Unmasking the Shadows of Shame

During my time in Iran as a Pastor, a vivid memory stands out - the memory of Hoda1. Our paths crossed during one of the seminars I conducted, and she bravely opened up about her life. Hoda’s heart raced as she approached the podium to share her testimony. Hoda had been seeking counselling and prayer support to combat her deep-seated depression. The weight of expectation and self-doubt hung heavy on her shoulders, threatening to crush her spirit. Just as she began to speak, an unexpected calm washed over her. It was as if an invisible shield enveloped her, shielding her from the judgmental eyes of the audience.

This newfound confidence had been granted to someone who had reached out to me for prayer ministry. She had been grappling with profound inner shame that had haunted her since her early years, leading to paralysing self-doubt and recurring bouts of severe depression. Weeks after our prayer session, she approached me with a beaming smile, revealing that she had regained the confidence to pursue her dreams, for she knew she was not alone. Hoda had carried the burden of shame throughout her life. The harsh critiques from her mother and the lack of affection from her husband due to her weight had cast a long shadow over her existence. Nevertheless, when she found solace in her faith and joined a prayer ministry session, she discovered that she was no longer alone. That prayer session marked a significant, albeit initial, step on her journey towards healing.

In my ministry, I believe in the power of allowing God to reframe traumatic memories that fuel toxic shame2—a sense of inherent wrongness in one’s identity rather than in specific wrong actions. This approach, although often overlooked by the Western Church, is an essential facet of my theological convictions aimed at addressing the brokenness within individuals.

To commence our discussion on the culture of Shame and Honour and how we can address it effectively, it is essential to establish a clear distinction between shame and guilt. These two emotions are frequently conflated, yet they demand distinct approaches for resolution. It is crucial to recognise that in this context, we are not referring to the shame that arises from a sense of guilt. Instead, our focus is on what is often termed ‘toxic shame,’ a standalone emotion that can be discerned from guilt through the following characteristics:
  • Someone who is guilty says, ‘I did that bad thing’. 
  • Someone who is ashamed says, ‘I am a bad person’.
  • Someone who is guilty feels regret.
  • Someone who is ashamed feels small.
  • People who are guilty see their acts as separate from themselves.
  • People who are ashamed see their whole selves as inadequate.
  • People who are guilty are concerned with the effect of their actions on others.
  • People who are ashamed are concerned with how others see them.

As an Iranian pastor and psychologist deeply immersed in the intricacies of our culture’s perception of shame, I had a profound encounter with a fellow believer. After delivering a discourse on this very subject, the impact of my words was so profound that one Iranian pastor approached me, confessing, “Your words may have just altered the course of my life.” However, in my interactions with others, I’ve discerned that many struggle to acknowledge the pervasive influence of shame in their lives. Perhaps this reluctance stems from the excruciating pain associated with such an admission, or maybe it’s only those who have experienced a perceived decline in societal status who can truly empathise with this plight.
In today’s culture, individuals who have found themselves marginalised, such as women, divorcees, the unemployed, those who have battled mental health challenges, individuals with disabilities, and those who endured school or workplace bullying, share a common experience of shaming and its lingering effects. Even if some ministers cannot personally relate to this experience, a substantial portion of their congregants undoubtedly can. Once you open your eyes to it, the omnipresence of shame becomes glaringly evident.

In the Middle Eastern culture, shame takes precedence over guilt, and it is the profound feeling of personal wrongness that resonates with most individuals. Unlike the past, where people grappled with guilt, often rooted in a strong sense of duty, my pastoral work has revealed that shame is the prevalent struggle among the people I interact with. It has become a pressing issue that demands our immediate attention, particularly in the context of the gospel.3

Jesus, in his earthly ministry, extensively addressed the issue of shame, a fact that may have been overshadowed by our preoccupation with his role in dealing with guilt. A poignant example can be found in the story of the man with leprosy at the outset of Mark’s gospel. This man had committed no wrong, yet he had been subjected to shame and exclusion by many in society. Uncertain of how Jesus would receive him, he approached with a plea: “If you are willing, you can make me clean” (Mark 1.40). Moved by compassion, Jesus reached out and touched the man, declaring, “I am willing. Be clean.” In those words, “I am willing,” lay the profound affirmation that not only healed his leprosy but also mended his deep-seated shame.
I believe shame doesn’t simply yield to the straightforward message of “repent and receive God’s forgiveness” because it doesn’t solely revolve around our actions or sins. When it comes to mending wounded souls, our toolkit must extend beyond mere confession and absolution. The true remedy for shame lies in gazing into the countenance of God and discovering the profound affirmation that resides there. As the psalmist beseeches, “Restore us, O God; let your radiant face shine upon us, and in that radiance, may we find our salvation” (Psalm 80:3).

