Let’s talk about shame

More By Eva Stavad

Editors’ note: 

This is also available in Danish.

You may see this headline as an inherent contradiction. That’s because shame is not something we like to talk about. A couple of years ago I heard a talk by psychologist Krista Korsholm Bojesen. She explained that she had experienced people leaving the room during her lectures on shame, because they felt so uncomfortable hearing about it.

Then, why should we talk about shame anyway?

We should do so because we will miss part of the healing power of the gospel if we’re not conscious of what shame is and how God meets us in our shame. A distorted understanding of God, colored by unhealthy shame, can cause us to distance ourselves from the God who runs toward us with open arms (Luk. 15:20).

In addition, shame plays a different role in western culture today than it did in the past. As Krista Korsholm writes: “Today it is up to each individual person to decide what is right and wrong. Our values are no longer collective, they have become privatized. Many experience this as a freedom, while even more people feel guilty and ashamed and thus as if they are wrong as human beings” (my emphasis)1. The gospel of Jesus Christ is timeless and eternally relevant (Heb. 13:8)—but contemporary culture can affect which elements of the gospel riches we emphasize. A lecture by Danish theologian Leif Andersen particularly opened my eyes to how important this is and what we lose as a church if we do not understand the role of shame for people today.

What’s the difference between guilt and shame?

Guilt refers to an objective reality and/or a subjective feeling that one has done something which is wrong. Our guilt and sin in the form of rebellion against God separated us from him (Isa. 59:2), and that is why it is wonderfully good news that Jesus has carried our guilt and punishment by his substitutionary death (Isa. 53:5–6; Col. 2:14; 1 Pet. 3:18a; Rom. 5:6-10).

Guilt refers to an objective reality and/or a subjective feeling that one has done something which is wrong. … Shame, on the other hand, is the feeling of being wrong.

Shame, on the other hand, is the feeling of being wrong. It can occur when our mistakes, sins and weaknesses become a part of our self-image: “I am the kind of person who…” [insert sin/mistake/weakness]. Shame is also about the question: “How do others see me?” The way others look at us shapes our self-image in an incredibly powerful way. Shame is a social emotion, because if others see me as wrong and repulsive, then I stand outside of community. And community is vital for us human beings. Already before the fall, God said: “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Gen. 2:18a).

When burdened with shame, the experience is fear of rejection because of who you are—not because of anything specific you’ve done. I can do something about specific actions and receive forgiveness for them, but what can I do if it’s me who is wrong? Will I then be rejected? Here it is important to understand that forgiveness does not immediately affect the experience of shame. Blake Glosson aptly writes: “At the heart of our fear of being known is a fear of rejection. And the most painful form of rejection is not being rejected for something we did, but for who we are. Notice that Adam does not say, “I was afraid because I ate the fruit.” He says, ‘I was afraid because I was naked’” (author’s emphasis), (Gen. 3:10).2

Shame and our (unconscious) image of God

Some people have a tendency to react with shame because of life experiences that inevitably contribute to forming the life of their minds. Children who experience their parents enjoying them just because they exist receive a healthy antidote to shame for their lives. Conversely, an early and pre-linguistic experience of feeling unwanted—or perhaps even repulsive—can leave deep traces in a human being. Like a pair of glasses you don’t realize you’re wearing, the whole world can be filtered through this understanding. Additionally, experiences in significant relationships later in life where one dares to be vulnerable, but then is hurt and rejected, can deeply affect a person. It can become toxic if we carry those wounds to our (often unconscious) image of who God is. Without knowing it, we can filter our reading of the Bible and our theology through these “glasses,” which we don’t even know we are wearing. We can get a distorted understanding of what it means that we are sinners. An understanding that, yes, God saves us through Jesus, but really, he is frowning upon us and would rather keep us at an arm’s length because he actually finds us repulsive. Imagine if this is how modern people hear us talk about sin?

Forgiveness does not immediately affect the experience of shame.

Considering that notion, it is wonderfully good news that Jesus meets us in our shame in a way that is much better than what we can imagine in our wildest dreams.

How Jesus heals our shame

Shame is healed by being seen—with everything you are: mistakes, sins, weaknessesand still being loved. To be looked upon with a gracious gaze. The impulse of shame is to withdraw and hide. There must have been something really special about the way Jesus met people, because all those who were the outcasts of societyunwanted, wrong, and shamefulwere crowding around him! Dane Ortlund writes in Gentle and Lowly, “That God is rich in mercy means that your regions of deepest shame and regret are not hotels through which divine mercy passes but homes in which divine mercy abides. It means the things about you that make you cringe most, make him hug hardest. […] It means our haunting shame is not a problem for him, but the very thing he loves most to work with. It means our sins do not cause his love to take a hit. Our sins cause his love to surge forward all the more.”3

An illustrative example is Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1–42). Jesus meets the woman, who has had many men and who is most likely ashamed of her lifestyle, in such a way that she exclaims to the others from the town, “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” (v. 29). Jesus confronts her sin in such a way that she doesn’t drown in shame and hide, but on the contrary, tells about it far and wide. I imagine that something in Jesus’ gaze must have made her feel seen. Loved. And there, she could face her guilt without it becoming self-destructive.

Do we meet people the way Jesus did? As the church, we have a unique opportunity to meet modern people with an extraordinarily gracious community that loves, forgives, and bears with one another in a way that is alien to most other parts of society. We can do this because we ourselves are loved, forgiven, and accepted by our Savior, who binds us together in love and teaches us to love as He does (Col. 3:12–14; Joh. 13:15; 1 Joh. 4:7–12).

May we be deeply rooted in the love of Jesus that heals our own shame, so that we can meet a thirsty world with the gracious gaze of Jesus and the overwhelming love of the Father.


1. Link to book: https://www.bibelselskabet.dk/webshop/skam
2. Link: https://fullyknownfullyloved.com/2022/04/07/christian-you-are-fully-known-and-fully-loved/
3. Pages 179–180.

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