Why We Feel Shame

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Cows don’t feel shame. This amazing fact dawned on me at the Lorain County Fair one particularly mild summer in Ohio. What wasn’t mild was my revulsion at the bulging udders caked with filth on display for the world to see. All the while the cow just stood there, blinking glassy eyes. My near-pubescent mind, already constantly aware of the unpleasant aspects of corporal existence, could not grasp such a thing. Cows may not feel shame, but preteen boys breathe it.

And so do all other oxygen-inhaling people, regardless of their stage in life or personal background. It’s been this way almost as long as people have breathed earth’s atmosphere. Almost. There was a time when people enjoyed the richness of human existence without even knowing what shame is. No experience of continuous self-doubt and fear of condemnation.

Glorious, Shameful People

God originally created man good—very good, in fact—in His image (Gen. 1:26–31; 2:25). That is, in the words of the Heidelberg Catechism, “in true righteousness and holiness” (Q&A 6). Adam was perfectly safe around God because he was like Him. Shame was completely foreign to his makeup, wholly inappropriate to so glorious a creature. He could walk naked before all creation. Everything that could be known about this man and his wife was on full display. And they were unafraid.

But we all know the next chapter. The foolish doubt, the lustful gaze, the greedy consumption. And suddenly, they were aware of their nakedness in ways they hadn’t been before. They weren’t more naked than they were before, but their nakedness was now unsafe. They could no longer safely disclose everything about themselves to the watching world, to each other, or especially to God. The afternoon walks with God that had once been the delight of their day were now the terror of their life.

Delight had been replaced with dread—not because God changed, but because they had. They were keenly aware of the presence of some new thing, some malady alien to their design: defect, fault, sin. And they’d invited it in, little believing that with sin came death (Rom. 5:12). They had insisted on knowing evil, and now they were participants in its consequences—namely, the stalking awareness of death.

Meanwhile, the cows chewed their cud and looked on, oblivious to their own nakedness. A cow doesn’t feel shame because it is not the masterpiece of God. Moral agents created to reflect God’s character are alone capable of knowing the personal tragedy of what was lost.

Our Experience of Shame

Not much has changed for cows over the generations. Not much has changed for us either. We remain plagued with shame. Inside us, our thoughts conflict and our consciences accuse, reminding us that Christ will judge “the secrets of men” (Rom. 2:14–16). Shame is the pain of knowing that our consciences are right.

Shame is self-evaluative but aware of the evaluations of others, particularly God. It’s a feeling intensely about self, but always conscious of the gaze of others. It’s the unshakable internal testimony that we don’t measure up and also the corresponding fear that others will discover this fact.

Some scholars like to distinguish between shame and guilt by describing shame as a pronouncement against who I am, while guilt is a pronouncement against what I do. Shame is an individual’s private awareness that he deserves judgment as a person, while guilt is a sense of remorse for his judgment-worthy conduct. Many believe that a good dose of guilt for wrongful actions is healthy, but shame as a pronouncement about self is unhealthy.

I think distinctions like this can be helpful for the purpose of understanding the nuances of our experience, but not for separating them. Guilt and shame go hand in hand. If I do something wrong, it indicates something about me. We sin because we are sinners. That is a connection the Bible clearly maintains (Matt. 15:18; Luke 6:45), so shame is a healthy part of our self-perception.

Now wait a second. Did I just say that shame is healthy? Yes, but note this very carefully: shame is a healthy part, but not a healthy end of the Christian experience. Shame is not the final conclusion we make about ourselves. It is a painful awareness that keeps us from resting contentedly in our fallen state. It drives us to seek defense from the accusations, a refuge from the threat of judgment, some shred of grace from a merciful Judge.

And only by being pushed will we find that there’s more than a shred of grace. There are reams of it. Reams of white linen to clothe naked people.

This is the Christian gospel, one that Christians proclaim to themselves over and over as they live under the daily burden of being reminded of the remaining darkness within. In this way, God reverses Satan’s use of shame. Satan wants our shame to drive us away from God and into the bushes. God wants our shame to drive us to Himself for clothing.

What a Christian Does with Shame

Unpacking the practical aspects of these observations, we see that a Christian is left with at least three options to deal with his or her experience of shame. The first two are bogus. Only the last is God’s intention for the believer.

First, Christians can hide from God and from others in fear. Christians know better than anyone what God says about sin. His declarations ring in their ears from the preaching of the church and from the lives of fellow believers. As our original parents did, they hide from God and from one another. They live under the distressing awareness that things inside them don’t fit the expectations of everyone around them.

It’s one thing to admit to pride. Everyone calls that sin, and confessing it is expected to be par for the course. But what about private, deep sins? The gross sexual fantasies, the vicious confidential insults, the drunken indulgences? The thought of anyone’s finding out about these causes such distress that a Christian isolates himself from everyone, including God.

It doesn’t take long for this isolation to become cynicism. Jesus becomes the kind of Savior who prefers happy people with delicate sins. The cynic views Jesus as willing to help people who are impatient, but not those who are perverts. But this is not the Jesus of Scripture, who gives “white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen” (Rev. 3:18).

This first option doesn’t work because shame needs to be removed, not hidden.

Second, Christians can seek to avoid their sense of shame. They don’t enjoy it and believe it to be harmful to their sense of self. So through various means, whether it’s a sophisticated psychology or just muddled conventional wisdom, they talk themselves out of feeling shame by making excuses or shifting blame.

Now, it’s entirely possible for believers to feel false shame; that is, fearing the condemnation of others because they do not measure up to some cultural value system that’s not necessarily biblical. Teenagers can feel shame for having pimples, elderly people for being forgetful, professionals for not making enough money. This is false shame because it’s based on a false standard. Dealing with this requires us to deny those standards that rival God’s and to refuse to measure ourselves by them.

But when it comes to God’s standard, there’s no use in denying personal culpability. There is no ultimate comfort in trying to lessen my sense of nakedness before a holy God. Trying to do so is just sewing fig leaves into a patchy garment. Shame is a necessary part of the experience of a Christian because it drives him back to the cross, where he again experiences that his shame has already been removed.

This second option doesn’t work because shame needs to be removed, not avoided.

Thus, the third and final option for a Christian to handle shame, and the only right one: Christians acknowledge what is shameful within them in the safety of God’s promised grace. Shame is an internal witness that sin has corrupted us so thoroughly that only God could possibly set things right. And He’s promised to do just that.

The God of blazing holiness, whose purity characterizes everything about Him, will not despise a broken and contrite heart (Ps. 51:17). As we said, shame is a healthy part, but not a healthy end of the Christian identity. That’s because the Christian identity is founded on that backwards message of Jesus, who came to tell good people that they are actually quite bad, and bad people that He can make them good (Mark 2:15–17). The end of Christian identity is righteousness, not shame. This righteousness is given from Another to them by faith, but is no less theirs because of it (Rom. 1:16–17).

Sure, cows don’t feel shame. But that doesn’t make them more fortunate than we are. Cows will never have the chance to share in the righteousness of Christ. No other creature feels shame because no other creature was meant to share the character of its Creator.

Shame is a privilege. Remember that the next time you experience it. It shows that God values you enough to beckon you to the righteousness that He alone can provide.

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