In the context of Shame and Honour culture, we emphasise the importance of reaching a point where we can confidently approach God. However, when dealing with individuals deeply impacted by shame, it’s crucial to tread carefully when discussing the Cross. While penal substitution, the concept that Christ was sent by his Father to bear the penalty for our sins, serves as a meaningful model of atonement for explaining how the Cross addresses guilt, it’s essential to consider its impact on someone struggling with shame—a perspective cherished by many evangelicals4.

One challenge lies in the initial step of this explanation, which entails telling the individual that they are a sinner. While this statement is undeniably true, it may not be the most suitable starting point. Those grappling with shame are primarily asking themselves, “Am I of value?” rather than “How can I address my guilt?” If someone already perceives a profound flaw within themselves, labelling them as a sinner can further alienate them.

Another significant challenge is that individuals grappling with shame may have experienced past abusive situations5. Disturbing statistics reveal that nearly 1.7 million adult women and 699,000 adult men in our society have experienced domestic abuse in the last year6, a figure that doesn’t even account for those who suffered childhood abuse. It’s quite possible that a minister may unknowingly be addressing someone whose sense of shame has been triggered in this manner.

In his book ‘The Soul of Shame,’ Curt Thompson describes God intentionally sending his Son to the Cross, but it may inadvertently resonate too strongly with these individuals’ traumatic experiences, akin to their perception of ‘cosmic child abuse.’ People who have been traumatised develop hypersensitivity, continuously scanning their surroundings for any resemblance to their past abuse. While we can present the logical argument that God the Father and Jesus consented fully to the events of the Cross, it is neither just nor realistic to expect their subconscious to cease flagging a warning, saying, ‘don’t trust him.’

In addressing shame within the context of Iranian culture, it appears to me that turning to older interpretations of the Cross, akin to the practices upheld by the Eastern Orthodox Church, holds greater efficacy. Early Church Fathers described humanity’s predicament as being ensnared by the devil, a concept that resonates profoundly with the inner torment experienced by those grappling with shame. Drawing from Irenaeus’s notion of recapitulation, we can assert that he pioneered a path leading from death to resurrection and ultimate glory.
We acknowledge that Jesus intimately identified with our shame through his profoundly disgraceful crucifixion. He now beckons us to journey alongside him, escaping the “deathly” confinement of the devil’s shame-ridden prison, ascending towards resurrection, and basking in the radiant embrace of God’s affirming love. This transformation brings us into conformity with his glorious likeness (2 Corinthians 3:18), a stark departure from the realm of shame. In the course of time, as individuals nurture a trusting relationship with God, they may find themselves secure enough to confront their guilt. At that juncture, the model of penal substitution could potentially offer a helpful perspective on the atonement. Nonetheless, it is imperative to recognise that it represents just one interpretation of the cross, sourced from the rich tapestry of biblical text. Following the precedent set by St. Paul in Acts 17, we must tailor our presentation of the gospel to align with the specific needs of our audience.

In conclusion, I urge you not to underestimate the power of shame. Acknowledging even the slightest influence of shame in your own life can greatly enhance your ability to empathise with those who grapple with its more profound impact. Once you’ve recognised its presence within yourself, you’ll begin to notice it permeating various aspects of the world around you.
1 The narrative presented at the outset of this article has been shared with the individual’s approval, and her name has been altered. 2 Toxic shame is a feeling that you’re worthless. It happens when other people treat you poorly and you turn that treatment into a belief about yourself. You’re most vulnerable to this type of poor treatment during childhood or as a teen. (Written by WebMD.com) 3 Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures: Biblical Foundations and Practical Essentials by Jayson Georges and Mark D Baker. 4 Restoring the Shamed: Towards a Theology of Shame Paperback – 21 February 2012 by Robin Stockitt. 5 The Soul of Shame – Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves Paperback – 26 August 2015 by Curt Thompson MD. 6 Domestic abuse victim characteristics, England and Wales: year ending March 2022.
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