Tackling Shame

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Binding and demoralizing, shame alienates us from both God and man. But where do we as believers begin to unravel our shame? There must be a Christian answer to it, for God would not abandon His beloved at their profoundest emotional ebb.

The Problem of Shame

As the sons and daughters of our first father Adam and our first mother Eve, each of us feels shame because of the first sin. We all fell in Adam’s garden rebellion: his sin was our sin, since he was our root and head (Rom. 5:12–18; 1 Cor. 15:21–22). Guilty under the wrath of God, since that moment we have needed a Savior. Hiding in the bushes, ashamed of our corruption of nature, daily we feel the imago Dei in us defaced and know the desolation of sin and Satan’s dominance (Titus 3:3; Heb. 2:14–15).

As if the fruit of Adam’s sin were not bad enough, our shame only gets worse. Our own transgressions pile up, making our dishonor grow day by day (Rom. 3:23). Some of our sins are known to us: we see and feel their force in our souls. Others seem to escape our notice because of our finite and fallen minds (Rom. 1:21–25). Our dark deeds are sometimes simple, straightforward acts of disobedience. Others are more complex and difficult to trace, reflecting the tangled lives we so often lead, even as believers, this side of glory (Col. 3:5). With surprising frequency, we even fool ourselves with twists of mind and heart that invite false shame, where none in truth exists (1 Kings 19:1–10). All the while, the shadow of shame falls more darkly across our face.

The sin of others is a third and powerful source of shame in our lives. One example is neighbors who should help us instead hurt, harm, or neglect us (Luke 10:21–37). Both as individuals and as groups, others in this fallen world heap false shame upon false shame, as seen in Job’s interlocutors (Job 4–37). Even fellow Christians can falsely load us down with shame by what they say and do (1 Cor. 1:10–13; Gal. 2:12–13). The problem of shame is universal among men.

The Secret to Shame

So, how do we unravel our shame? Hope in self only maddens, as learned through our repeated failures and frustration. The secret to shame must lie outside of ourselves, in the only hope we have ever had—Jesus Christ our Lord. Through His cross, Jesus relieves our guilt, as well as its cousin, shame.

Our Lord’s incarnation was part of the remedy for our guilt. Since we “share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise also partook of the same” (Heb. 2:14). The Son of God—in perfect harmony with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit—became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). Living a perfect life, the incarnate Savior was the spotless Lamb of God, who pleased His heavenly Father in every way (Matt. 3:17).

But His life was not just for living: Jesus was born to die. His atonement was required to relieve our guilt. “Therefore, he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Heb. 2:17). Believers are justified through faith in this Savior, the substitutionary sacrifice who atoned for their sin and guilt (Rom. 3:23–26). Forgiveness of sin and freedom from guilt are ours only by union with Christ, the incarnate and crucified One.

These are not the only blessings of Christ’s incarnation and atonement, however. As with our guilt, Jesus also remedies our shame through His person and work.

In His incarnation, the eternal Son of God, the second person of the blessed Trinity, embraced the shame of humiliation, “taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Phil. 2:6–7). As the Reformer John Calvin put it, “In short, from the time when he took on the form of a servant, he began to pay the price of liberation in order to redeem us” (Institutes 2.16.5). Scandal and shame filled His days. Conceived out of wedlock, judged insane by His family, and despised by the authorities, Jesus was familiar with the whispers, looks, and shouts of shame.

On one level, it is a genuine comfort to us that Jesus felt the red-faced flash of shame. We have a Great High Priest who can sympathize with our weaknesses and knows our shame from the inside out (Heb. 4:14–15). His humanity is real and true, so it could not be any other way (2 John 1:7). He touches us in our flesh, preventing us from having to face the awful burden of our shame alone. Yet the incarnation itself was not enough to fix our shame. God’s remedy for our shame also had to travel through Calvary.

Crucified as a blasphemous traitor, Jesus was disgraced in the eyes of both church and state (John 19:12–22). The shameful mocking He endured was not fitting to His divine person, adored by the cherubim and seraphim above. His mediatorial offices of prophet, priest, and king became the mere sport of the Roman guard (Matt. 27:27–31).

On the cross, His agony of shame was no accident. This Roman instrument was a machine of contempt and public ridicule. There, He was stripped naked and laid bare for all to see (John 19:23–24). Sweating, bleeding, and suffocating to death, He incarnated defilement and uncleanness (Deut. 21:23; Gal. 3:13). So loathsome was this device that no Roman citizen could ever be so disgraced.

But Jesus was so disgraced, not for Himself, but for us and for our salvation. Knowing full well what He would face, He voluntarily chose the cross, in spite of its shame. His decision was not a light one, as the agony of His brow testified in the garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:41–44). Why embrace the shame of the cross? He did so, we are told, “for the joy that was set before him…despising the shame” (Heb. 12:2).

What joy was His, which made the cross worthwhile? He had given His word in the great covenant of redemp-tion, where He was of one mind and heart with God the Father (John 1:1; 10:27–29; 17:4–6; Eph. 1:3–5). He had promised Adam, Eve, and even the devil that He would come and crush the head of the serpent, which had beguiled us into sin and shame (Gen. 3:15). And He had professed His undying love for His bride, for whom He gave His life to save (Song 4; Isa. 53). But most of all, zeal for His Father’s glory, will, and honor consumed Him (Ps. 69:7–9; John 2:17; Matt. 26:39–42). So Jesus set His face toward that good, hating the horror and shame that stood in between. In the same moment and by the same method that He dealt with our guilt, Jesus also ultimately solved our shame.

The Answer to Shame

Identifying with us in our shameful condition, Jesus represented and substituted for His own people. In His lifelong active obedience, He earned the perfect righteousness that grounds their peace and can transform their shame (2 Cor. 5:21). In His passive obedience, He took the highest and most monstrous form of our human shame personally to Himself; as the eternal Son of God, He embraced disgrace stretching from the depths of earth to the heights of heaven as no one else could do. On Calvary alone can the cruelty of human shame be rightly felt and measured. There our bounty is great (Rom. 6:23).

Our shame begins to unravel as we see His dear person and know His matchless work to be our own. United to Him by faith through the Holy Spirit, our whole position changes (Eph. 2:4–9). Redeemed and reconciled to our heavenly Father by the Son of His love, the basis of our true shame is dealt with and our alienation removed.

Jesus took the cry of dereliction upon Himself (Mark 15:34) so that we are no longer forsaken. He welcomes us with open arms, inviting us into true fellowship, peace, and eternal life by His grace through faith. Shalom with God, with our fellow man (including, shockingly, our enemies), and even with ourselves is progressively ours: “If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit” (Gal. 5:25). As we walk with Him by faith, we more and more live, think, and feel like Jesus, even regarding our own shame.

Believers tackle shame in this way as they live the rest of their Christian lives by His grace and strength. This means that we need the means of grace that He has appointed—the Word read, preached, sung, prayed, and seen in the sacraments. We also need those secondary means of fellowship (Acts 4:32) and church discipline (Gal. 6:1). Using all these practical answers to our shame, we can sit up, crawl, walk, and run to God’s glory, unraveling and despising the shame that so easily entangles us.

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