There is a lot of good literature on shame, but it can be confusing to assess from a Christian perspective. There are three major reasons for this
First, many of those with good things to say about shame often dismiss the concept of sin, even treating it as the boogeyman of our psyches. This is of course erroneous, for if we dismiss sin, we fall prey to shamelessness–a shame based mode of living!
Second, shame is a scriptural and existential reality, which means we need to understand why we experience shame, what it is, and whether it is good.
Third, the church itself has a history of using shame to inspire moral growth. If we stop using shame as a whip, what will happen to us?
From Guilt to Shame
As the story of the Garden show, guilt is the primitive source of shame. This does not mean that whenever we experience shame we are objectively guilty of something. The two can and often do exist separately. But it remains true that understanding guilt helps us understand shame.
Guilt is both a state of and an awareness of wrongdoing. In guilt, we experience separation and loss. Guilt perceives an act as wrong or shameful, and recognizes that one’s own identity, as well as our relationships, have been injured or defiled in some manner by this act. Yet, this is not necessarily judging or experiencing one’s very self as shameful or disgusting.
In guilt, there may arise embarrassment, regret, fear, or sadness. Guilt is a pivot point upon which we either turn toward contrition, ownership, and repentance, or to shame, defensiveness, denial, etc. The positive turn requires grace and training. The negative turn comes automatically (think of children covering their eyes), and is often socially reinforced.
Because we are relational beings, our experience and response to sin and guilt are relational. Parents, the church, society, and grace shape our response to guilt. Often we are taught to hide, but this is in some sense an automatic response. We don’t need to be taught; we come up with this solution all by ourselves.
A self, no longer identified primarily with God identifies with one’s own actions and self-assessment. But this assessment is no longer tethered fully to reality. Transgression begets transgression. The transgression of wrongdoing begets a transgression of judgment–unhealthy shame.*
Shame as Complex
There are two species of shame. There is an evaluative principle which is a protective or restraining shame. Aristotle and Aquinas understood this to be a principle of action. There is also unhealthy shame in which one judges or experiences the self as unlovable, undesirable, disgusting, and unworthy.
Evaluative shame can produce good choices. Unhealthy shame may or may not produce good exterior works, but will result in disconnection, isolation, mental illness, and continued sin. Unhealthy shame is a result of and sign of brokenness. It is a false interpretation of self. Healthy shame is a sign of moral immaturity (i.e., to some extent, all of us).
The Evaluative Principle:
In considering a course of action, if we are not sufficiently disposed to choose what is good for its own sake, we may choose what is good, in part, because we wish to avoid what is shameful. This includes being ashamed before others, before God, and being ashamed of ourselves for our act (such fear is future oriented).
This evaluative principle, which we all use to some extent, is a necessary and important check upon our imperfect moral maturity. But we are meant to grow in our love of the good. We are meant to learn to choose the good for its own sake, as much as possible.
Unhealthy or Condemning Shame
Shame which is the experience of being defiled, of being unworthy, unlovable, disgusting, etc., is the result of sin and being fallen. It is the response of Adam and Eve after sin. It causes them to hide from God, and it drives them deeper into themselves. It produces further sin.
Sin is indeed shameful (ugly), and when we are caught up in sin, we are enmeshed in shame. We at times even, as Paul says, glory in our shame (Phil. 3:19). In this sense we are acting out or living shamefully.
Often people suggest that this kind of shame is the result of faulty parenting and social relations. This is of course true to some extent, but not exclusively. Parents, peers, and authority figures can communicate shame to children and cohorts, but the fact that shame exists as a human phenomena is not merely a learned behavior, but the result of our underlying problematic.
The biological, educational, moral, and personal aspects shame need not be disentangled fully from each other, although healing may require identifying or recognizing its contributing or exacerbating sources. The over-identification of sin or shame with an exterior factor can hinder moral, spiritual, psychological growth, as well as forgiveness, and maturity. Ownership of the mystery of our own brokenness and our brokenness as a community is a key piece of social and spiritual maturity
The Garden and Unhealthy Shame
The key fact for Christians to embrace is that in the garden God is not ashamed or disgusted with Adam and Eve; it is they who are ashamed of themselves.
But aren’t they right to be ashamed?
They are right to feel guilt and disgust with sin, but wrong to despise God’s creation–the self. The unhealthy shame they experience is a consequence (one of the punishments) of their sin. Having despised their creator, they despise themselves.
Sin is punished, in part, by sin. We should no more say that the sinfully angry man’s wrath (caused by a habit of sin) is a correct judgment on his part than that shame is the correct assessment of the self. But notice that the attitude of both the sinfully angry and shame-based individual usually have some root in reality! The danger is that shame (or any wrong judgment) is often so close to being right; it is partly true. Sin is very ugly and has contaminated every soul, but it has not destroyed the goodness of the soul as such.
