Why Shame Needs to Make a Comeback

December 14, 2012

I can tell right now, this may not be a popular post with some of you.  You may decide to publicly shame me for this.

And I have to say I struggled with this one. Yeah, I’m actually advocating more shame.

Let’s start on a lighter note though…

A couple of weeks ago, I heard a news story that made me laugh111312_edge_ohiowoman2_640

An Ohio woman, Shena Hardin was stuck behind a school bus in her car.  Such common knowledge about stopping for buses evidently does apply to Hardin, who chose to drive around the stopped school bus…on the sidewalk.

So when she went to court, the judge got creative.  He ordered her to stand on the street corner for a couple of days with a sign reading “Only an Idiot Would Drive on the Sidewalk to Avoid a School Bus.”

I laughed.  Nothing like some good old-fashioned public shaming.

And as I’ve thought about that for a little while, I’ve realized that shame gets a lot of flack.  Shame is a dirty word.  I think shame is mis-defined, misused and misunderstood, like the weird goth kid at school.

…But maybe shame needs to be rehabilitated.  Maybe shame needs to make a comeback.

Pure Unadulterated Shame

The problem with Shena Hardin was that even when she was serving her sentence, she wasn’t just standing with the sign.

She was smoking, listening to headphones and texting.

I know we can’t put people in the stocks anymore.  But the woman obviously felt no shame about being an idiot.  The judge had to actually order her to look more ashamed the following day.

I found the judge’s sentence amusing.  And it had nothing to do with rehabilitation or repaying a debt to society, like most of our justice system.  The sentence was designed for pure, unadulterated shame, the way a fine or community service just would not accomplish.

Shame Is Natural

The thing about shame is it is a natural human feeling.

It’s like fear. Or hunger. Or sexuality.

There is healthy shame, like healthy fear or healthy sex.  Shame in its rightful place tells us that driving on the sidewalk is idiotic.  It keeps our destructive urges in check.  It is a natural human response to our depravity, as old as Adam and Eve, and it is the gateway to our redemption.  What burden can Jesus take from us if we feel no shame in the first place for sin?

I certainly have felt plenty of healthy, godly shame in my life.  And as painful as it is, it makes me run to God all the faster.  It’s exactly when I stop feeling shame for sin that I remain far from God.  If I’m not ashamed of my sin, then I’m justifying it, living with it, loving it.





When Shame Becomes a Weapon

The problem is that every human feeling so easily becomes warped into something it’s not intended to be.  Fear is meant to keep us out of reasonable danger, but some people become excessively and irrationally fearful.  Hunger is intended to tell us we need to eat, but it becomes warped into compulsive overeating.  And sexuality…well, you get the idea.

Human emotions become weapons to wield by some, and weak places to puncture and enslave human hearts.

So many people have been abused spiritually, physically, emotionally, sexually.  People are ostracized and marginalized.  They’ve been enslaved and belittled.  They’ve been denied justice and equality.  And all of these things are build on a foundation of shame in the victims.  (Joy Bennett wrote a fantastic blog about this on Wednesday. Emily Maynard, just yesterday at Prodigal Magazine called shame a thief that makes enemies out of people.)  

Only Through Shame Can We Be Free

Meanwhile, the victimizers, the traffickers, the abusers, the villains seem completely shameless. The only way I can explain the inhumanity of some people is that they have suppressed their natural “shame reflex.”  We need shame for the sex trafficking, the child laborers and soldiers, the sweatshops, the depravity, the cruelty.  The church desperately needs to feel shame for its inaction in such atrocities, while it has busied itself foolishly heaping shame on its own people. Feeling anything else other than shame for these things makes us less human.

I’m not advocating more shame in the world…just a better distribution of shame. For many of you, it’s time to break the chains of shame that someone else has placed on you and be free in Jesus.

And then we pray that the forces that have worked evil in your life would feel shame for what they have done.  We pray that we would feel shame for the wrong we have done, ignored, or idly watched.

Yes, only through shame will we be set free.

Please share your stories.  Tell me if I’m onto something or way off base. (I’m feeling unusually self-conscious because of all the contrary opinions floating around the blogs.) Tell us about the shame you’re freeing yourself of, or the shame that freed you from some trap.  Tell us about when shame was unfairly put on you.

19 responses to Why Shame Needs to Make a Comeback

  1. “Redistribution of shame” Yes!

    As a teacher I see parents who need more shame so their children bear less. I hurt for those kids and some days I am those kids. To be fair, I see kids who need more shame and parents that are struggling to give it. Good parents that are their wits end because their child just isn’t getting it. And I see parents that are in denial about their child’s need for shame. And those children are inflicting pain on others, but I know deep in their hearts they are in pain too. I see all.of this walking through the hallways in the faces of 600+ students. Some days it is overwhelming. Other days, like today, I have a special message to share with a couple students and I know for today I will make a difference.

