Despite the creature comforts and modern technology of our contemporary society, more people than ever seem unhappy. The quest for a solution to the unhappiness problem has spawned a fresh panacea—a kind of name-it-and-blame-it” therapy. Psychologists have formulated a new term: dysfunctional. “We need only uncover the dysfunctional personality or circumstance responsible for our misery,” goes the theory, “and we can fix it.” While for a long time guilt or self-reproach has been the Freudian scapegoat for a variety of problems, recently shame is being touted by many as the chief cause of most disorders.
Discussing this theory that shame is “the master emotion, the unseen regulator of one’s entire affective life,” clinical psychologist Robert Karen wrote in The Atlantic, February 1992: “Most languages have at least two meanings for the word ‘shame’: one to denote the feeling, one to denote the healthy attitudes that define a wholesome character.…Anything can evoke a feeling of shame. We can be ashamed of our likes, our dislikes, our assets, our deficits, even our genius or creativity—because of what we think such things imply about our character or because of the way they may seem to divide us from others.”
Shame makes us feel worthless, inadequate and unacceptable. When we feel shame we lower our heads and avoid anyone’s gaze. In referring to shame Asians use the term “losing face.” The metaphor is good because when we “lose face” we are no longer identifiable. When we lose face we become non-entities—”nobodies.” We cannot express ourselves. Our voices talk through the face; our eyes see through the face. With faces either lowered or “lost” through shame, we can only mumble. When we are shamed we cannot speak. We cannot look a person in the eye. We cannot interact. We cannot function. Thus we are devastated.
If we do wrong, we certainly deserve to feel ashamed. Shame works toward repentance and beneficial change. Sometimes, however, the manipulators of this world heap undeserved shame upon us. They embarrass us into action or non-action for their own particular purposes. For example, consider this theoretical yet common sort of incident:
A shopper completes her grocery purchase at a supermarket and steps away from the check stand. Before reaching the door the woman puts down her bags of groceries, takes the cash register tape and a pencil and begins checking things off. She finds that, indeed, as she had suspected, she has been overcharged $1.00 for a certain item. She lugs her heavy bags of groceries back to the cashier, who refuses to talk to her about her problem. Instead he sends her to the store manager. With her bundles still in tow, the women finds the store manager’s office—a loft with a window that opens onto the store below.
The lady trudges up the steps and makes her explanation while the store manager scowls and impatiently drums his fingers on the desk. He responds sternly, “Well, what do you want me to do about it?” The shopper says she wants her dollar back. The manager slides open the window and shouts down across the sales floor to the cashier, “Give her back her dollar!” At that, everyone looks up and stares at the woman, who by now feels thoroughly humiliated and embarrassed.
The customer has been shamed. The manager’s manner and tone of voice are designed to show her that she is a nuisance to ask for what is hers. His disdainful treatment implies to all the clerks and shoppers below that customers who get out of line as she did will be “punished” with embarrassment.
This kind of shaming happens in other life situations. The irreligious segment of our society often directs shame against religious people. Public school systems, along with other institutions of the secular society, would shame us Christians about our love for the Bible and our faith. If we encounter enough ridicule or obstacles, we might retreat from our straightforward stance—perhaps not all the way, but just enough to get comfortable. After all, we reason, we don’t want to offend. We want to get along. We want people to like us. The result is obvious. When we compromise our position, we have been shamed into silence or non-action.
The greatest manipulator and shamer of all time is Satan. In the Genesis account of the Fall, Satan, in the form of a serpent, shamed humanity’s first mother, Eve. He did it with a sophistry: “Yea, hath God said.…” In other words, he implied, “Are you so stupid to think that God really meant that, or are you just stupid enough to believe that He really said it?”
Satan used shame to bring about Eve’s downfall. He still uses shame with the rest of humanity whenever we seek to act nobly or serve our Creator. Satan uses shame like a pry-bar. He thrusts it into our souls and opens us up, making us vulnerable. Shrinking from the shame, we move in the direction he wants us to go—away from God.
Despite the cartoon renditions of Satan as a red-jumpsuited character with horns and a pitchfork, we should remember that he is defined quite differently in the Scriptures. There he is described as an angelic being with great powers until the day God sees fit to stop him.
As a clever, powerful being, Satan is not above trying to shame God Himself. In the Book of Job, Satan appeared before the Lord with a two-pronged insult. In effect he told God, “Sure, Job serves You well, but You bought his loyalty with everything You gave him.” By this he implied that Job’s motives were less than pure, and that God did not merit humanity’s worship or loyalty.
Satan does not always snarl or appear menacing as he uses the pry-bar of shame. Sometimes he speaks soothingly to us through others, like Job’s friends who came ostensibly to provide consolation but instead heaped shame on him. Sometimes Satan shames us with self-doubt as he did when he used Job’s wife to counsel Job to “curse God and die.” In her advice to “Give it up for your own good and be at peace,” the real insinuations were, “You’ve wasted your life. God is not worth serving. Life has no meaning. You’re a useless nobody.”
Satan uses the same tactics of shame and discouragement with Christians today. He conveys discouragement through our therapists, our well-meaning friends and our loved ones as they offer advice like, “If you say that in front of the whole PTA, they’ll ridicule you”; or “A complaint to the teacher will only make him resent your child”; or “Are you really serious about going to the mission field? You’re so young and idealistic. You don’t realize the hardships you may endure”; or “Do you think God can use older people like you? What if you get sick? You could die before they ever got you home for treatment.”
Such statements imply that anyone who mentions religion in public outside of church is a fool: those past 40 are too old and decrepit to be an asset; those under 40 are not ready to speak out and work for God until they have achieved great maturity. In any case, the would-be servant of God is stopped cold by feelings of self-doubt, inadequacy and shame.
Satan’s way of shaming people that disturbs me most is when people confront evangelically-minded Christians with, “Do you mean to say you want Jews to convert when we know that God has established His own separate covenant with them?” It makes no difference to explain that the particular covenant God made with the Israelites had no salvific significance apart from Christ. The accuser is not interested in explanations, and his or her tone of voice is intended to shame the would-be evangelizer into retreat.
Some Christians are shamed out of witnessing or made to feel stupid and oafish when they really ought to step forward and assert themselves. Don’t let that happen to you. If you witness and they make fun of you, so what? If they throw you out of a meeting, so what? If they batter you—verbally or physically—so what? They did that and worse to Yeshua!
The only productive shame for a child of God is the self-abasement that turns us away from sin and toward God and His service. Any other shame, incurred deservedly or undeservedly before we came to Christ, is healed, forgiven and erased. Shame that unbelievers would heap upon us to detract from our faith or to derail us from serving God becomes trivial in the light of the eternal glory the faithful will share with our risen Savior.
As Christians we should never be ashamed of what we believe or of proclaiming the gospel to those who need it. It is OK to be ashamed of sin, but it is never OK to be ashamed of faith in God or service for Him! It doesn’t matter what others may think of us, so long as we can face God with a good conscience.
Paul said it very well when he wrote to the church at Rome, “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek” (Romans 1:16). That message of forgiveness, restoration and salvation through faith in Christ heals all the scars of shame. It makes us new from the inside out and helps us to function again. As children of the heavenly Father through Christ, we need no longer be dysfunctional in any sense of the word. So get rid of the shame and the blame. Leave them behind at Calvary—and get busy for God!