The week before my wife and I closed on our first home, the most powerful emotion I felt was shame. Not anticipations or euphoria or pride, but shame.

It went like this: We had read books on home buying. We had schooled one another in ARMs, FRMs, points, and title insurance. We had debated the pros and cons of living in one community over another. We had found a real estate agent, diligently looked at properties, discovered a house, placed a bid, and applied for a loan.

Then the loan officer called and said she did not know if our finances were adequate for the modest home we wanted.

For a few days we lived in suspense—and I, in shame. Voices from deep inside asked and accused:

“What kind of man can’t provide for his family?”

“What have I done with my life?”

“Am I incompetent and irresponsible, a failure and a fool?”

The voices were not muted until the loan was approved.

Psychologists say shame is the sense that we have radically disappointed others, failed to live up to standards of acceptability. We stand exposed, bound and immobilized.

Shame reduces us to muteness, alienates us from those at hand, makes us acutely aware of ourselves as deficiency incarnate. When we are ashamed, we bow our heads—not to pray but to hide. Letting someone look us in the eye is especially painful because their gaze seems to pierce to the soul—the deepest and real self now feared to be rotten and worthless.

I am afraid such experiences of shame are not unusual for me. Or, apparently, for other people. Pop psychologist John Bradshaw, whose books sell into the hundreds of thousands, takes shame as a prominent theme. He and other gurus in the burgeoning codependency movement see unhealthy dependence on others rooted in identities based on shame.

In an officially independent and individualistic society like America, why are so many people ashamed?

Based on the work of social critics such as Christopher Lasch and psychologists such as Gershen Kaufman, here’s my guess: Ours is a shame-based culture ashamed of shame. Success, particularly the tangible success exemplified by health and wealth, is the measure of our worth. Despite our professed independence, we do care what others think of us. We want to appear worthy, to possess and brandish the trappings of success.

But since we imagine ourselves independent and self-sufficient, we won’t acknowledge our desperate desire to be seen as worthy. Nor do we want any reminders that worthiness measured by tangible success is a precarious worth, based on such vagaries as the stock market, a body free of cancer cells, the weather, or Saddam Hussein’s ego. Thus we have little place for failure or the admission of vulnerability and need of others. We are, in fact, extremely liable to shame and even more ashamed to admit it.

Article continues below

After all, our most cherished myths herald the “self-made” man or woman. And with Vince Lombardi we profess, “Winning isn’t everything—it’s the only thing.” We elect presidents who play on the potent cowboy images of the loner who rides into town to clean it up singlehandedly. Pat Schroeder of Colorado sees her presidential campaign crumble after she weeps publicly. And the best-selling books of rosy futurist John Naisbitt refuse, on principle, to consider inadequacies or injustices in the world.

Shame thrives under the conditions our culture inspires. Shadows, illusive appearances, an atmosphere of deception, denial, and mistrust—they all make a murky swampland ideal for shame’s growth. At least the Bible sees it that way, and perhaps it can illuminate a path out of the swamp.

Naked And Exposed

Eve and Adam lived in harmony with one another and God. In an atmosphere of trust and truth, they “were both naked, and were not ashamed” (Gen. 2:25). Here nakedness, or exposure and vulnerability, was no threat.

Vulnerability presents a problem only when we cannot trust others. Then we fear they might take our vulnerability, our admission that we need others and depend on something outside ourselves, and use it against us. Exactly that fear shattered the peace of Eden. Once God was betrayed and trust was broken, Adam and Eve were at odds with God and one another.

Then “they knew they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons” (Gen. 3:7). It seemed necessary to cover and protect the self, even (or especially) from God. In Adam’s words, “I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself” (Gen. 3:10).

In shame’s train comes a preoccupation with appearance. Adam and Eve must now calculate and control how they present themselves. Life will now be filled with stratagems and second-guessing. Things cannot be as they seem: “What did he really mean by that gesture?” “What’s in this bargain for her?”

Shame also brings terrifying self-doubt. Eve and Adam are no longer sure they are worthy as they are, unadorned and naked. Hiding from each other and from God is a way of hiding from themselves, guarding their nakedness from another who might speak honestly about what he or she sees. And notice how quickly man and woman, now doubting their own worth, try to direct attention away from themselves by pointing the finger at someone else (Adam at Eve, Eve at the serpent).

Article continues below

The irony of shame is that hiding and covering our vulnerability only increases it. The higher our lies are stacked, the more likely they are to topple. The games we play grow so complex that we are bound to slip up. Life for ashamed people who cannot admit shame is a complicated and tense affair. Yet, unable to admit and deal with their shame, such people can only use shame to try to stay one step ahead. Shame fuels pecking orders and status symbols.

Once again the Bible throws light on the darkness of our condition. Consider the story of the adulteress dragged before Jesus as recorded in John 8:2–11. Here the lawyers and Pharisees use shame as a weapon. They hope to trick Jesus into saying or doing something that will shame him. Their ploy depends, for its effectiveness, on the elevation of the lawyers and Pharisees at the expense of Jesus—and the woman. She is doubly degraded. Not only is she a publicly exposed adulteress, but she is only being used to get at Jesus.

