Grace and the Prison of Shame

Grace and the Prison of Shame

Grace and the Prison of Shame.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, all you who are struggling and find life burdensome; I will give you rest.” (Matt 11:28).

Sing Over Me (featuring Taylor Leonhardt and Molly Parden) (

The word “shame” in Scripture comes from a Greek root word “aischos,” which means “disfigurement.” The feeling of shame is rooted in the idea of one’s spirit being disfigured, the face of one’s inner being marred in a painful way. Shame defaces the appearance of one’s identity, and can be brought about by injuries such as rejection, inadequacy, abandonment or exposure. The wounds of shame can go deep and cause emotional trauma, for sure, but there is hope through God’s Word and His power, and through the active involvement of a wise and loving community. Interestingly, being vulnerable in a supportive group of people goes far in healing one’s feeling of vulnerability. Admitting weakness makes us strong as we learn to scorn the shame like Jesus did. (Hebrew 12:2). Inner disfigurement can be healed and lead to a beautiful spirit.

The Shame of Christ. “Answer me, Lord, for your grace is good; in your great mercy, turn to me. You know I am insulted, shamed and disgraced; before you stand all my foes. Insults have broken my heart to the point that I could die. I hoped that someone would show me compassion, but nobody did; and that there would be comforters, but I found none.”  (Psalm 69:16, 19-20; a messianic psalm of David that was surely fulfilled by Christ in His Passion).

Jesus understands the trauma of shame from the inside of the pain. He personally experienced it. He understands the shame of guilt, because He took on the sins of the world, absorbed them, and put them away. So He understands guilt and the shame that goes with it. He also understands undeserved shame. He was repeatedly, profoundly shamed throughout His Passion. He knows what it’s like to be treated shamefully, to be abused and demeaned.

The writer of Hebrews says that Jesus suffered “open shame” during His Passion: the shame of betrayal (Judas); the shame of abandonment (Disciples); the shame of rejection (the crowd choosing Barabbas); the shame of the religious authorities spitting on Him and beating Him with their fists; the shame of the soldiers stripping off His clothes and mocking Him with a royal robe and crown of thorns; the shame of the soldiers making fun of Him by kneeling and bowing before Him and ridiculing His kingship. And now the worst is yet to come. Crucifixion was meant to be especially shameful. Shame was the central point of this whole method of execution. Jesus was unfairly executed with criminals. He was stripped naked and hung up high so everyone could see Him. While on the cross, bystanders hurled insults at Him, priests would jeer at Him, scribes and elders would mock Him unmercifully.

Psychiatrist and author Dr. Curt Thompson has a very helpful section in his outstanding book called The Soul of Shame. In this one section he discusses Hebrews 12:2, where its writer says that Christ “endured the cross, despising the shame.” Dr. Thompson discusses how Jesus laid out a pattern for us on how to deal with shame. Translations of the word ‘despise’ also use words like scorn and disregard. Jesus scorned the shame associated with the cross. He faced His shame head on, He was aware of its presence and didn’t pretend it wasn’t there. He acknowledged the shame and turned away, as if He didn’t think anything of it. He fearlessly confronted His shame while not being overrun by it. He turned attention away from the shame after addressing its reality, and turned towards His Father and what He was being asked to do. In His vulnerability, He scorned shame, He faced it down and overcame it by rejecting it, because of the love and acceptance He felt from the Father. Jesus disregarded the shame and pushed it into the margins in terms of its importance.

So Jesus knows all about the shame of abuse firsthand. He experienced it to the extreme. He understands it, and He offers His understanding to all who have suffered undeserved shame, all who have been stripped of their dignity as image-bearers of God. Christ is able to identify with all those suffering from shame, for the shamed suffer the very pains experienced by Jesus.

