Fellow believer, here’s how we must deal with shame

I used to work at a grocery store meat department when I was in college, and one day, I started chatting with a young woman and her little girl. Her daughter had a rotten tooth and — I don’t know what I was thinking — I smiled and said: “Looks like somebody needs to brush her teeth!” The mom glared at me and said: “Looks like somebody needs to learn their manners.”

A few days later, I saw the lady and her daughter at the grocery store and I apologized. Both the woman and her daughter were gracious and forgave me, and I suppose I should’ve moved on from there but the memory kept haunting me.

I wonder what memory ambushes you, gives you a sucker punch to the gut, and leaves you with a sharp pang of shame. If you’re like me, there are some memories that can make you feel far more embarrassed than a moment like my grocery store incident.

Maybe you rejected someone and still grieve the damage you did. You might have stolen something, lied, or made some monumental parenting mistake. Or like many people, you’ve done something of a sexual nature that haunts you. Maybe some of those things were done to you. The possibilities are as endless as the human capacity for brokenness.

Once I heard a therapist tell a Christian audience that shame can actually be a good thing because it can inspire us to change. That makes sense if we’re talking about the Holy Spirit using shame to convict unbelievers that they’re sinners who need to be cleansed by the blood of Jesus. But what about believers? Is there value in being shamed? Does God actually shame His children? I don’t think so.

You can find plenty of scriptures that describe the Holy Spirit’s role helping us in our weaknesses, teaching us, filling us, giving us power, opening our eyes, and praying for us (John 14:26; 1 Corinthians 2:13; Mark 13:11, Acts 1:8, 2:4, 7:55, 8:17; Romans 5:5, 8:26, 14:17). You will not, however, find authority to back up the idea that the Holy Spirit uses sin (past or present) to shame us into obedience.

That sounds more like Satan, “the accuser of our brothers and sisters” who “accuses them before God day and night” (Revelation 12:10). It does not reflect the Lord’s kindness, which is “intended to lead you to repentance” (Romans 2:4). And in response to that kindness, there are three ways believers should respond to shame: by exposing it, renouncing it, and embracing grace.

Exposing shame requires us to name (with at least one other believer) the event that haunts us. For example, although I’m generally an open person, I’ve never shared the grocery store memory with anyone until the writing of this post. It has embarrassed me too much. But putting it out there today debilitates its power. Yes, that was rude and shameful, but seriously — it was 24 years ago, I apologized, and both the woman and little girl forgave me. What more do I want?

What I really want, like all of us, is complete absolution. And here’s the thing: we have it. Hebrews 10:14 says: “For by one offering, He has forever perfected those who are being made holy” (emphases added). That is, our complete forgiveness is permanent even though we’re still under construction spiritually; and when we share these secrets with a gracious believer, it helps us put these sins where they belong: in the past. We can remember them rather than relive them.

But shame still won’t shut up — Satan won’t shut up. He wants us to believe that we’ll never be forgiven of all our sins. And if he can’t get us to believe that lie, he’ll settle for us believing this one: “Yes, you’re forgiven — sort of. This particular sin is especially shameful. Even if Jesus forgave you, now you need to forgive yourself.” If we believe that, what we really believe is that Jesus didn’t finish the job. We reject His promise: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

Shame is dead and it died with Jesus, who strangled its power into oblivion on the cross. As Hebrews 12:2 says: “For the joy that was set before Him [Jesus] endured the cross, despising the shame.” I think He despised shame — not because He couldn’t handle the humiliation of His crucifixion — but because He hates what sin and shame do to us. He took great joy in knowing that His sacrifice would set us free.

John Piper describes the meaning of Hebrews 12:2 this way: “What does this mean? It means Jesus spoke to shame like this: ‘Listen to Me, Shame, do you see that joy in front of Me? Compared to that, you are less than nothing. You are not worth comparing to that! I despise you. You think you have power. Compared to the joy before Me, you have none. Joy. Joy. Joy. That is My power! Not you, Shame. You are worthless. You are powerless. You think you can distract Me. I won’t even look at you. I have a joy set before Me. Why would I look at you? You are ugly and despicable. And you are almost finished.'”

Make a sanctified sport of rejecting shame. The sins you committed, the sins that were committed against you, the thing that you’ve never lived down: don’t continue to meditate on it, revisit it, or eternally process it. Expose it to a trustworthy fellow believer, counselor, or pastor. Stand on God’s promise that the blood of Jesus is enough and say this to shame: “Get out of here! Go talk to Jesus. I am free.”

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