Cows don’t experience shame, but it is a universal phenomenon amongst humans. This is a complex issue because, in one sense, we live in a shameless society (shame before God), just as Isaiah lamented about. On the other hand, jettisoning God has left us with no sufficient way to deal with our internal shame, and the results are devastating.
The first mention of shame in the bible actually celebrates the absence of it: Adam and Eve were publicly naked and felt no shame (Genesis 2:25). Our final destination is a place where nothing shameful will ever enter, or be felt, having been cleansed by the blood of Christ (Revelation 21:27)
In between, shame is all around us, and in us. Shame, depending on how you define it, can be good, but it can also be a hope-killing horror.
Some make a distinction between guilt and shame. Guilt feelings are related to wrong things we have done. Shame is related to WHO WE ARE. The bible speaks of people who have seared consciences, who no longer feel pangs of guilt. These people are also known as sociopaths.
Standing before a group of mourners a mother said, “Shame killed my son, Sam. Shame kept him quiet, living in dark secrets with terrible regrets, surrounded by friends, but so very alone.” Her son had taken his own life after a protracted battle with addiction and shame.
The grieving mother continued, “Do not let shame win. The evil one has filled his quill with shame, disconnection, secrets, and sorrow and is writing his story of darkness. God’s story of light with redemption, hope, community, truth, and glory is written in His own blood.”
Destructive shame has become epidemic; part of everyone’s story to some extent. Shame manifests itself by isolation, self-protection, self-hatred, self-destruction, self-preservation, and the illusion of control. It follows us wherever we go, and it demands center stage attention.
Isolation. Despite Sam’s popularity, he created a world of isolation. Shame induces people to define themselves by their addictions. Followers of Christ are in union with Him, and Jesus is our final, all-sufficient identity, not whatever sins we may be struggling with.
Often shame based people will isolate themselves from healthy people, and are often drawn to other shame based people, where vulnerability is avoided and cynicism abounds. For self-protection these relationships tend to be shallow, often fixating on entertainment or other numbing activities. Healthy relationships demand vulnerability, but the commitment to self-protection kills vulnerability.
Relationships can only grow if, over time, healthy risks are taken in being vulnerable.
Shamed people often live in ambiguity; having a sense of entitlement and a sense of worthlessness. They ask for relief but often sabotage it when it is offered. They fight with thoughts that they are disgusting people and it is only a matter of time before everyone finds out the sorry truth about themselves.
Satan accuses and causes us to hate our longings for connection and redemption and makes us hate hope.
Perhaps shame's most insidious trait is to cause people to embrace the lie, that at their core, they are defectively designed. Self-hate gives way to desperate and self-destructive behaviors because they think they are irredeemable. Studies have shown that there is a correlation between shame and participation in bullying, aggression, and suicide. For Sam, the destructive behavior was addiction. However, there are many other soul-numbing activities. It saddens me to know how common addiction to pornography is amongst God’s people, including a high percentage of bible-believing pastors. The shame felt by these folks must be horrendous. Worst of all, shame makes delighting in God impossible, unless it is dealt with.
Shame operates as both a filter and an amplifier. It filters out the dignity we have as image bearers of God, and it amplifies our shortcomings. Hence, many are unable to take healthy risks and they seek to numb their pain-filled souls. Life becomes all about mere survival. And it is impossible to be other-focused or God-focused when one is survival-focused. Anxiety and depression are sure to follow.
Shame invites a person to carry all the weight in a desperate attempt to keep control, but this shuts others and God out of the picture. Satan’s voice may lead to shame, but God’s tender grace will lead to true healing—from the inside out.
Some folks are prisoners to false shame. Cultural standards of beauty, wealth, status, etc have caused many wonderful people to hate themselves, which is tragic. Others have been abused or hurt in other ways by people they trusted, and this has led to self-disgust. Tragically, abuse-shame seems to open doors to the demonic.
The gospels are full of men and women who were imprisoned by shame but Jesus’ gentle touch and forgiveness gave them hope. He took our shame upon Himself, so that we might live, and live abundantly. Hanging completely naked on the cross, and taking our sin upon Himself, and the punishment for our sin, Jesus endured the shame for the joy that was set before Him.
Shame needs to be removed, not hidden or avoided. As Christians we can bring our shortcomings in the safety of God’s grace.
Cows may not feel shame but neither can they experience the beauty of Christ’s righteousness, which covers our guilt! No matter how shame-filled you may feel, flee to the open arms of a gentle Redeemer.
Mark Hunnemann is the author of Seeing Ghosts Through God's Eyes: A Worldview Analysis of Earthbound Spirits. It's also available in eBook format.