Christ carried our shame with His shame on the Cross. When we suffer shame, we join with Him during His Passion. We become partners with Him in what is called “the fellowship of His suffering.” (Phil. 3:10). When we nail our shame to the Cross of Christ, we become His partners as He pays the price for any disgrace or humiliation we might experience. We literally suffer with Christ when we are shamed, and Christ literally suffers with us as He identifies with our suffering and carries our shame. One needs never to suffer shame alone. Those who are shamed are in a powerful fellowship, are fellow participants with Christ. And since Christ absorbed that shame on the Cross and put that shame to death, our shame died when Christ died. And when Christ rose from the dead, that shame has been eternally conquered. When Jesus said “It is finished” on the Cross (John 19:30), our shame was finished and taken care of as well. And God has replaced that shame with the promise of being unashamedly welcomed into His family. “Jesus, the Holy One, makes us holy. And as sons and daughters we now belong to His same Father, so He is not ashamed or embarrassed to introduce us as His brothers and sisters!” (Heb. 2:11).

Once our shame has run its course through Christ, the process of healing can take place. Christ continues to take our shame through His intercession at the right hand of the Father. Christ represents humanity before God, Christ identifies with us and intercedes for us at the throne of grace. Our shame is absorbed into the Godhead and dissolved. God continues to do His part as we tend to the healing that needs to be experienced through the Holy Spirit. The Spirit will continue to heal us, renew us, and restore us as we offer our shame to the Lord. On the one hand, the Cross of Christ took care of our shame for all time. On the other hand, when shame raises its ugly head in our lives, Christ continues to carry our burdens and continue the fellowship of His suffering.

Biblical Hope for Those Who Are Shamed. “All you who hope in the Lord, be strong and let your heart take courage, for with the Lord there is lovingkindness, and with Him is abundant redemption. God has a thousand ways to set us free. This hope will not let us down or put us to shame, because the love of God has already been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. So my heart is glad and my spirit rejoices, my body also will rest in hope.” (Ps. 31:24; Ps. 130:7; Romans 5:5; Ps. 16:9). 

The Bible offers hope to all who live under the cloud of shame, those who are guilty with shame due to a wrongdoing, and those who are suffering from undeserved shame due to someone else’s wrongdoing. Both kinds of shame are found throughout Scripture, where shame was only wished upon one’s worst enemies. In the Gospels of the New Testament, though, Jesus revealed the eternal God to be a shame-breaker. Christ went out of His way to give life and healing to those in shame… the demeaned and the humiliated, the poor and demon-possessed, the unclean and those rejected by the religious authorities, the lepers and the prostitutes, the sinners and the ignored. Jesus sought out those whose spirits were damaged or defeated. Jesus reflected a Scripture that was a constant stream of hope for those who suffered with shame. After all, our compassionate Christ knew shame from the inside, and understands shame like no one else.

“I lift my soul into your presence, Lord. I trust you, my God. Don’t let me be disgraced; don’t let my enemies gloat over me or the shame of defeat to overtake me.”  (Psalm 25:1-2).

To trust God is to take His word for it, to depend on him, to rely on Him and have confidence in Him. His word is truth for all time, His promises are rock-solid. A foundational truth in the very first pages of Scripture is that we were made in the image of God. We need to trust His Word and take it to heart and live our lives in light of that truth. Just after the creation of the natural universe, the Trinity had a discussion between themselves and said to each other, “Let us make man in our image, according to Our likeness. So God made man, in the image of God He made him; male and female He made them.” (Gen. 1:26-27). We do not need to have an identity crisis. Our central identity is that we, all of us, are image-bearers, we have worth and value. So when someone tries to strip us of our dignity as a human being, they will not succeed. We have something that no one can take away, we carry with us the very image of God Himself. We can trust in God for that to be the truth. If we feel undeserved shame because of how someone has mistreated us, we can rely on the fact that we are image-bearers and will maintain our worth and dignity no matter what someone does to us. Absorbing this truth into our very souls will mean we don’t have to hang our heads in shame, but instead we can lift up our heads in honor.

“Release the weight of your burdens and unload your cares on the Lord, and He promises to sustain you, His measureless grace will strengthen you.”  (Psalm 55:22).