Having used their power to insulate themselves from shame and focus it on the woman, the Pharisees and lawyers barge into Jesus’ presence with all the misplaced confidence of self-righteousness. Significantly, they come as a group, representing the prestigious law and temple. But Jesus shatters the solidarity of the shamers: “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (v. 7, NRSV).

Poet Sharon Olds images shame as a circle, spotlighting and isolating a vulnerable self. Here the Pharisees and lawyers suffer what Olds calls “the horror of circles.” To follow up on Jesus’ challenge means singling yourself out as “the first” and so being exposed. To step forward into the middle of the stoning circle makes you liable to shame, since no one can honorably claim to be free of sin.

Its solidarity broken, the crowd filters away from the circle “one by one” (v. 9). The Pharisees use shame to hurt and destroy. Jesus uses shame to affirm and rescue a degraded woman. He does not deny the shame of her sin, but he refuses to let shame have the last word or define her: “Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again” (v. 11).

Article continues below

So Jesus points a way out of the vicious, horrible circle of shame. Following that way means refusing to hurt others with their shame. And, more dauntingly, it means admitting our own shame. But how can we afford that? We really are afraid we are worthless, that others would abandon us if they knew us as we are. So how can we admit shame without destroying ourselves?

Deep Reassurance

The beginning of an answer lies further along the way of Jesus, in the Cross. Individualists that we are, we see crucifixion as a dreadful death mainly because of its terrible physical pain. Occasionally revivalists still describe the whip and nails and slow suffocation in excruciating detail. But what the early Christians most dreaded about the cross was its shame.

This form of execution was reserved for those least worthy of respect: slaves, hardened criminals, and rebels against the state. It was deliberately public, heightening its disgrace. Cross was a vulgar word in ancient Rome, not used in polite company. The formula for sentencing to crucifixion read: “Executioner, bind his hands, veil his head, and hang him on the tree of shame.”

Even more dramatically, consider that the condemned were often killed before they were crucified. No longer able to suffer physical pain, but still liable to the shaming of their name and reputation, they were only then humiliated on a cross.

So the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews gets to the point by stating that Jesus endured the cross by “disregarding its shame” (12:2, NRSV). Shame is also clearly a central concern of the gospel writers, perhaps most apparently in Mark’s compact account of the Passion:

Shame binds: Jesus is literally bound (15:1). Shames silences: Jesus has little to say to Pilate and finally falls mute (15:5). Shame renders us acutely self-conscious and afraid others will reject us: Jesus is rejected by the crowd (15:13–14), mocked by soldiers and even those executed with him (15:16, 32). Shame exposes: Jesus dies naked. Shame makes us powerless: Jesus “saved others” but “cannot save himself” (15:31). Shame is abandonment or fear of abandonment at its most intense: Jesus cries, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (15:34).

Once again, Jesus’ enemies use shame in an attempt to destroy him. And this time they succeed. Jesus has been profoundly discredited, his mission shown for a sham, his followers scattered. For him, unlike the adulteress, shame apparently has the last word and finally defines him. He and his dreams are scorned and cursed.

Article continues below

Of course, that is not the end of the story. God’s resurrection of Jesus vindicates him and his mission and restores his followers. The resurrection is deep reassurance—exactly the reassurance we need—that shame does not destroy. We have no hope in the face of shame without the resurrection.

But we also have no hope in the face of shame if we rush from the Cross to the Resurrection. Ours is a shame-based culture ashamed of shame. We want, to our detriment, to hear that the Resurrection obliterates the shame of the Crucifixion. Our central self-deception is that successful individuals are autonomous and don’t need others. So shame must be denied, for in denying it we are protected from trust in and vulnerability to others. Only the shameless man or woman needs no one.

Our hope is not that resurrection obliterates the shame of crucifixion. Our hope is that resurrection transforms and paradoxically elevates the shame of crucifixion.

The Gospels see Jesus’ shame and weakness as his pre-eminent revelation of God’s power—John considers it nothing less than his glory and “lifting up” (John 12:30–33). Paul insists that Jesus became a shameful curse for our sakes (Gal. 3:13–14). And Christ’s followers await their own resurrection; in this time between the times we must bear the Cross and its shame. If we are not ashamed of Jesus before humanity, he will not be ashamed of us before the Father (Mark 8:38).

So our hope is not that shame has ended. Our hope is that Jesus bore shame to the cross and shamed it. Shame was crucified, itself disarmed and publicly stripped of its ultimate malignancy (Col. 2:15). By enduring the cross, Jesus suffered shame’s worst and yet was vindicated by God. The central, pivotal reality of all existence is now that our worth was secured on the cross. No shame, however just or unjust, however petty or spectacular, can “separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:39).

The Cross creates a community of people who, no longer afraid of being defined and destroyed by shame, can admit their failures and allow their neediness. Forgiveness means being able to say you’re sorry. Since we now know shame cannot destroy us, we need no longer deny it and foist it off on others.

Article continues below

In the church, I have begun to know the healing of my shame. I have not found anything flashy or spectacular about it—at least most of the time. Heroes don’t go to church. In church we are given a courage rarely lionized—the courage to stand up and say, like the emboldened members of Alcoholics Anonymous, “My name is Rodney, and I’m a sinner.…”

Because only self-acknowledged sinners can admit and confront their shame, we can say, in a sense, that we go to church for training in being sinners. Such is the way through and beyond humiliation.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.