Shame: A Biblical Perspective

Man covering face

Shame may be defined as “a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.” One can also be shamed or put to shame by others, causing him to feel ashamed.

Shame has a very negative connotation in our society today. Many believe that children should not be disciplined or corrected for fear that they might be made to feel ashamed. Sin is tolerated and even celebrated so that those who practice it will not feel shame for their actions. Behaviors that were once kept secret because they were shameful are now proudly announced to the world.

What does the Bible have to say about all of this? Let us consider shame from a Biblical perspective.

What Is Shame?

Thayer defines the Greek word for shame (entrepo) as (1) to shame one, (2) to be ashamed, (3) to reverence a person. It is about one person being placed in a lower position, class, or standing than others. How does this happen? It depends on the way in which we are meaning the word (previous definition):

  1. One IS compelled to lower himself by others. This can be done by ridicule, abuse, ostracizing, discipline, or rebuke. Sometimes this is done wrongly or unnecessarily. Other times it is to help (when done with the right attitude).
  2. One FEELS compelled to lower himself. This could be due to guilt, embarrassment, or low self-esteem. These feelings may stem from past sins and mistakes or they could be rooted in a lack of confidence or understanding.
  3. One WILLINGLY lowers himself out of respect for another. This is the idea of submission, respecting authority, and humility. This is not about lowering oneself because of external or internal pressure (shaming or being ashamed), but is the result of one desiring to show honor to one in a higher position.

The Bible has some things to say about shame. There are some instances when it is good and necessary. There are other times when it keeps us from pleasing God.

When Shame Is Good

This may sound surprising to our present world, but there are occasions when shame is beneficial and helpful. Notice the following examples:

  • When a child is receiving needed discipline – “Furthermore, we had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them; shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits, and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness. All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness” (Hebrews 12:9-11). The Hebrew writer was making a point about the discipline we receive from God by comparing it to the discipline we received as children from our fathers. The word translated “we respected them” (v. 9) is the same word for shame. Discipline produces this sense of respect. Of course, this is not a justification for verbal or physical abuse; however, corporal punishment can be helpful in certain situations (cf. Proverbs 22:15; 19:18). Such discipline is training the child to respect those in authority – particularly the parents.
  • When we feel guilt for our sin – “‘Were they ashamed because of the abomination they have done? They were not even ashamed at all; they did not even know how to blush. Therefore they shall fall among those who fall; at the time that I punish them, they shall be cast down,’ says the Lord” (Jeremiah 6:15). The people of God had gotten so accustomed to sin that they no longer felt guilty for engaging in those practices. They should have been ashamed, but they had forgotten how to blush. Shame is evidence of a working conscience, yet ignoring that sense of guilt will eventually lead one to be “seared in their conscience” and no longer be ashamed (1 Timothy 4:2). This sense of shame – a “sorrow that is according to the will of God” – encourages repentance (2 Corinthians 7:8-10). The purpose of church discipline is to cause the erring brother to be “put to shame” in order to motivate him to repent (2 Thessalonians 3:14-15).
  • When we are motivated to dress and act modestly – “Likewise, I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or cost garments, but rather by means of good works, as is proper for women making a claim to godliness” (1 Timothy 2:9-10). The word modestly is translated “with shamefacedness” in the King James Version. A sense of shame will motivate one to dress a certain way – including covering up the parts of the body that if exposed would be considered nakedness. However, this is not just about clothing but about behavior as well. In discussing the same idea of modesty, Peter said that a woman’s “chaste and respectful behavior” should be observable (1 Peter 3:2). The way that one dresses and acts – regardless of whether it is a man or woman – should be based upon their sense of respect for God and others.
  • When we are encouraged to grow in our faith – “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). We are expected to grow in our understanding of the word of God. However, when we do not know the word as we should – we cannot teach it, defend it, or proclaim it even though we have had sufficient time to develop the ability to do so (Hebrews 5:11-14) – that should cause a degree of embarrassment or guilt. This should motivate us to take the time needed to “study” (KJV) the Scriptures in order to know how to use them properly.
  • When we show respect for one in authority – “But afterward he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son’” (Matthew 21:37). This statement came during Jesus’ parable about the landowner (God) who planted a vineyard and rented it out to vine-growers (the Jews) who repeatedly abused and even killed the landowner’s servants sent to them (Matthew 21:33-36). The landowner (God) decided to send his son (Jesus) to them because his position as the landowner’s son should have commanded respect. However, in a foreshadowing of His death on the cross, Jesus described the vine-growers rejecting and killing the landowner’s son (Matthew 21:38-39). Remember the definition of shame we noticed at the beginning. It includes reverence for one in a position of authority. We need to be willing to humbly submit to parents (Hebrews 12:9), elders in the church (Hebrews 13:17), and civil authorities (Romans 13:1).
  • When we are suffering for the cause of Christ – “They took his advice; and after calling the apostles in, they flogged them and ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and then released them. So they went on their way from the presence of the Council, rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name” (Acts 5:40-41). The apostles were punished for preaching the gospel after the members of the Sanhedrin ordered them not to do so. Just as discipline is meant to bring shame in order to train one to do what is right (cf. Hebrews 12:9-11; 2 Corinthians 7:8-10), this was intended by the Council to “train” the apostles to quit teaching about Jesus by putting them to shame. However, it is important to note that while they suffered shame or were shamed by the rulers, they were not ashamed [more on this later].

