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Unpacking a Biblical perspective on the shame in my suitcase

Sometimes we think we know what’s bugging us. Other times we have no idea. I recently stumbled across some Biblical passages that seem to offer a different perspective on a grievous little influencer that sometimes haunts me – shame. Sometimes I forget he’s there. Other times, I’m free of him entirely. But often I’m just blind to his influence.

I recently watched a YouTube video by Michael Murray, the author of a great book, “Nobody Left Out: Jesus Meets the Messes.

A few of his thoughts from the video echoed some of my own recently. His main point was the benefit of “fishing” to find out what is underneath your anger. Things like fear, shame or hurt might be the real feelings that are displaying as anger.

What are you so ashamed of?

As I mentioned, shame had already been popping up in my Bible reading. I’ve known for years that what comes out of me as anger or frustration sometimes really has more to do with my own shame than it has to do with other people. Anger can be a response to redirect blame from myself.

I’ve been fighting uphill against shame all my life. My first recollection of shame from a very young age involved not being able to hear and understand what other people said. I was the last person to get jokes or even comprehend what was going on. I felt so stupid when really I just couldn’t hear well. But it’s easy to find myself continuing the same fight of trying to prove that I’m smart and that I have value. Especially when I feel like I’m missing something that everyone else is understanding. And I can still be found inwardly kicking myself when my actions or words look foolish.

As I ventured into reading 2 Timothy and Ezekiel after reflecting on Jude, my shame of inaptitude felt predictably out of place among holier sentiments. The Biblical perspective on shame was similar, but different from my own.

The feeling is the same, the embarrassment, the desire to hide or redirect attention from our inadequacies. The feeling that I am loathsome to myself and others. When I feel ashamed it is often because I feel stupid, ugly, awkward or undesireably different. But what I viewed as cringe-worthy didn’t seem to be meshing with what I read.

Sin and Shame

Have you ever read the book of Ezekiel? Now there’s a bizarre book for you! If it was a  movie I’d give it an “R” rating. The old Jewish teachers rated Song of Solomon for adult audiences, but beyond the sexuality of Ezekiel (it has plenty), my “R” would also be given for violence and disturbing images. But what I’m finding so graphically displayed in this book is a close linking between sin and shame. And a lack in my own life of remorse for sin.

Take for example, this passage from Ezekiel 6:9-10 “Then when they are exiled among the nations, they will remember me. They will recognize how hurt I am by their unfaithful hearts and lustful eyes that long for their idols. Then at last they will hate themselves for all their detestable sins. They will know that I alone am the Lord and that I was serious when I said I would bring this calamity on them.” 

How do you feel about your sin? Have you discredited it, because, as a Christian, you’re already forgiven? Or, thinking of God as harsh, do you immediately turn to fear and panic? But considering God’s great love and holiness, has it ever crossed our minds to view our own sins with disgust? Do we think of them as idol worship? Unless we do, we may too little value our salvation.

Here’s another interesting section of Ezekiel. “But someday I (the Lord) will restore the fortunes of Sodom and Samaria (towns that were judged to be very wicked), and I will restore you (Jerusalem) too. Then you will be truly ashamed of everything you have done, for your sins make them feel good in comparison…In your proud days you held Sodom in contempt. But now your greater wickedness has been exposed to all the world, and you are the one who is scorned.” Ezekiel 16:55, 56&57.

When I jumped over to read Psalm 119, I noticed verses five and six. “Oh, that my ways were steadfast in obeying your decrees! Then I would not be put to shame when I consider all your commands.” What would you say is the cause of shame for the writer here?

So as I’ve been wrestling to prove that I’m good enough, I may have missed that there really is benefit to experiencing the shame of not being morally “good enough”. There is a grief we should feel over the recognition of sin that leads us to repentance.

Unashamed

In the New Testament letters, sin is no longer how Christians live. According to Paul, “Since we have died to sin, how can we continue to live in it?” Romans 6:2 NLT. So shame for sin should no longer be an issue, right?

And yet you’ll find the word “shame” throughout 2 Timothy 1. Paul tells Timothy not to be ashamed of the gospel (vs.8) and states that he himself is not (vs.12). He points out that Onesiphorus was not ashamed of Paul’s chains when he visited him (vs. 16). And Paul claims to have something of the opposite of “shame” – a clear conscience – in verse three. This chapter contains one of my life verses that I use to combat shame when I’m cowering in uncertainty, 2 Timothy 1:7. “For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love and self-discipline.”

Though, like me, Paul and Timothy are subject to things like fear and timidity, Paul’s chief exhortation in this chapter is not to be ashamed of suffering for the sake of the gospel. 

And maybe you noticed as well, that although Paul and Timothy are not talking about being ashamed of how they look in their clothes (as I sometimes am) or how dumb they looked when they asked the wrong question, they are still talking about being ashamed of how they look to others. There’s a shame that tries to attach itself when we compare ourselves. And so we may accidently stumble into the sin of pride and muddy our consciences.

Suffering

The freedom from sin produces a new problem – denying our flesh. Now that we don’t have to be slaves to sin, we find ourselves needing to resist its insistence. But the victory comes where we least expect it – from suffering. The suffering that Paul tells Timothy not to be ashamed of.

“Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because whoever suffers in the body is done with sin.” 1 Peter 4:1. Although these words are from Peter, not Paul, they speak of the same mindset of deserting sin and embracing suffering.

I’m not a Biblical scholar. I haven’t entirely hashed out my thoughts about the Bible’s perspective on shame, but this much I know, God wants us to be free of both sin and shame. And it makes sense to me that if we are willing to suffer in order to avoid a certain sin, then that sin ceases to hold power over us anymore.

We can see this demonstrated in any break from addiction. There is some suffering involved in addiction breaking. The freedom comes after the suffering. And it’s obvious as well that just seeking suffering instead of self-denial won’t produce the freedom from addiction. You can’t just let someone beat you up and then you’re free from heroin addiction. That will do absolutely nothing to free you. You have to suffer by choosing right over wrong.

The Clear Conscience

And I’ll admit that Paul means more than this when he speaks of suffering for the gospel. Onesiphorus willingly associated with Paul who was in chains. People’s judging eyes could have regarded him as a traitor, a thief, a man in any number of ways subverting justice or supporting those who do. Onesiphorus could have been subjecting himself to danger and shame, but Paul says he was not ashamed. Because he didn’t have anything to be ashamed of.

Onesiphorus was at risk of suffering for the gospel as he ministered care in the name of Christ, but Paul was actually suffering arrest, persecution and later death for proclaiming the gospel and living out its message.

For further study on the connection between sin and shame, check out this list of verses: Proverbs 13:5, Isaiah 42:17, Jeremiah 7:16-19, Obadiah 1:10, and 1 Corinthians 15:34

On the flip side, the Bible says a lot about his people (the righteous) never being put to shame: Psalm 34:5, Zephaniah 3:5, Romans 5:5, Romans 9:33, Romans 10:11, and 1 Peter 2:6.

If you are struggling with shame, check out this article that brings comfort and clarity, “Shame in the Bible – 30 Verses about Shame & Guilt.”

Woman spinning in sunlight that catches her. "Those who look to him are radiant" Psalm 34:5

Is there any feeling as wonderful as a clean conscience? Do you remember the moment you came to the Lord and had your burden of sin removed? Every day we can begin again, fresh and clean, through a wonderful gift called confession and through the mercy of God through the blood of Jesus Christ.

I’m glad there is an antidote for shame. Shame for sin is good because it leads us to repentance, but then we can be rid of it and live forgiven.

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