    I will be praying for a redistribution of shame.

  2. I hear what you’re getting at and it sounds like a semantics thing. I don’t think shame is the right word, it’s sorrow. There’s a verse that says “Godly sorrow leads to repentance”. That’s what we need…not shame.

    Shame causes us to hide. Your example of Adam & Eve is the perfect case study. They didn’t run to God when they sinned, they hid from him because of their shame. I believe the enemy uses shame as his trump card. If he can make us feel shame, it will make us feel unworthy. And that feeling will keep us hidden and isolated.

    • The word sorrow is a good one, but I think ‘public shame’ can be appropriate as well. To me public shame is the societal expectation that we behave in ways that are good and benefitial to the whole society. However when society no longer expects good things and in fact expects bad ones, then we have lost the benefit of public shame.

      So maybe personal sorrow and public shame are the terms we should we using?

    • Eh, you may be right Tony. It may be semantics. And you are right about Adam and Eve. But I think the lesson for us is that even though they hid, God came to them and redeemed them in their shame. Even when we experience godly shame for what we have done (which I think is a normal human response), we need not hide from God.

  3. “The entire life of the Christian is one of repentance”

    (Thesis #1 …of the 95)

    That’s it. Repentance and forgiveness. Over and over and over and over….

  4. People don’t need more shame, they need more Jesus. Shame won’t set us free. Only Jesus will set us free.

    I don’t know where I read/heard this, but I wrote it down:
    Guilt = the emotional response we have when we feel we have done something wrong.
    Shame = An abiding belief or mindset that we are unlovable or without value.
    Guilt is about what I have done, shame is about who I am.

    So, reading this post through these definitions does not make me think we need more shame. I think you’re thinking of another word. And I just looked at the other comments and what Tony said, sorrow, is what I think you meant. Yes, we need more sorrow. Shame only makes us run and hide, like Adam and Eve, naked in the garden.

    Jesus is the cure for shame. Shame often induces us (me) to run away from God. I know I don’t need to (in my head), but when I feel unworthy of any love I falsely believe that God doesn’t love me either. Until God touches my heart and reminds me that he accepts me the way I am BECAUSE of His Son.

    • Well, that’s why I think we don’t need more shame, but a better distribution of shame. Somehow, we say that shame causes us to hide from God, but we are also building a more and more shameless society – that is also growing further from God, in my opinion. When people are confronted by their own sin for the first time, the healthy response should be shame. People who have never felt shame have never been confronted with their sin before God in my opinion.

      The woman with the sign felt no shame as she flaunted her crime. She cannot really be redeemed until she feels some shame and remorse.

      • I guess I agree with Luke, below in the comments. I don’t think we need more shame or even a better distribution of it. And I don’t think a more shameless society necessarily implies that our society is any further from God. People who aren’t following Christ are merely not interested in following Judeo-Christian laws anymore, like maybe they were, as a whole, in the 1950s. Just because you’re following laws, doesn’t mean you’re closer to Jesus. I think the crumbling of our society can actually drive seekers toward God because they get to a point where they realize the society they’re dependent on is a sham. There is no hope elsewhere. My goal is less shame, more grace and love. And that’s not to say that I think sinning is ok. I think it hurts everyone, including God. But, I don’t think that me trying to pour shame on people is going to drive them closer to God. They’ll get enough shame from other places, I want to reflect God’s light for them. I want to show them where they can escape the shame. That’s my goal anyway.

  5. Jo Inglis (@Piano_Jo) December 14, 2012 at 11:11 am

    Interesting thoughts & discussion here.

    Perhaps shame is a word where we see subtle nuances and differences according to our experiences? When I sing the words below I feel sorrow but don’t want to hide from God, or feel worthless & unloved – on the contrary though I feel ashamed I know He loves me more than I could ever know.

    Behold the Man upon a cross, my sin upon His shoulders
    Ashamed I hear my mocking voice, call out among the scoffers

    It was my sin that left Him there, until it was accomplished
    His dying breath has brought me life, I know that it is finished

    But I also see shame being used as a weapon to try to control people for the wrong reasons (as described in Joy’s blog) – that’s the side that’s ugly.

  6. well said, matt! some shame is indeed appropriate, even necessary…and yet, as evidenced by the great genesis narrative, we need not hide from God in our shame, for it is he who covers us. love this :: ‘I’m not advocating more shame in the world…just a better distribution of shame. For many of you, it’s time to break the chains of shame that someone else has placed on you and be free in Jesus.’ || well put!

  7. “The sentence was designed for pure, unadulterated shame, the way a fine or community service just would not accomplish.”

