How to Recognize and Overcome Shame through Faith

Everyone in Christ is free from shame! Learn to recognize shame versus guilt, and walk away from both. 

Contributing Writer
Updated Jun 26, 2024
How to Recognize and Overcome Shame through Faith

Shame is not the same as guilt. Appropriate guilt is a sign that you know you did something wrong. Appropriate guilt indicates that you have a conscience. With guilt, one is saying, “I did something wrong, I feel badly about it, and I plan on changing my behavior.” Shame, however, says, “I am a bad person.” How are these two stances different, and what does the gospel have to say about them?

What Is Shame?

Many of the women Jesus encountered were living with shame. They were identified by their sin or (in the case of the woman who could not stop bleeding) their uncleanness. Clint Humfrey describes shame as “the advance pain of judgement. It is the dread of the doom to come.” Wherever we go, we imagine people must see straight through us to the bad things we have done or the good we have failed to do. Shame leads to a tendency to think too much about ourselves, not as though we are more important than others, but because we think our guilt is so much greater than others, and surely everyone can see that.

Rory Shiner explained that “shame says, ‘I am the wrong person’. Guilt is able to focus on a specific event or action, and shame takes over our sense of who we are.” She says that, while guilt is personal, “shame is social.” Shame changes our sense of identity and takes our eyes off of Jesus. Sin becomes our identity. While God made us in his image, and THAT is our identity, we choose not to examine the evidence. It’s as though we think our sins and mistakes are bigger and greater than God’s mercy, that we know God’s mind better than he does. When he says, “Your sins are forgiven,” he doesn’t mean MY sin - if he knew what I have done, he would not have said such a thing. The cross is not good enough; his resurrection is not powerful enough to overcome my shame.

Shame is a liar, and it is a choice. Ed Welch wrote, “When you plead ‘unworthy’ and refuse to be served by God, you place your judgment about yourself above God’s. You say you would prefer to go it alone, and you imply that your unworthiness goes beyond the scope of God’s mercy and grace. You must think that God cleanses you only from ordinary sins, not from the spectacular ones.” Other people’s sin against us can lead to shame for a while; we might feel confused for a time about our identity, as though sin has mangled us into mangled parodies of our real selves. Doing something about this takes courage and self-examination, but once a light is shone on the truth, we must take responsibility for our choice to accept or reject the lies we have believed - or to believe what God has said about his followers. 

“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” -  Romans 8:1

Romans 8:1

Scenes of Shame in the Bible

Mark 5 describes the scene: a woman has bled for 12 years, suffering greatly. In desperation, she reaches out to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment and is instantly healed. Here is a woman whose society would not come near her, let alone touch her or allow themselves or their garments to be touched by her. She was unclean because of the blood over which she had no control. There is also the woman caught in adultery and the woman at the well who has been ostracized. One must not forget that Jesus ate with tax collectors (Matthew 11:19), whose occupation was regarded among the worst and most shameful. “Jesus associated with contagiously shameful people: bleeding women, tax collectors, prostitutes, gentiles, and the like. These people were a threat to your social standing,” explained Shiner.

Jesus’ crucifixion was a scene deeply engraved with shame. Jesus was spat on; his clothes were ripped from his body, and he was mocked and exposed. Some of the most painful events in a person’s life are designed to hurt the heart and soul, not the body, and this is a large part of what Jesus went through before and on top of the excruciating pain of the cross. Hebrews 4:15 promises, 

“We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” 

Jesus was tempted to forget his identity in the midst of anguish. Anything we have ever gone through, he has gone through first.

What Jesus Does with Shame

As far as Jesus is concerned, the woman with the 12-year bleed had shown tremendous faith, and this is what he wants - not perfection, just faith. He has told us, 

“Come to me, all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” - Matthew 11:28-30

Rest from constructing, declaring, and explaining who you are because of what you did or what was done to you. The woman came to Jesus, and he called her “daughter.” She could rest, not only from the bleeding but from carrying the weight of exclusion. There was something she could do, and she did it - she saw Jesus for who he was, and she reached out to him for help, and he brought her into the fold of the family. He identified her as “daughter”. (Matthew 9:22)

Shiner described how, instead of their shame spreading to him, Jesus’ honor covered them. “The opposite of guilt is innocence; the opposite of shame is honor. And honor, like shame, is something bestowed on us by others.” The question is, whose opinion of us really matters? Is it the view of Jesus or someone else, that of a group or a culture? 

“Stop regarding man in whose nostrils is breath, for of what account is he?” - Isaiah 2:22

Does family’s opinion mean more, or Jesus’ opinion? Remembering that our honor is not derived from anything we have done is important because it brings everyone down to the same level. Honor comes from Jesus and his sacrifice “outside the city gate”. (Hebrews 13:12) He did not have to endure the cross, but he did it for our sakes. He did so for each person who would turn to him, not for only certain people who were clean enough.

Responding to Jesus’ Invitation

Ed Welch commented that “when you get out of bed and persevere in ordinary obedience because you are representing the King, your labor is noticed even by heavenly beings.” Any time we make a choice to obey God that goes against the grain of society, there is a good chance we will endure some element of shame as a result. As broken human beings, we often need time to process what has happened to us and realize that we need Jesus to tell us who we are.

That is when we make the choice: stay here, wallow, sink into the sin of resentment, misery, and low self-esteem, or run to the cross. As Shiner put it, “Go to [Jesus] outside the camp, bearing this disgrace he bore.” And when we go, we also join others who have been shamed. We do this for them, and we do it to obey Christ, to identify with him. As a result, instead of more shame we receive honor.

There is more value in this stance than we often realize. “When you believe what God has said rather than lies, you are doing valuable work,” said Welch. “When you choose hope over despair, your choice has lasting significance. [...] When you pursue holiness because you are holy, you find honor that lasts.”

Eternity is implied here. Whom do we associate with most closely? Whose identity do we care about most? This speaks to the state of our relationship with Jesus. Overcoming our shame by the power of the Holy Spirit is always an effort, a work that must be done, especially when doing so reveals the part we play in our own misidentification and even pushes us towards forgiveness. Undertaking this work, however, is a step in the path towards Heaven with the King at our sides.

Meanwhile, our choice is noticed by onlookers. Other less mature or suffering Christians need the encouragement of those who have walked this difficult walk and can say, “Jesus did not let me down. He calls you and me by name.” For those who do not know Jesus (yet), the decision to reclaim joy, not reinvent ourselves merely as “survivors” of our sins and the crimes of others, tells bystanders that Christ has power even now.

Choosing to Walk Away from Shame

Shame sneaks up at first, but once spotted, it must be rooted out. Like rodents that won’t leave your house, shame keeps coming back and finding new ways to hide, leaving droppings, chewing the furniture, and bringing disease. Remember, however, that shame starts in the mind and leaks into the heart based on what we think about Jesus and about ourselves. We can hold onto shame, turn it into an idol, and try to appease or control it. But Welch argues, ““If you want Jesus, you must be willing to accept the honor that goes with the relationship. Your royal status—ascribed to you, not achieved—has been unveiled.” In order to take hold of that, we need two hands; we must let go of shame.


Photo Credit:  Image created using DALL.E 2024  AI technology and subsequently edited and reviewed by our editorial team.

Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.

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