The Gospel for Shame

In the March edition of Burning Issues, Robert showed us that shame is a universal condition. It was the first consequence of the fall (Genesis 3:7-8; cf 2:25) and affects us all. Genesis 3:7-8 portrays two dimensions of shame: shame before other people and shame before God. Shame is closely linked to both guilt and fear (v10). But, whereas I feel guilty because of specific things that I have done, shame arguably goes even deeper. Someone else is looking at me and I am inadequate. Who I am is not enough!

At that moment their eyes were opened, and they suddenly felt shame at their nakedness. So, they sewed fig leaves together to cover themselves. When the cool evening breezes were blowing, the man and his wife heard the Lord God walking about in the garden. So they hid from the Lord God among the trees. Then the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?” He replied, “I heard you walking in the garden, so I hid. I was afraid because I was naked.” (Genesis 3:7-10)
Now the man and his wife were both naked, but they felt no shame.(Genesis 2:25)
I may adopt various strategies to cover my shame (vv7-10). I may keep my distance – hide myself away – from others and/or from God. I may try to create an identity that presents myself positively to others, or that discourages others from getting too close, for example by appearing “hard”. One reaction to shame is to act shamelessly! However, even behind a successfully projected identity, my sense of shame at my inadequacy and brokenness may remain undiminished. Meanwhile, my efforts to maintain my identity can themselves be damaging, both to me and others. Think of the damage caused by over-work, fighting or promiscuity, for example.

Psychologist Bessel van der Kolk1 observes that trauma is almost always bound up with shame. Many trauma victims feel ashamed of their own reaction at the time of their terrible vulnerability and helplessness; for example, how they were overwhelmed by fear or anger. An abuse victim may feel ashamed of trying to maintain some sense of connection with their abuser, then wonder if they were really a victim or a willing accomplice. In Flame parlance, shame enters at the time of the trauma. Some trauma victims then feel further shame at how they behave when their trauma is triggered by subsequent events. Shame can thus cause them to hide from others and can be a major obstacle to them seeking help with their trauma.

Derek Prince2 taught on the multiple exchanges that took place at the cross. As Western Christians, we are perhaps most familiar with Jesus’ remedy for our guilt. Jesus took the punishment that we deserve for our sin, so that, in exchange, we might receive the righteousness of God (Romans 3:21-24, Philippians 3:7-9). In addition, Jesus provided for our healing: “by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:4-5, Matthew 8:16-17). He was also rejected that we might be accepted (Isaiah 53:3, 1 John 3:1).

In regard to shame, Jesus took on shame so that we might be restored to a place of honour in his Father’s household. He set aside his glory and came to live among us as a servant (Philippians 2:6-7). He was born to an unmarried girl, spent his early years as a refugee, then grew up in Nazareth of all places (John 1:46). Supremely, “For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame”, as a result of which he was invited to “sit down at the right hand of the throne of God”, the place of highest honour (Hebrews 12:2, Philippians 2:8-11). In Christ, we are now invited to sit with him (Ephesians 2:6).
I am struck by the phrase that Jesus “scorned” the shame of the cross. Did Jesus ever actually feel shame? After all, he committed no sin. Moreover, to Jesus all that mattered was the approval of his Father, not of men. As he always did what pleased his Father, so he remained in his love (John 15:10). Yet we understand that when Jesus bore our sin on the cross, his Father turned his face away (Matthew 27:46). How did Jesus feel then? I can read Psalm 22:1-5 both ways!
Either way, motivated by obedience to his Father, Jesus willingly entered into numerous situations that many in his culture felt were utterly shameful. The cross was the ultimate of these. It was not just a means of execution, but the most shameful means of death that the Romans could devise – designed to discourage any who witnessed it from following the same path as those being crucified. Jesus was falsely accused, rejected, mocked, severely beaten and hanged, bleeding and naked in full public view (remember Genesis 3:7). Yet he accepted this treatment, so that we can be forgiven and restored to our place of great honour with him and his Father. All this is great news, but how do I apply it to my life, so as to begin to live free from my deeply personal feelings of shame? Here are four powerful steps.

Firstly, I must understand that, when I give my life to Jesus and receive his Spirit living in me, I become a new creation: “The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Corinthians 5:17). In baptism, my old self was crucified (Romans 6:1-7). Around the world many cultures understand that the only way to truly deal with shame is for that which is shameful to be put to death. Tragically, this is the belief behind so-called “honour killings”. But my shameful old self has been put to death and in Christ I now live a new life, led by his Spirit.

Secondly, I must submit to Jesus as Lord of my whole life. Why did shame enter the world as soon as Adam and Eve sinned? My understanding is that, when they chose to go their own way instead of God’s, Adam and Eve stepped outside of God’s protection and provision. Imagine their sudden realisation that “being like God” came with huge responsibilities for which they were totally unequipped to handle. Plus, they may already have begun to doubt their own judgment. They were indeed not enough! But when I invite Jesus to be Lord of my life, his promises of protection and provision are restored. Jesus will handle the things that I cannot do – the things that rightly belong to God – and I need only to do the things that he asks of me. Jesus’ promise to me is that “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:30).

I should now be in a position to start believing what God’s word tells me about my new identity in Christ. This is the third step. Romans 8 is a great chapter for this: I am now free of condemnation. The “righteous requirement of the law” is “fully met” in me. God’s Spirit lives in me and gives me life. I am a child of God and, through the Spirit, have privileged access to the Father. I can even call him “Daddy”! I am an heir of God’s kingdom, though I may have to suffer before I fully enter into my inheritance. (Suffering will show that I am now a co-heir with Jesus.) God is for me, so who can be against me? Jesus himself prays for me. In Jesus, therefore, I am more than a conqueror. I am loved by God and nothing can take that away from me. As I meditate on these truths over time, I should repent of the various lies that I have been holding onto about who I am. Jesus has transformed my position and identity.

These truths will be hard to truly take on board, however, if I am surrounded by people (family, work colleagues, so-called friends) who continually put me down. This may “just” be a continuation of old patterns, but it may even become worse if they resent my (new) faith. God’s remedy for this is to gather me into a new family, his family. Step four, therefore, is to prioritise being part of a church where people affirm me in Jesus, even as they bear with my faults. Sadly, this may not happen in the first church that I try. But once I find such a church, I should do the same for them.

Because Jesus set aside the glories of heaven and came to share in our humanity, he understands me, yet he still loves and accepts me (Hebrews 2:10-18). In being born as a baby, taking on the role of a servant and especially in submitting to death on a cross, he modelled vulnerability, trusting that his Father would look after him. Within a loving church, I can also gradually learn to share my weaknesses and struggles – and find that I am still loved and accepted.

This article draws on the following:
1. Bessel van der Kolk (2015) The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, brain and body in the transformation of trauma. Penguin Books, UK (see specifically pp.13-14,67).
2. Derek Prince (2007) Bought with Blood: The divine exchange at the cross. Chosen Books.
3. Jayson Georges (2017) The 3D Gospel: Ministry in guilt, shame and fear cultures. Timē Press.
4. Simon Cozens (2019) Looking Shame in the Eye: A path to understanding, grace and freedom. Inter-Varsity Press, London.
I have also greatly benefited from conversations with Robert during preparation of this article.

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