Seminary Viewpoints

How to Overcome Shame

Bruce Meyer | August 4, 2022
Theology Thursday

I am indebted to Ed Welch for much of my understanding of this theology. I highly recommend his book Shame Interrupted for a thorough treatment.

You might remember several years ago when Southwest Airlines ran their “Wanna get away?” ad campaign in which people faced the unfortunate outcomes of dumb choices they made in public. We’ve all experienced that desire to hide under the nearest rock because of something dumb we said or did — otherwise known as shame.

However, sometimes shame is much more than embarrassment over a laughable accident. For some people, including Christians, it is a debilitating discouragement caused by their actions or even an action done to them. How can they overcome this shame? Not surprisingly, the Bible has the solution for shame. But first, we must understand what the Bible says about its cause.

Shame Exposed

Shame was not original to creation. Moses writes in Genesis 2:25 that Adam and Eve “were both naked and were not ashamed.” This is not just a statement about their fashion status; it relates their innocence and openness both with each other and with God. They were not ashamed because there was no cause for shame.

We tend to read that statement without much thought. However, it actually sets up the reversal that occurs in chapter 3: as soon as Adam and Eve sinned, they realized that they were unclothed and became ashamed. Therefore, our own sin causes our shame.

Genesis 3 gives us several truths needed to understand shame:

  1. Shame is the realization of being flawed, deficient and exposed, not just the perception of having done wrong (guilt). Moses connects our shame with the fear of being seen beyond the surface. By extension, then, this shame greatly hinders our ability to know and be known.
  2. Shame affects not just our spiritual perceptions but also our physical perceptions. In fact, Moses doesn’t draw lines of distinction between the two since we are whole persons. This truth, I believe, sheds light on the seemingly inexplicable drive in our society to change what we are physically, whether it be gender, sexuality or appearance (excessive tattoos, piercings, gauges, and the like). Rooted in rebellion against God, these practices are often methods to help people feel comfortable in their own skin. Just as Adam and Eve covered themselves with wilting fig leaves, people find their own way to reach comfort. However, the truth remains that we can’t change our spiritual guilt and shame by changing externals.
  3. God deals with our shame through substitution. God provided a more substantial way to deal with Adam and Eve’s shame by replacing their leaves with clothing made of skin. Moreover, this substitution required the death of another for their relief from guilt and shame. This theology will expand as we move through the Scriptures, but for now it establishes the basic, but essential, principle of substitution.

Shame Expanded

As we move through the Scriptures, God presents snapshots that help us understand more about shame. For example, the prophets speak often of shame, particularly referring to idolatry. Leviticus, however, gives a broader picture of what causes our shame.

In Genesis 3 we observed that our own sin produces our shame. That theme continues in Leviticus, but God expands the categories to include what others sinfully do to us. In Leviticus 18 and 20, God repeatedly uses an idiomatic expression “uncover the nakedness” with reference to various sexual sins committed against another. The expression highlights the active agency of the person in uncovering or causing the nakedness of someone, that is, exposing that person’s shame. Therefore, these sins not only bring shame to the perpetrator but also to the victim. It’s also worth noting that no one makes another person “clean” by contact but rather the reverse — the unclean defiles the clean.

Sadly, our sin not only affects our own relationship with God and our view of self but also creates barriers for the victims of that sin. Victims of sin — such as sexual, physical, or emotional assaults — will battle against unbiblical thoughts about themselves, their relationships and most importantly their relationship with God.

The sacrificial system in Leviticus did temporarily alleviate uncleanness and resulting shame, but it points to the permanent solution of the Messiah.

Shame Erased

Isaiah enhances our understanding of the solution to shame in chapter 53 with a major discussion of atonement through the Messiah. Although shame doesn’t appear in this chapter, Isaiah sprinkles shame or other cognates throughout the immediate context. On the heels of the substitutionary atonement in Isaiah 53, the author addresses the results in chapter 54. Here Isaiah speaks pointedly to Israel’s shame (v. 4) using both relational and divine terms: maker, husband, LORD, Redeemer, Holy One and God (v. 5).

The author of Hebrews, who was exhorting his readers toward perseverance and away from discouragement (12:1, 3), also wrote concerning Jesus’ atoning work in Hebrews 12:2. Here the author teaches that

  • Jesus is the author and completer of our faith.
  • The cross is the basis and object for our faith.
  • Jesus’ cross-work included bearing our shame.
  • Jesus now intercedes for us before the Father.

The unclean (ashamed) is made clean through contact with the Savior through faith in His work. The clean one, Jesus, cleanses the unclean (cf. Luke 8:42-48).

So when we feel the discouragement of failure, guilt, and shame, remember that we are accepted, not based on our works, but because of the finished work of Christ! His ongoing work of intercession further reminds us that the Father accepts and welcomes us because of Jesus. Through Him, we can overcome shame.

As discussed by Bruce Meyer on The Steve Noble Show on August 4