However, feeling shame when one needs to feel shame does not automatically produce faithfulness. One may feel shame for sin and not repent. This happened with Judas after he betrayed the Lord. He felt remorse, but refused to repent and instead killed himself (Matthew 27:3-5). Paul explained that this can also happen when one sins, repents, but is not welcomed back and encouraged by his brethren; he can be “overwhelmed by excessive sorrow” and turn back to sin (2 Corinthians 2:7-8). Shame needs to lead one to repentance; then repentance must be met with forgiveness by one’s brethren.

When Shame Is Bad

As we have noticed, there are ways in which shame can be good. However, it is not always positive. Many times (perhaps most of the time) it is negative.

  • When we are ashamed of Christ – “For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels” (Mark 8:38). Jesus was describing one having a reluctance to affirm Jesus for who He is. Not only will this cause Jesus to “be ashamed of him,” He will also “deny him before [His] Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:33).
  • When we are ashamed to be identified as Christians – “But if anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but is to glorify God in this name” (1 Peter 4:16). As Peter described in this verse, this typically happens in the face of persecution. This was why the Council punished the apostles as we noticed earlier (Acts 5:40-41) – they wanted them to feel ashamed for preaching Christ so they would quit; yet they did not. We must expect persecution since “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). Knowing this, we must prepare ourselves to faithfully endure such suffering (cf. Revelation 2:10) instead of turning away from the Lord in shame.
  • When we are ashamed of the gospel – “Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony of the Lord or of me His prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel according to the power of God” (2 Timothy 1:8). As our society moves further away from God and a Biblical world view, the teachings of the Bible will become increasingly “politically incorrect” and viewed as shameful (even hateful). Yet we still have an obligation to “make a defense” for what we believe and “contend earnestly for the faith” (1 Peter 3:15; Jude 3). We must not feel guilty for doing so.
  • When we are ashamed to be identified with our brethren – “The Lord grant mercy to the house of Onesiphorus, for he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chains” (2 Timothy 1:16). When Paul was in prison, this man was still eager to help the apostle even though it would have been socially and politically shameful to do so. We have the responsibility to encourage one another (Hebrews 3:12-13; 10:24-25). If we are ashamed to be identified with our brethren, we will inevitably fail to fulfill this command.
  • When we are discouraged from trying to be faithful – “I do not write these things to shame you, but to admonish you as my beloved children” (1 Corinthians 4:14). Paul was writing to the church in Corinth to try to correct several problems that needed to be addressed there. As we have discussed, there is a sense of shame that is associated with admonishing one to do what is right (Hebrews 12:9-11; 2 Corinthians 7:8-10). There is also a sense of shame that discourages one from even trying to do what is right. That was what Paul meant in this verse. Shame that leads us to believe that we cannot do anything right is not helpful at all.
  • When we are ashamed to stand before the Lord in judgment – “Now, little children, abide in Him, so that when He appears, we may have confidence and not shrink away from Him in shame at His coming” (1 John 2:28). Because all have sinned, we are all deserving of punishment (Romans 3:23; 6:23). Yet God, through His grace, offers salvation to us (Titus 2:11; Ephesians 2:8-9). However, we are still expected to engage in “good works” (Ephesians 2:10) and “obey Him” (Hebrews 5:9). Doing this will not “earn” us salvation (cf. Luke 17:10); but as John pointed out, it will enable us to confidently look forward to the return of Christ. Feeling a sense of shame at the thought of appearing “before the judgment seat of Christ” in order to be “recompensed for [our] deeds in the body, according to what [we have] done, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10) is a sign from our conscience that there is something in our life that is not pleasing to God. Rather than live with that sense of shame, we need to repent and make the necessary corrections so we can have the confidence that John mentioned.

Conclusion

Shame is never pleasant to experience, but there are times when it is helpful and necessary. We must allow it to motivate us to do good and never allow it to hinder us from faithful service to the Lord.


When you subscribe, you’ll also receive 3 free PDF’s: Plain Bible Teaching on Government, the latest issue of Plain Bible Teaching Quarterly Review, and Social Issues.


Speak Your Mind

*