    Why did the judge feel he could shame her in the first place. Obviously she had no shame when she tried to drive past a school bus when it clearly says no passing. Obviously felt no shame of, of all things, driving on the sidewalk to pass the school bus. She felt no shame when she got stuck. She felt no shame when the police showed up. So what did the judge try and do? He/She tried to shame her. Ha, ha the wisdom of the world. She felt no shame when the judge sentenced her to wear a dunce cap in public.

    She felt no shame when she went back to court when someone ratted on her for smoking, using her cell phone being productive. Obviously she felt no shame having to go back to court and having to face another public shame what ever that is. In this age of tolerance there should not be anything to be ashamed about. But that does not include everybody.

    Judges now allow what a few years ago were shameful to be done in public and many people feel that’s a shame. What happened to the U.S.? Are we in the Great Tribulation of Mathew 24 with its apostasy, rebellion, and reprobate minds? Jesus did not like lawyers and judges because they always changed Gods law to suit their purposes, imposing mans law as if it was greater and Gods law. When mans law conflicts with Gods law we don’t have to obey mans law.

    The Holy Spirit does not convict us of sin jus the unrighteous. For there is no condemnation in Christ Jesus. Who tries to convict us sin? No one else but that great liar, with no truth in him, the accuser of the brethren, that old Devil himself. The serpent in the Garden of Eden is up to his old tricks and tries to convict us of sin.

    So why should she be ashamed? Obviously after finding out what she can’t do, be productive, and finding out that people were watching her, and probably called the police.

    Do you know how many people walked up to me, out of nowhere, in the open air, on the streets, and asked me to stop smoking because they might die? I was not ashamed, rebelled, did my own research instead of acting like a parrot, and many others started to smoke to.

  8. Hi Matt,

    I believe that there are some semantics at play here and I’d like to offer a suggestion. You may have done more research on shame than I have, but it is my understanding that Guilt is the negative feeling that we have when we have broken some moral or ethical or cosmic or personal code. This response is helpful because it encourages a change. Shame is the negative feeling that because we have done this, we are worthless. It never motivates (or really allows) change because it is a negative “holding pattern” of sorts.

    These definitions have held true in much of my research, counseling, reading, and personal experience. There are of course, many books written on this topic. I believe what you are advocating is better understood as guilt – that sense of something being not right that motivates realignment. Shame in psychological research, even Christian research, is always always always negative.

    Brene Brown recently published some thoughts on the “shaming” of criminals. While extremes may be effective in curbing certain public behaviors, shame is a private destruction. It’s amusing to us, on the outside, and may settle something in us, but it’s by a profoundly negative and unhealthy means.

    I agree that Jesus helps me overcome active shame, but I don’t think I needed or need more of it in order for him to change or heal me. I think it’s inappropriate to suggest a “better distribution of shame,” because that’s like asking for a “more appropriate infection of smallpox.” Shame isn’t a negative that breeds positive in any psychological or behavioral understanding. Maybe guilt is a better word for this post?

    If you’re interested in more on this topic, I’d love to suggest some of books that have had a powerful healing influence on me and helped me distinguish guilt from shame in terms of definition and practice.

  9. ummm…”I know we can’t put people in the stocks anymore. But the woman obviously felt no shame about being an idiot.”

    So if you can’t shame someone who has no shame, then why advocate for more shame? It’ll become a weapon, already used to great affect in the Roman Catholic Church. Guilt and Shame didn’t work in Jesus’ time, he was often accused of having no shame in eating with the tax collectors, sinners, and what not. What was his message? Grace. Let’s work on that.

    • I wholeheartedly agree with you Luke. As in Jesus’ day who made the rules and who was accused of breaking them? It was not the same people. Jesus did not like rule makers for they did not follow his rules. Rule makers even have a problem with the manner in which we speak. They get a little education and status then they don’t want to speak to some people. Their language is to common, vulgar, etc. like some people who now attend Church. They are not allowed to speak in a common language anymore. The U.S. is strange. They want to make rules that people must speak English and they don’t even speak English!

  10. Like everything this comes down to the issue of power and imposition. We have no authority to impose shame, but I suppose we’re called to feel it. It’s an internal vs external issue.

    People who are want to impose shame have tainted motives. They want people to think and act like them. That’s a problem.

  11. Thanks for retweeting this post, Matt. Thoughtful take on the topic. I almost see “healthy” shame more on level of conviction. About a week ago on my blog a I shared a video. It was some thoughts about my journey being free from addiction. I felt a tremendous amount of shame and guilt during that season in my life and yet when I finally made the decision to run to God in the midst of those feelings, He began to change my heart. Shame tells us to continue hiding. Jesus tells us to come out of hiding and confess.

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