The words were barely out of my mouth when shame hit me like a tidal wave. It swept over me in an instant, leaving me feeling desperate for a hole to crawl into. I just wanted to run for cover. Make my escape from the eyes of anyone seeing or judging my perceived failure. Maybe you’ve been there. My story may spark a memory of a time when you felt the same way. Or maybe shame just feels like an unwelcome companion that’s always with you. If you’re like me, you may have a vague perception of what shame even is. If so, let’s unpack shame’s definition:
What is shame?
Shame is a painful emotion or condition. It’s caused by a sense of being embarrassed, guilty, or a disappointment. It makes us feel unworthy or dishonored. It causes us to blush with feelings of humiliation. In a document entitled, “The Journey Begins, Open Hearts Ministry defines shame this way:
What gives shame its’ power?
- Fear. This fear can attach to a number of things. For one it might be fear of disappointing people whose opinions matter deeply. To another it might be fear of criticism or judgment. It might be fear of facing an emotionally upsetting conversation. Sometimes we just like to stay in shallow waters where we feel comfortable. Sometimes fear of exposure is what gives shame its’ power. We may feel that if others see us for who we are they’ll reject or abandon us.
- Secrecy and silence empower shame. Sometimes we believe that what others don’t know won’t hurt them. Or us. So we isolate emotionally or physically, thinking it’s a safe refuge. Break the silence, and you’re halfway to freedom.
- Shame is also empowered by hiding. Sometimes others can’t help us because they can’t see where we are emotionally or spiritually. That may be because we choose to be invisible. Invulnerable. Covered from their eyes. Another way that we may choose to hide is by presenting an image to others that isn’t true. It’s like we’re wearing a mask. Proverbs 18:1 says, “Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment.” We just weren’t wired to life life alone. Author Jimmy Evans in his book entitled, When Life Hurts says, “What’s the first thing you and I do when we sin? We try to cover up what we’ve done. We cower in shame, because anytime we fall for Satan’s lies, shame is the response he’s after. He shames us into sin, and then shames us for sinning…It isn’t our nakedness that drives us away from God; it’s our hiding. It isn’t sin that keeps us distant; it’s how we respond on the heels of sin. It isn’t God’s voice speaking shame into our hearts; it the voice of the enemy…God’s voice brings only forgiveness and restoration. God seeks us out when we hide. He pursues us in the midst of our sin, and he says to us, “Who told you that you were worthless? Who told you I couldn’t use you? Who told you I wouldn’t forgive you? Who told you I couldn’t love you?…God says to us, “Don’t hide from me. Don’t distance yourself from my love. Let’s deal with your sin and move forward.”” Pages 75-77
- Shame is empowered by lies.
- The lie that shame is an adequate covering.
- The lie that we didn’t just do something wrong, but we ourselves are wrong.
- The lie that there’s no solution to the shame we feel
- The lie that a person only feels shame when they’ve sinned. Shame is often rooted in lies of accusation against God’s people.
How to overcome shame:
- Take an inventory of what’s in your heart. If we’re going to overcome shame, it begins with honesty. The mask needs to come off. We need to own who we really are. In order to do this, we need to see ourselves accurately. The problem is, sometimes we don’t always see the condition of our own hearts through the lens of truth. We need God’s help. Psalm 139:23-24 says, “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” God knows the truth about what’s in our hearts. We don’t, and others certainly don’t. We can’t present the truth about ourselves to others if we don’t know what the truth is. When, we come up with an accurate inventory, we might discover that we agreed with shame because we believed lies.
- Recognize the difference between shame and conviction. Conviction from God is redemptive; it leads us to repentance. It’s specific and offers us a solution. It offers forgiveness when we repent. Shame, on the other hand, is vague. It keeps believers trapped in feelings that say, “I am wrong,” not “I did something wrong.” Shame attaches to our identity, so anyone who challenges our behavior is seen as rejecting who I am as a person. Shame offers us no solution.
- Take cover. If we see that there’s sin in our hearts, we need something to cover us. We see this played out in the lives of Adam and Eve. After eating of the forbidden fruit, they felt shame. They attempted to cover their shame with fig leaves. The problem is, shame doesn’t have the power to set us free from the fear of exposure, humiliation or judgment. The good news is that God has provided a perfect covering for our sin. He has, in His word, given us His law. He has clearly defined what is sinful; and though we as human beings will never in our own efforts be able to fully obey His laws, He has made a way for us to be seen as righteous in His eyes. When we as His children stand before God as our judge, we have an advocate in Jesus. He stands beside us to defend us from accusations. When our sins have been washed away through repentance, our accusers now don’t just point their fingers at us, they point them at our Savior. Those fingers accuse our Savior of inadequacy to cleanse; but our Savior’s blood is more than sufficient to cleanse us from all unrighteousness! The word of God tells us that “we will refute every tongue that accuses us.” This is our heritage given to us by God Himself. When we need a covering that will protect us from shame, we have 2 choices. Picture 2 coats hanging on a coatrack. One is black, representing shame. One is red, representing the blood of Jesus. To put our hope in one is to reject the other. To put our hope in the blood of Jesus to cover us means to turn our back on shame.
- Be honest. This means we turn away from hypocrisy. Jesus addressed this when speaking to the Pharisees in Luke chapter 11: “…you Pharisees make the outside of the cup and dish clean, but your inward part is full of greed and wickedness.” When we put our hope in the blood of Jesus to cleanse our hearts of sin, we “wash the inside of the cup.” Then we can present ourselves to others in an authentic way that we aren’t ashamed of. Then Colossians1:22-23 will be our reality: “But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation—if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel.” Choosing honesty with God will sometimes leads us to confess our sins to those impacted. While this can feel scary and humbling, it is also the key that sets us free from the prison of shame. When we’re honest with one another, shame no longer has anything to hold us hostage with. Fear of exposure is broken. Fear of humiliation…gone. It takes a lot of courage to confess sin, but in my life, I’ve found that when I do, I’m usually met with grace. Proverbs 28:18 says, “People who conceal their sins will not prosper, but if they confess and turn from them, they will receive mercy.” Others still have the choice to forgive or not, but we will be free either way.
- Don’t yield to shame over someone else’s wrong judgments and accusations. Sometimes others can be downright malicious, spreading blatant lies about our character. I know of one person who lived with a cloak of shame over something they were accused of, knowing it wasn’t true. Resisting shame in this situation still takes forcefully resisting shame. Sometimes it takes verbally speaking truth. (even if we’re just talking to ourselves)
- Turn away from shame over what others have done to you. Author Edward T. Welch said, “When you are guilty you feel dirty because of what you did; but with shame you feel dirty because of what somebody did to you. Forgiveness for your sins is not the answer here because you are not the one who was wrong. But the cross of Christ is still the answer. Jesus’ blood not only washes us clean from the guilt of our own sins, but also washes away the shame we experience when others sin against us.” The first step in breaking free when others have done something that left us feeling shame is forgiveness.
- Sometimes overcoming shame means submitting to the loving discipline of our Father. He calls us out into the light. This means turning away from sin that opened the door to shame. Proverbs 13:18 says, “He who ignores discipline comes to poverty and shame, but whoever heeds correction is honored.” The good news is that, “the LORD longs to be gracious to you; therefore he will rise up to show you compassion.” (Isaiah 30:18)
May you look to the One who is able to free you from shame,