In this, “Honor and Shame” series, we have talked briefly about some of the negative aspects of shame. But does shame have any redeeming value? Is there a proper way to use shame? Apparently, Paul thought there was. He wrote to the Corinthian church, “I say this to shame you” (1 Corinthians 5:5, NIV) and, “I say this to your shame” (1 Corinthians 15:34). So, what is the difference between good shame and bad shame?
What is Shame?
Shame is an emotional tool, used to get people to conform to a group’s shared standards. It is a way of telling people, “You should feel bad for not being like the rest of us.” People who experience shame, feel they risk being alienated from the group unless they change to meet the group’s expectations.
It is probably obvious how toxic, manipulative, and dangerous shame can be. However, shame can also be used in healthy ways to bring about positive change. For instance, in the 90s, movie rental stores used the catchy phrase, “Be kind, rewind.” This was a subtle use of shame. It was a way of saying, “Kind people rewind VHS tapes. If you want us to think you’re a kind person, you’ll rewind your tape.”
Nearly every parent uses shame to correct the behavior of their children. A parent may say to a child, “Do you see that everyone else at the table ate their dinner and is ready for dessert? How about you?” This mild form of shame is saying, “You may be the only one left out of a group activity because you have not done what the rest of us have done.” When the child feels this shame, she can decide to conform so she won’t be left out.
When is Shame Proper?
The proper use of shame depends both on the severity and the purpose of the shame. It is one thing for a parent to gently remind a child that she must eat her dinner. However, it would be incredibly inappropriate to increase the severity of the shame to utterly humiliate the child. There should always be a way for the child to comply with the wishes of the parent and avoid any unnecessary embarrassment. In other words, shame has gone too far when there is no way for the disciplined person to “save face” through compliance.
Similarly, shame is inappropriate when a person is made to feel that something is wrong with them, rather than with their behavior. This is the toxic and unhealthy form of shame with which most of us are familiar. Shame should be directed at what a person has done, rather than who a person is. A child who refuses to eat her dinner should not be made to feel she is a bad person, but simply that her behavior is alienating her from the family activity of dessert.
Most importantly, shame should only be used to bring about the disciplined person’s good. It is manipulative and wrong to shame people into doing what is harmful. A group will rarely use shame unless they have a vested interest in the individual’s compliance; but compliance should always be in the best interest of the individual, not just the group.
To summarize, proper shame will meet at least these three criteria:
- the individual is given an obvious way to save face through compliance
- the shame is directed towards what a person has done, rather than who they are
- the group is genuinely trying to bring about what is in the individual’s best interest
How God Uses Shame
When we start looking for honor and shame in the Bible, we will find them on nearly every page.
For instance, human beings were originally crowned with glory and honor, because they were made “in the image” of God. However, they soon brought shame upon themselves through sinful disobedience (Genesis 3:6-7). Even before they were exiled from the Garden, God exposed the shame of Adam and Eve by asking them questions like, “What have you done?” (Genesis 3:13, ERV).
Sometimes, that question, “What have you done?” is enough to shame someone into repentance. The person is aware, embarrassed, and remorseful. Shame has done its job. God is gentle and merciful. If he can bring about repentance through a simple question, that is exactly what he does.
However, there are also times when people, “Do not even know how to blush” (Jeremiah 8:12). Throughout Israel’s history, there were times when God’s people refused to be properly ashamed of their sins. They were proud, arrogant, and haughty. When the prophets tried to shame them into repentance, they refused to blush.
When this happened, God had to utterly humiliate them. In fact, we might be shocked to read how much shame God heaped upon his unrepentant people. The Lord said through Jeremiah, “I myself will lift up your skirts over your face, and your shame will be seen.” (Jeremiah 13:26). Part of the purpose of Israel and Judah’s exile was to shame and humiliate them into repentance.
How Jesus and the Apostles Used Shame
Jesus said, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone” (Matthew 18:15). Jesus is essentially saying, if someone sins against you, you should give him the opportunity to “save face” by handling the matter privately. Only if he refuses to listen and repent should you measure out greater portions of shame. The final measure of shame being, “If he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matthew 18:7).
Jesus taught his followers to use shame in a measured and merciful way. The goal is to “gain your brother” (Matthew 18:15). But gaining your brother is nearly impossible after he has been publicly shamed for his sin. Being publicly shamed causes most people to become defensive and hostile, rather than compliant and repentant. That’s why Jesus insisted that we give people the opportunity to save face before dealing out a full measure of shame.
The goal of shame is to bring about an appropriate amount of embarrassment and grief. But shame fails if it brings about too much grief, too little grief, or the wrong sort of grief. When the apostles admonished Christians in their letters, they were using shame to bring about repentance (1 Corinthians 6:5; 15:34; 2 Corinthians 7:10). However, they were very careful to do so in a loving, merciful, and gentle way. Paul wrote, “I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children” (1 Corinthians 4:14).
We must be very careful when, how, and why we use shame. If we are not careful, shame can do far more harm than good. However, when used sparingly and mercifully, shame can be an important part of life together in the church.
There are standards for how followers of Jesus must live. If we transgress these standards, we should feel appropriately embarrassed and grieved. This grief should bring about repentance.
Therefore, we should be grateful for our brothers and sisters who mercifully expose our shame to us.
I love you and God loves you,