From Shame to Grace

By Gwen Sellers

Shame. It's a dirty word in my book. Shame is that thing that tells us we are fundamentally flawed and beyond redemption. It drives us to hide — hide from others, hide from ourselves, hide from God. It tells us that the truth about ourselves is unbearable. It says we are not worthy of love. It says we cannot be forgiven. It says we are utterly unlovable, that God doesn't want us, that others only tolerate us because they don't know the truth, and that we would be ridiculous to love ourselves. It says we are alone and stuck. Shame says there is no help to be had. So we are left to try to deal with our feelings of inadequacy and guilt on our own — perhaps try to cover them up through performance, maybe suppress them through emotional deadening, or perhaps drown them out with addiction. Shame kills. But here's the thing: shame is a sham. That's right. Shame speaks lies. It masquerades as this horrendous monster when kept in the dark, but when the light is turned on, we see that it is a defeated foe.

Let's start with the issue of sin. It is true that we do shameful things, even as believers. It is true that we have a sin nature. It is true that we need to be covered. But the ploy of the Enemy is to twist this truth and sell us the lie that we must cover ourselves. We see it play out with Adam and Eve. They recognized their nakedness and tried to cover themselves with fig leaves. They hid from God. They tried to fix the problem on their own and found themselves to be inadequate for the task. They needed to be covered by God, with animal skins. Ultimately, they needed, as we all do, to be covered by the blood of Jesus.

There are times when we should be ashamed. Guilt is an appropriate response when we have done something wrong. Ephesians 5:8-14 says:
...for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, 'Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.'
John 1:4-5 says, "In [Jesus] was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it." The point is that, though we rightly feel shame for the things done in darkness, we do not continue to hide. Rather, we seek out the light that we may know God's forgiveness and experience the fullness of His life. Hiding in shame only drives us further away from God. Guilt, on the other hand, motivates us to seek God's forgiveness. When we sin, rather than try to hide, we should run to God and seek His forgiveness and restoration. John gives a helpful description of this in 1 John 1:5-2:6. Romans 8:31-34 is also an encouragement:
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died — more than that, who was raised — who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.
The battle with shame does not end with the issue of baring our sin to God. In fact, it hardly begins there. Many of us can learn to expose our sin to God and accept His forgiveness. What often gets tricky is learning to live in the light with one another. To some extent, this means being real about our sin with each other. Please do not hear me saying that sin is something we should glorify or praise. Remember Paul's warning to the Ephesians? We don't talk about things done in the dark as if they are good. We do not boast about the areas of our lives we have yet to fully surrender to God. We do not boast about the ways we sinned before coming to know God. But we can be honest about our sin. We can boast in God's forgiveness and restoration. We can share the truth about our struggles that we may benefit from the strength of the Body.

It's that sharing the truth of our struggles thing that gets so sticky. Though many of us believe in God's forgiveness and learn to — mostly — fully accept it, shame's voice often continues to linger in our minds. What if I'm really not forgiven? Or what if God forgives me, but His people won't? Will my brothers and sisters in Christ still accept me if they know I'm struggling with this? Can I survive in the Body of Christ if I don't look like I have it all together? Sadly, though God is the only One with the right to truly judge, we are often judgmental of ourselves and others (thus Jesus' warning in Matthew 7:1-5. For more on what He meant, see the Got Questions article). We are used to the world's system of justice rather than God's perfect justice-grace-mercy mix. We are used to the world's meritocracy of acceptance rather than God's unconditional love in Christ. Many of us have been wounded by fellow believers. We also have an Enemy who likes to use the lies of shame. I have personally never been shamed when I've chosen to be real with others about my sin struggles. In fact, if anything, I've come to see the truth of 1 Corinthians 10:13. My sin struggles are not all that unique. But I've definitely felt the fear of exposing myself. I am blessed to attend a church that explains the depths of God's grace. God's grace does not mean that sin is no big deal. It actually means sin is a huge deal — only God is big enough to handle it. And yet I've still given in to shame. Some of this is perhaps a healthy shame. As I said, I don't want to boast in my sins. They are shameful. But I am convinced that some of it is the Enemy. We recognize that God's grace is completely other, and then the Enemy causes us to doubt whether something so good could actually be true.

Sadly enough, it also comes from the shared and broken history of God's people. It's our draw toward legalism, that desire to make separate classes of people based on rules in some defined system. It's a way to control who is in and who is out. When we can look better than someone else, we can convince ourselves we are better and therefore worthy of love or respect. We see it in the Pharisees, in the Corinthians, and in our own hearts. But it's not how God works. And it's not how He wants His people to treat one another. Our acceptability is not based on our works. We are worthy of love and respect because we are created in the image of God. As God's people, we are called to love one another, forgive one another, bear with one another. It should not be a fearful thing to share our struggles with sin. It should be something that brings about restoration. James 5:16 says, "Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working." A few verses later, James writes, "My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins" (James 5:19-20). There is no room for shame here, only truth and freedom (John 8:32).

And lest we be fooled, the issue of shame does not end here. It's not just about sin. We live in shame over things that have nothing to do with sin. This is perhaps the reason I most hate shame. I get that sin involves shame. But it can be a healthy kind of shame, the kind that makes us blush and realizes that what is being exposed is actually wrong and needs to be changed. Guilt or conviction are better words for it. When we recognize sin, we can be ashamed, but then we need to expose it to the light so that we can experience life. We first bring it to God so that He can forgive and restore. Then sometimes we bring it to His people so they can help us overcome. Or we admit it so that others living with a sin from which we are now free can know they are not alone in their struggle. Unfortunately we do give in to shame and try to drive our sins further into the darkness. This only leads to death and further bondage. But the battle against this shame makes sense to me. And it is soundly defeated when we know the truth of the Gospel.

Published 3-12-15