Shame carries a big weight on one’s spirit and psyche. We’re invited here to go to the feet of Jesus and leave that shame with Him. He is strong enough to take the heaviest burden and make it disappear into His resurrected goodness. As Peter says, Cast all your cares onto God, all our burdens, our wounds, our pains, our worries, cast them all onto God, for he is always watching over us with tender care. (1 Peter 5:7). God has promised to sustain us when we trust in Him and become dependent upon Him. When He claims He will sustain us, that means He will continue to provide what is needed to not just survive but thrive. He will maintain an ongoing ministry for us that will strengthen and support us as we walk with Him. God doesn’t just offer a one-time sustenance. God has committed Himself to continue sustaining each of us as we follow Him, no matter how deeply and profoundly we have been shamed. Bring the shame to God and unload it, and continue in His sustaining grace. Another way of putting this is in the Message version of Peter’s word… “Pile your troubles on God’s shoulders – He will carry your load, He’ll help you out, He’ll never let good people topple into ruin.”

“I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked. I spent a night and a day in the open sea. I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, from bandits, from my own countrymen, from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in the country, at sea, from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food. I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face the daily pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.” (2 Corinthians 11:23-30)

If anyone knows what it feels like to be used and abused, it was St. Paul. If anyone has been publicly shamed, it was St. Paul. Despite all his suffering in weakness, he had a secret. Despite his ongoing hardship, vulnerability and limitations that put him at a distinct disadvantage, he remained unashamedly a follower of Christ. And here’s his secret… the weaker he got in himself, the stronger he became in Christ. He actually took pleasure in insults, distress and humiliations, because it was at that point where Jesus took over. God’s strength came into its own in Paul’s weakness. The power of Jesus had a habit of showing itself most effective when Paul was at his weakest, his lowest. Believe it or not, Paul began seeing his suffering as a gift, the best time for God to show up in all His merciful power. Read Paul’s words on this secret in 2 Corinthains 12:7-10.

“They looked to God and grew radiant; their faces will never blush with shame.”  (Psalm 34:5).

Looking at God, focusing on Jesus, means that we concentrate as much on divine-esteem as we do self-esteem. Fix our eyes on Christ, because we tend to become whatever we look at. Look to God for forgiveness for our sins, healing for our wounds, hope for our discouragements, joy for our sorrows and life from our daily pains. Gaze upon Christ and we will be filled with light. His face will shine on us so that we become radiant. If we are to become children of the light (Eph. 5:8), we need to love the Father of lights (James 1:17). For God is light (1 John 1:5), and He dwells in unapproachable light (1 Tim 6:16). When we look to God, we have faith that our Lord wraps Himself in light as with a robe, and will wrap us with His light as well. (Ps. 104:1). When we find ourselves living under a shadow of shame and grief, we can become radiant, we can become light in the Lord. (Eph. 5:8). When we follow Jesus, we join our darkness with the light of God, and the darkness gets swallowed up. Jesus is the radiance of God’s glory (Heb. 1:3), so when we look to Christ we are in fact putting on an armor of light (Ro. 13:12). This armor will protect us as we struggle with assaults from those who wish us ill. Looking to God, we will be radiant, and our shame will be healed with the laser light of the Lord. The cloud of shame will disappear in the sunlight.  And one sure thing about God’s love… it comes to us at the speed of light.

“In you, Lord, I have taken refuge; let me never be put to shame.” (Psalm 71:1).

There are four things needed to survive in the world: food, water, clothing and shelter. Without them, we wouldn’t make it. And as it happens these four items are great metaphors for survival in the spiritual world as well. For food, we need to eat Scripture, digesting the Word in our inmost parts, the bread of life for the mind and soul. Without the Bible to chew on, we wouldn’t have the solid nutrients necessary to grow and flourish. For water, we need to drink in Christ, slurping from the living fountain, the ongoing source of living water that enables all the spiritual parts to operate in a healthy manner. Daily ingesting Jesus will affect every part of one’s spiritual life, and without slaking our thirst with Him, we will wither and die. For clothing, we need to put on a robe of righteousness, the garment of goodness, that reflects the very character of God. Without this robe, we are shamefully naked in our sin, and exposed to the obscenity of evil without the proper covering of Christ. Finally, we need shelter, we need protection from the elements, from the extremes of weather, and enemies and pests. Without a refuge, we are vulnerable to everything that the world has to throw at us. Without shelter, our souls are unprotected from the enemies of the spirit. God has promised time and again to be a shelter for His followers. When we are surrounded with difficulty and those who wish us ill, when we need a place to find shelter, God’s promise is something to believe in. A survey of the Psalms reveals that God has promised to be a refuge, a shelter, a stronghold, a tower, a shield, a fortress, a haven, a hiding place, and a sure defense. We all need protection from those who would shame us. We may still be hearing words of ridicule and rejection, but when we are in God’s refuge, these words will not penetrate the thick walls of His defense which surround our spirit, our heart. “Oh, how great is your goodness, which you have stored up for those who revere you, which you do for those who take refuge in you, before people’s very eyes!” (Ps. 31:19).

