Because shame is always hiding, it often catches us by surprise. An unbeliever had been attending my church for several months. Always professionally dressed and well spoken, he often thanked me for my sermons. But nothing in our previous interactions prepared me or his visit to my office.
In the previous Sunday's sermon, I'd considered David's humiliating flight from Jerusalem in 2 Samuel 15. I observed that not only was David learning to trust God through his humiliation, but he was also pointing to Jesus Christ. Like David, Jesus left Jerusalem humiliated. Every scrap of dignity was stripped away, not as He fled, but as He died on the cross, naked and shamed. But unlike David's, Jesus' humiliation was not the result of His sin, but ours. The incredible truth of the gospel is that Jesus not only bore our guilt, but He also endured our shame (Heb. 12:2).
This struck a chord in my visitor's heart. For decades, he had carried an inescapable sense of shame. As an immigrant, he had been educated in schools that taught him to be embarrassed of who he was. And though he'd grown up to become an advocate for his people, he could not escape the shame he felt. As we talked, his shame attached to things he'd done as well as to his ethnicity, and no matter how hard he tried, he could not escape it. He knew the teachers had been wrong about his culture. He also knew that he was right to feel ashamed.
Our churches are filled with people like this man. People filled with shame for what has been done to them and for what they have done. They're hiding, hoping that others won't see them. They might hide in reclusiveness, but are just as likely to hide in perfectionism, success, activism, or even brazenness. But like Adam and Eve, who after the fall tried to hide their shame with fig leaves (Gen. 3:7), our strategies don't work because the shame remains. No matter how well we cover it, we know it's still there.
So how can the local church help comfort and heal those who are hiding, covered in their shame?
First, we need to be communities where the gospel is preached. Not just from the pulpit, but in our small groups and mentoring relationships, around the dinner table and over coffee. And that gospel must address our shame. Jesus not only justifies us; He also washes us clean and clothes us in His righteousness. This is hinted at in God's clothing of Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:21), but it's fulfilled in Christ, in whom we've been arrayed "with the robe of righteousness" (Isa. 61:10). The message of the gospel is not less than forgiveness; it is more. Christ removes our shame and gives us His righteousness.
Second, we need to model accepting each other in Christ. Healing shame doesn't require public disclosure on a Sunday morning, but it does entail revealing our shame to people who will bear our pain with us in love. "If one member suffers, all suffer together" (1 Cor. 12:26). When we come out of hiding and discover that others don't reject us, we begin to believe that God in Christ doesn't reject us either.
Third, unlike the world's response, our response to shame isn't to become brazen. The ashamed need to repent. But to do so, they need help distinguishing the causes of their shame. Shame is complex and distorting. We blame ourselves for what others did to us, and excuse ourselves for how we responded. This is "worldly sorrow that leads to death" (2 Cor. 7:10–11). Hope for the ashamed is found as responsibility is placed where it belongs, and that will often require the clear-eyed perspective of others. As we help people see the difference between their own sin and others' sin against them, godly sorrow and repentance can begin their gracious work in us.
Finally, our churches should be places where shame is redeemed rather than denied. In 1 Corinthians 6:9–10, Paul gives a list of shameful sins that believers should not tolerate in themselves. But then he goes on to declare in v. 11, "And such were some of you." The ashamed look around at church and don't see anyone like them. But through public testimonies, transparent relationships, caring small groups, and even wise sermon illustrations, the ashamed discover that they are in the company of redeemed sinners. When that happens, hope is conveyed that Paul's next sentence could be true of them as well. "But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God."
The only kind of local church that can bring comfort to the ashamed is the church that is unashamed of the gospel. And that means owning Jesus in His humiliation for us. This is what the man who came to my office found so difficult. He'd hoped for a Christianity that would remove his false shame, without confronting him with his true shame. But it's a package deal. He's still listening, still struggling. And we're still walking with him, because we aren't surprised by shame. Rather, as Christians, we know both what it means to be ashamed and to have our shame removed.