears as she speaks
words of praise and encouragement to them. Again and again they say things
like, ‘No one has ever said anything like that to me before.’ Such honouring
eases people’s burdens, and paves the way for the work of the Kingdom.
It often only requires relatively simple steps to honour each other in such
ways. Simple courtesies: cards, e-mails, phone calls, spending time together
. . . Are there specific people the Lord would have you honour and affirm?
Even if they do not appear particularly receptive or appreciative at the
time, do not waste time feeling rejected or lapse back into shame again.
Remember, you are escaping its orbit and advancing towards the heavenly
kingdom, where Jesus is ready to welcome you.