“Do not fear, you will not be put to shame again; do not worry, you will not be disgraced again; for you will forget the shame of your youth…” (Isaiah 54:4).

Amazingly enough, when we accept God’s call on our life, when we receive Jesus, we become new people. Whatever happened in the past is ancient history. The slate has been wiped clean. The dirty clothes have been washed pure and white. The person who grew up too fast has become a child again, a child of God. The Christian believer has been given new spiritual DNA from the Father. The sins of the past have been forgiven through repentance. The shame of the past has disappeared… All because of the Cross of Christ. One’s sinful past has been nailed to the Cross. Our undeserved shame has been absorbed by a God who knows what that feels like. Each believer has been given God’s very nature, because that believer has been fathered by God Himself into a new life. So a follower of Jesus is receiving a new identity through being renewed in the Holy Spirit. Anyone who has been abandoned is now permanently welcomed into the family of God. Anyone who has been rejected is now eternally accepted. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. Old things have passed away. Behold! Look! All things have become new. This means that anyone who belongs to Christ, who is enfolded into Christ, has become an entirely new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun.” (2 Cor. 5:17).

“No one waiting for you will be disgraced, for how could anyone be disgraced when he has entwined his heart with You?” (Psalm 25:3).

It is remarkably easy to inflict shame on another person. We can do it simply with a look on our face or a tone of our voice. We can bring shame to someone without knowing it if we’re not careful, while earnest and well-meaning. We all need to work on limiting our occasions of shame-giving. Sometimes it doesn’t take much to help a person descend into shame and become one of the walking wounded. Sometimes we inflict shame in the heat of a moment or in an emergency. Other times, shame wounds someone gradually over time. Here are questions we should be asking ourselves when interacting with others. We don’t have to walk on eggshells whenever we’re with another person, but these questions bring up changes in our interactions that are doable.

(1.) Do you ever mock, taunt or criticize others “in jest,” when you say “just kidding”?

(2.) Do you show disapproval through non-verbal communication like gestures, tone, expressions?

(3.) Do you like to make people feel guilty?

(4.) Do you verbally expose others while they are in a state of weakness or vulnerability?

(5.) Do you only show approval when something is done perfectly?

(6.) Do you spark fears of abandonment by having someone feel unworthy of your time and attention?

(7.) Do you permit yourself to ridicule others to their face or to someone else?

(8.) Do you like to embarrass others when they make mistakes or suffer a defeat?

(9.)  Do you enjoy fooling others or making them look foolish?

(10.) Do you only praise or affirm others for the outcome of their effort and not the hard work involved?

(11.) Do you like to exert your power when someone is in a powerless position?

(12.) Do you find it difficult to initiate affirmation or praise of others?

(13.) Are you only too happy to let others know when they don’t meet your expectations?

(14.) Do you love others enough to forgive and forget their wrongdoings?

(15.) Do others have to prove their worth and importance before you accept/respect them as human beings?

(16.) Do you tend to criticize others in a spirit of judgment and rejection?

(17.) Are you too busy to try to understand a loved one or a colleague?

(18.) Do you ever take advantage of someone who is defenseless or vulnerable?

(19.) Do you find it easy to forget that someone else is to be treated as an image-bearer of God?

(20.) Do people tend to feel honored and respected in your presence?

If your answers to these questions suggest you have developed a lifestyle of inflicting shame, or even if you blithely wander through your interactions unthinkingly shaming others… there is hope for change. Read God’s Word, ask God for help through the Holy Spirit, and find a community that will help you learn to know the source of the shame and then help you scorn it and disregard it. There’s a good chance you might need to identify the shame in your own life if you want to become a shame-healer instead of a shame-giver.

Of course, if you are one of those sick predators who prey on those weaker than you, Jesus is waiting to fit you with your very own millstone necklace. (Matt. 18:6).