Brené Brown, appearing on Oprah Winfrey’s Super Soul Sunday, announced, “I think shame is lethal, I think shame is destructive. And I think we are swimming in it deep.” Her TED talk “Listening to Shame” received more than 14 million views. In it, she warns how shame is the gremlin that laughs and plays two tape recordings in our mind: “Never good enough” or “Who do you think you are?”
This metaphor presents shame as a repetitive trap: Recurring experiences of shame destroy our self-esteem, and low self-esteem predisposes us to experience shame. This vicious cycle eventually spirals out of control, leading to addictive and destructive patterns of behavior. For Brown, shame is a pernicious emotion that serves no constructive purpose; we must therefore renounce its use and develop resilience to all forms of shame.
The desire to eliminate shame from our everyday experience seems reasonable, but to do so cripples our capacity to be moral people. Moral emotions tightly enmesh together; they do not exist piecemeal. Therefore, as Krista Thomason writes, we “cannot get rid of an emotion [such as shame] without ‘disfiguring’ the rest.”
Furthermore, eliminating shame mostly fosters shamelessness. As Daniel Henninger wrote in The Wall Street Journal shortly after allegations against Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose, and Al Franken, “Their acts reveal a collapse of self-restraint. That in turn suggests a broader evaporation of conscience, the sense that doing something is wrong…. So when one asks how these men could behave so boorishly and monstrously, one answer is that they ... have ... no ... shame.”
Henninger warns against deluding ourselves by thinking these men are outliers or anomalies. Rather, they are the product of a “culture that has eliminated shame and behavioral boundaries.” Scripture also affirms the necessity of shame and speaks out against shamelessness. The prophets castigate Israel for their spiritual numbness and inability to blush for their detestable conduct (Jer. 3:3; 6:15; Zeph. 3:5). Paul likewise shames the Corinthians for their moral apathy and failure to grieve over their sin (1 Cor. 5:2; 15:34).
To be sure, shame can be toxic, but not necessarily so. We must make a distinction between worldly and godly shame. With godly shame, our consciences get seared by values calibrated to God’s standard rather than the world’s. Godly shame fundamentally relates to right and wrong from God’s perspective; it is tethered to God’s beauty and holiness. Godly shame guides our future choices, constraining us from doing anything that might bring dishonor to God, to the church, to others, and to ourselves.
It reminds us of our responsibility to welcome those in the faith as brothers and sisters, regardless of their socioeconomic, immigration, or racial background; for the walls that divide us have been destroyed by the blood of Jesus Christ (Eph. 2:14; Phm. 1:16). It presses us to respect the dignity of all people, for we are all created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26–27).
Godly shame also evaluates our past thoughts, actions, and inactions with a mind not conformed to the world but transformed by the gospel (Rom. 12:1–2). It chastises our self-absorption and indifference toward persecution and suffering endured by others, for every part of the body of Christ suffers when one part suffers (1 Cor. 12:26). Godly shame reproves our hesitation to join the lament of those who suffer racial injustice, calling us to “weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15). It chides our willingness to humiliate others online when our scathing tweets signal our own “virtue” rather than seeking the genuine good of others.
The rebuke of godly shame is unsettling and painful; nonetheless, it yields the fruit of righteousness for those who submit to its training (Heb. 12:11). The rebuke of godly shame undermines misplaced self-esteem for the sake of Christian maturity.
Worldly shame destroys, but godly shame restores. Godly shame shows we have grieved the Holy Spirit, but it also assures us of grace (Heb. 4:16). Godly shame arises out of a true knowledge of God’s demand and mercy. In response to “Never good enough,” godly shame agrees we are never good enough in ourselves, but we are more than sufficient because of Christ (2 Cor. 5:21).
In response to “Who do you think you are?” godly shame indicts us as sinners, but then confirms we are children and heirs of God because of our union with Christ (Rom. 8:17). Godly shame does not contradict the honor God desires for his children. As with the prodigal son when he came to his senses (Luke 15:17), godly shame chastens, chides toward contrition, repentance, and humility; and then compels a return to the gracious embrace of our Father—our forgiveness sure, our selves reformed, our relationships restored, our right honor regained. Godly shame is the shame we need in order to walk worthy of our calling as God’s children.
Te-Li Lau is an associate professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and the author of Defending Shame: Its Formative Power in Paul’s Letters.