Shame and Grace

One of our pastors gave a sermon on Sunday about shame.  It really started me thinking about guilt and shame, which we all encounter at various points in our lives. No one is immune to the feeling of shame and doubt. Certainly, unresolved shame in a person’s life can lead to isolation, sadness, sorrow, depression, and even suicide. That is, guilt is a response to what one does (thoughts, actions); shame is a response to who one is.  Shame is what I think about myself. It sounds like: “I am no good.”  “I can’t do anything right.” “They have no idea what I have done in the past…”

A child steals a candy bar at the drug store, and his/her conscience makes the child feel guilty. Then a parent tells a child, “You are so bad; you are a terrible child.” “You will never amount to anything,” and the shame may burden a child for a lifetime. Words like, “You messed up again. You will never change. I have given up on you,” can damage a person profoundly.  As adults, society places shame on us consciously or unconsciously: “You are too fat.” “You are not pretty enough.” “You are just stupid.” “You will never make it in this profession.” “Women cannot do that.” True or untrue, words can hurt.

A man cannot forget the act of adultery he committed; a woman cannot forget the abortion that took place years ago. We all have done something for which we feel shame; but generally, those feelings are suppressed. We all have secrets, “skeletons in our closet.” Over time, that feeling of guilt becomes shame. We know that what we did was wrong, and the nagging shame diminishes our self-confidence and our self-image. Shame becomes fear and anxiety. The roots of shame go very deep; it is hard to move forward. We try to forget, but it just keeps coming back to haunt us.

How do we stop the spinning carousel of shame?  Forgiveness. We must truly forgive other people, and most importantly, we must sincerely forgive ourselves. Philip Yancey wrote, “Apart from forgiveness, the monstrous past may awaken at any time from hibernation to devour the present. And also the future.”

Forgiveness is an easy word, but a very difficult thing to grasp. If someone hurts me, disparages my character, or makes a false accusation, there may be a million reasons why I do not want to forgive. On the other hand, if I have injured anyone, indeed, I want swift and complete forgiveness. Meanwhile, fear and shame thrive and grow under the condition of unforgiveness. Forgiveness can stop the downward spiral of guilt, shame, blame and despair. In the NT, the Greek word that is used for “forgiveness” literally means “to release, to hurl away, to free yourself.”  Forgiveness is freedom.

As Christians, we are commanded to forgive, because God has forgiven us. Jesus died on the cross so that those who place their faith in him are forgiven – totally, completely, and irreversibly. The supreme, divine forgiveness is grace. While mercy is God not giving us what we deserve (punishment), grace is God giving us what we do not deserve. Grace is God’s unconditional love, and unmerited forgiveness. Grace is a gift available to anyone and everyone who calls on the name of the Lord.  It removes the guilt and shame, cleanses and restores us, to move us forward in forgiving others, and to forgive ourselves as God has forgiven us.

Philip Yancey quotes a column by the humorist Erma Brombeck (who was one of my mother’s favorites):

“In church the other Sunday I was intent on a small child who was turning around smiling at everyone. He wasn’t gurgling, spitting, humming, kicking, tearing the hymnals, or rummaging through his mother’s purse. He was just smiling. Finally, his mother jerked him about and in a stage whisper that could be heard in a little theatre off Broadway said, ‘Stop that grinning! You’re in church!’ With that, she gave him a belt, and as the tears rolled down his cheeks, added, ‘That’s better,’ and returned to her prayers…..

Suddenly I was angry. It occurred to me that the entire world is in tears, and if you’re not, then you’d better get with it. I wanted to grab this child with the tear-stained face close to me and tell him about God. The happy God. The smiling God. The God who had to have a sense of humor to have created the likes of us….By tradition, one wears faith with the solemnity of a mourner, the gravity of a mask of tragedy, and the dedication of a Rotary badge.

What a fool, I thought. Here was a woman sitting next to the only light left in our civilization – our only hope, our only miracle – our only promise of infinity. If he could not smile in church, where was there left to go?”

Yancey adds, “Grace is everywhere, like lenses that go unnoticed because you are looking through them. Grace comes free of charge to people who do not deserve it, and I am one of those people….more surely than I know anything, that any pang of healing or forgiveness or goodness I have ever felt comes solely from the grace of God.”

I share this from one of my favorite books, Philip Yancey’s “What’s So Amazing About Grace?” Zondervan Publishing, 1997.


Author: Judy

Christian educator, writer, specializing in the New Testament

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