Sin is not pretty; it is ugly, disgusting even, and it separates man from God, himself, and his fellows, but this is not the same as saying the sinner is a disgusting human being–that all dignity of the creature has been lost.**
Parental Love as Proof
When a mother or father loves a their child whom they recognize as broken and sinful, they are not self-deceived. That is, they are not somehow overlooking the fact that the child is unlovable!
A healthy, spiritually mature parent is not ashamed or disgusted by their child’s sin, but grieved. It is the child who is ashamed. Unless we adopt the most radical disdain for God’s creation, unless we claim that parents only love their children in ignorance (can love them only indirectly through Christ, but can’t actually love the child), we must recognize this to be true. Parents who love their children are not ignoring their children’s shameful ugliness; they are not loving them despite how disgusting they are!
The goodness of God’s creation stands even amid its brokenness and defilement.
What do we do with Unhealthy Shame?
This shame is not meant to be ignored; it is meant to be healed. To be healed, things must be brought to the light. God’s presence in the garden after sin is a sign of this, as he calls Adam out of hiding. This may mean casting off such shame later on, taking such thoughts captive to Christ and speaking the truth in love to ourselves, but to do so prior to grace is shamelessness and not truly life giving.
Notice that God does not unclothe Adam and Eve; rather, he gives them better clothing, temporary clothing as they await a new and perfect righteousness in faith. Men and women do not walk around naked in society today, but clothe themselves in humility, in recognition of the need for chastity in the face of sin, but also, hopefully, in the knowledge that their naked bodies are proper and delightful gifts to one another when appropriately given.
Shame as coercive
Shame as a corrective force which is intended to produces a change of behavior or heart is essentially destructive and has no viable use. It is neither biblical nor scientifically validated. We might be tempted to think of Christ as shaming the Pharisees, but there is a difference between disgust with a behavior and disgust with the individual as such (as the very person).
It is perhaps in only the most extreme cases and by those most capable of empathy and vulnerability, that such condemnation is appropriate. It might be added that the condemnation of the Pharisees was both a prophetic warning and in some respect symbolic for us all. But as Nate Shurden put it, Christ is “exercising his rightful role as King and judge, executing a kind of covenant lawsuit.” Unless there is repentance, the individual is threatened with an eternal identification with the shame of sin.
What we must keep in mind is that while behavior can be effected by shame, it does not produce permanent change where it is most needed and does not produce the change of heart which is most of all to be desired. Shame drives the heart underground.
It is worth noting that we are often most likely to shame those groups of people who received Christ’s mercy in the gospels. This is a sign that we do not sufficiently understand either his mercy or his condemnation. This is a sign that our relation to sin is itself often shame based!
There is an unfortunate tradition in the church of shaming, either for particular sins or for failing to live up to the gifts of God. While we must continually be made aware of our shortcomings, shame-motivation is inimical to Gospel growth. We do not become spiritually mature through shame.
Pastors and Christians can avoid this mode by recognizing that while sin is shameful, God is not ashamed of us. That even our failure to live up to his gifts is seen and foreseen by him with loving patience. God is not disgusted our at a loss with us! Further, the pastor or fellow Christian must enter into this failure as a compatriot and as equally culpable. Together, we are lead to recognize the mercy of God and in this find the courage and desire to grow.
When a child, a friend, anyone is caught up in grave sin, consistent sin, socially shameful sin, the work of the friend, the minister, the parent is not simply or even first to convict. There are occasions where it is necessary to draw the attention of the conscience to sin. But more often the conscience is acutely aware and paralyzed by shame. (Caution and discernment must be used in the case of those who deny any guilt, who seem shameless in the unhealthy sense).
Rather, the first work is almost always to restore relationship–to restore the man or woman to creaturehood–to social, moral, spiritual life. Conviction may be a necessary component of such work. Often simply naming the truth may be enough–showing that we see and are not ashamed.
Do we have the courage to do so, to walk with God and hear him say that he sees us and that he is not ashamed?
*Even when their is no concrete transgression, unhealthy shame can and often is projected upon the individual. Both spiritual and psychological growth require distinguishing between what is truly our own and what has been or is imposed on us
**We can distinguish the unhealthy shame which causes Adam and Eve to hide, from the healthy shame (evaluation) mentioned throughout the bible which recognizes the nature and mentality of sin (Job 8:22; 1 Cor. 15:34; Jude 1:13). There is a world of difference between shame which causes self-loathing and shame which causes something like chagrin or dissatisfaction with the self and leads to repentance.