Sunday Sermon – Shame on You

“Shame is a soul eating emotion.” Carl Jung.  I am so grateful for the feedback I received on last week’s sermon on confession and was challenged to meditate on the impact of shame on our lives.  If you read last week’s treatise, you will remember that confession is a key to releasing us from guilt and shame, but what is shame and how does it impact us?

Our earliest introduction in the bible, in Genesis 2:25, states “Now the man and the wife were both naked, but they felt no shame.”  Then in Genesis 3:10, just a few statements further on in the story, the man speaks to God, “I heard you walking in the garden, so I hid.  I was afraid because I was naked.”  What happened?

In this allegory, we find a transition from ignorance to a very real perception of imagined wrongdoing and the sense of moral failing.  The first important lesson from this story is that God is not the accuser here, but the man feels the sense of shame he had not felt before he and the woman had eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  At the risk of being somewhat controversial, the implication is clear that had they not eaten of this fruit, they would have remained in a state of blissful ignorance and would have been incapable of guilt or shame.  But they would also have been incapable of making any kind of moral judgement.  It is my conjecture that real freedom was being granted to mankind and the presence of evil, personified by the serpent was necessary to release this ability to choose.  It would also necessitate the entrance of Jesus who “because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame” (Hebrews12) in order to give us the power, in our turn, to be free from shame.  It was bound to happen, and was always intended.

So what is shame?  One dictionary defines it as “a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.”  So, this again emphasizes the source of the emotion as coming from within; a realization that impacts self-worth and value that causes pain.  Another definition links this emotion to the conscious realization of failure.  Without conscience and the guidance of perceived moral failure, we would potentially all run amok both in our personal lives and in the lives of others causing untold collateral damage.  Quite different from a conviction or even feelings of guilt, shame is, I believe, a crippling and destructive influence that can do untold damage to self-worth and our ability to relate to those around us.  As I mentioned last week, confession and sometimes real forgiveness is needed to find freedom from this emotional prison.

“You should be ashamed of yourself”.  “Shame on you.”  These are phrases we have all heard at some point and they illustrate the last point I want to make on this subject.  To my mind, there is no place for shame that is inflicted by others.  Shame, as I have already suggested, is crippling emotional baggage, and when inflicted by others, it was suggested by a friend that this is primarily a way of controlling another person.  I found myself in agreement.  It is one thing to be consumed by our own sense of failure and be held in the grip of shame, but quite another to be made to feel that shame.  It is not our responsibility to be the moral arbiters of others, however much we may feel the responsibility to do so.  As I pondered this subject this week, I realized I had, in some manner been responsible for doing this as a parent, husband and friend.  Even the use of those phrases above convey powerful emotional holds over those to whom they are directed.  I am sure I have used them on occasion.  May I be forgiven.

I believe it was the purpose of Jesus to enable us to stand naked and risk exposing our true selves to those around us but without shame.  I do not believe that it was intended we lived in ignorance and without the ability to make moral choices.  For this reason, we all have the capacity to feel guilty for our wrong choices. We have the capacity to be overcome by shame in the light of our failings.  We can find freedom and healing from the impact because Jesus threw aside his own immunity and suffered the shame of the cross.  For those wounded and controlled by shame dished out by others, I encourage you to reject those judgements and find the grace to forgive.  I believe forgiveness properly experienced by both parties involved enables freedom from this form of control.  In the meantime, I am grateful for the conscience awareness of when I mess up and I will determine to be more diligent in not putting shame on those around me. (Next week just might turn to the subject of forgiving!)



  1. Chul says:

    Sans label: definitely the best way to be. Should have clarified that the Augustine text I make reference to is the Confessions. I’m turning next to the Summa Theologica (Thomas Aquinas), who asks whether all sorrow is evil

  2. Chul says:

    “Base soul, falling from Thy firmament to utter destruction – not seeking aught through the shame but the shame itself!” Augustine (2.4.9)

    A very thoughtfully written piece, which set the old cogs whirring. I entirely agree with everything you say, and find it refreshing for a Christian to be outspoken against shame. I think we can all (hopefully…) agree with Jung, and indeed those he influenced such as Foucault, that shame is a powerfully negative mechanism of social control, at least when viewed through the lens of Western ideology. Hiebert sums it up rather well when he says that within the context of shame, “one maintains self-respect, not by choosing what is good rather than what is evil, but by choosing what is expected of one “. This is an important point, because it suggests that what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’ is socially constructed rather than relating to some fundamental ontology. Upon this I think we can all concur.

    But to delve a little deeper, this for me brought the overt juxtaposition in Genesis to mind. Knowledge and shame. The two are implicitly, inexorably, and exquisitely linked. My Jewish friend tells me that ‘knowledge’ is actually a mistranslation, and that the Hebrew word is closer in meaning to ‘awareness’. In other words, to be human is to know shame. This is all the more poignant when one considers that rationalism is only a couple of hundred years old. What we are talking about here is something almost primal, that the price of awareness is paid with the currency of shame.

    Which got the cogs whirring a little more… We can learn from reading Confucius that shame can be conceptualised as a positive ingredient in the social recipe. According to Confucius, shame makes visible the invisible boundaries between right and wrong, and is a healthy part of the social structure. So how does it become so destructive through our eyes? By the time we get to the Qur’an nearly 1000 years later shame has become a significant instrument of negativity. In the 21 uses of the word ‘shame’ in the Qur’an, 13 are directly linked with the word ‘doom’, and the rest are linked to otherworldly threats, thus applying metaphysical pressure to what is essentially an otherwise socially constructed phenomenon. At this point, we see the layering of the metaphysical over the physical, blurring the lines between the here and now. Shame itself becomes dislocated from behaviours and moralities and takes on a life of its own. The thought of ‘shame’ as an uncontrolled weapon is quite frightening, but it is clear that by the seventh century AD that is exactly what it has become.

    Yet what to do about it? How to let go of shame – either our own, or the labelling of shame on others? That is a more difficult question. It seems to me that Christianity loads the individual with shame, and it is then a lifetime’s work to claw out of it. How? By ascribing to the very social structures that reinforce shame in the first place. Thus to be human is to engage in a lengthy and inescapable courtship with shame, just as Augustine illustrates. Incidentally, regarding shame and confession my mind is drawn to the anecdote of his mother briefly becoming an alcoholic and the portrait of public confession, shame, and guilt mingled with love and understanding that Augustine created from that. A perfect allegory for this entire topic if ever there were one.

    Much food for thought, and no easy answers. I look forward with anticipation to the ‘forgiveness’ installment.

    1. David says:

      Well,there is plenty of food for thought as you say. Thanks for engaging so fully in the conversation. And you have highlighted one of the reasons I have been reluctant to assume the label Christian. I haven’t come up with a suitable alternative but perhaps I should just go for the ‘sans label’ look! I am encouraged to look more closely at Augustine. Thanks, I am really enjoying the exchange of ideas😀

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