Is Shame Always a Bad Thing?

Note from Randy: One of our EPM staff members, Stephanie Anderson, recently responded to some comments on my Facebook page after I shared a post about shame due to sin. Here’s what I said:

Shame is the proper response to sin. Those who feel no shame at sin have no hope for redemption, for without shame there can be no confession and repentance, no receiving of God’s grace and empowerment. Now, once your sin is forgiven by God, that’s something else entirely. Once He has taken away your guilt, there’s no reason to live in shame. He who is infinitely more holy than we declares that we are now holy because of the work of Christ on our behalf. “He made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21, CSB). Who are we to disagree? We have to learn to trust Him when He says He’s covered us in Christ’s righteousness and remembers our sins no more. When we do, the Bible is not a book we avoid, but one we come to for strength and guidance.

Several commenters said that God would never have anything to do with bringing shame upon someone, because it’s the kindness of God that leads to repentance. I think Stephanie’s response was helpful.

It is absolutely true that the kindness of God leads to repentance. But that truth isn’t antithetical to the fact that we need to feel the right kind of shame, guilt, and remorse over our sin in the first place. That’s what makes the kindness of God, and the grace He offers us in Jesus, so surprising and wonderful, because we understand the depths of our sin and our need for Him to take away our shame and guilt.

Shame is the natural consequence of sin. It’s a sign pointing us to Jesus and His help and forgiveness. As several other Facebook commenters mentioned on the post, those who lack any sense of guilt or shame over their sin have something deeply wrong. Scripture speaks of those who “whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron” (1 Timothy 4:2). Ephesians 4:19 says, “Having lost all sense of shame, they have given themselves over to sensuality for the practice of every kind of impurity, with a craving for more” (BSB). The Good News Translation says, “They have lost all feeling of shame; they give themselves over to vice and do all sorts of indecent things without restraint.” Not feeling any remorse or shame over wrong behavior is a scary place for someone to be.

To be clear, there is absolutely the wrong kind of shame that does come from the enemy of our souls and from other people. That’s not what Randy is addressing here. In his article “God, Guilt, and Self-Esteem,” he writes,

The unbeliever is alienated from God, objectively guilty before Him. If he experiences alienation, guilt, and an overall sense of distance from God, he is experiencing what’s true. People are actually fortunate to have such feelings—they may draw them to Christ, the only one who can ultimately free them from guilt. When we, as Christians, are living in sin and are therefore out of fellowship with God, we too experience alienation and guilt. Our reconciliation to God through Christ does not change, our future destiny does not change, but meanwhile we cannot enjoy the benefits of walking with God. As we sense this condition, it can result in constructive sorrow that leads us to deal properly with our sin (2 Corinthians 7:8-10).

John Piper says this, differentiating between what he calls well-placed and misplaced shame:

Well-placed shame can be very healthy and redemptive. Paul said to the Thessalonians, “If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed” (2 Thessalonians 3:14). This means that shame is a proper and redemptive step in conversion, and even in a believer’s repentance from a season of spiritual coldness and sin. Shame is not something to be avoided at all costs. There is a place for it in God’s good dealings with his people.

We can conclude that the biblical criterion for misplaced shame and for well-placed shame is radically God-centered.

The biblical criterion for misplaced shame says, Don’t feel shame for something that honors God, no matter how weak or foolish or wrong it makes you look in the eyes of other people. Or another way to apply this God-centered criterion of misplaced shame: don’t feel shame because of a truly shameful situation unless you are in some way participating in the evil.

The biblical criterion for well-placed shame says, Do feel shame for having a hand in anything that dishonors God, no matter how strong or wise or right it makes you look in the eyes of others.

The reason we should feel shame is disapproval for behavior that dishonors God. The reason we should not feel shame is behavior that honors God, even if people try to shame you for it.

It’s interesting that even the world recognizes that there is a right kind of shame over wrong things. A secular psychology blog says this: “Reintegrative shame is important. You (and everyone else) should have a sense of shame when you know you’ve deliberately done something wrong. You should be able to take responsibility for your actions and understand that you’ve hurt people, then be prepared to make things right if possible and to move on. …Being ashamed of what you’ve done and being ashamed of who you are might seem superficially similar, but the ways they affect your future are profoundly different.”

Additional thoughts from Randy:

There is a difference between initial guilt feelings/shame that is the conviction of the Holy Spirit (who is the convicter and comforter) versus residual and accusatory guilt/shame after confession and forgiveness that’s from Satan, the accuser. I think the reason you would never have seen Christians objecting to that post 20 years ago is because much has been said recently against bullying and shaming, which of course are terrible. But then we can inappropriately think of God as a bully and shamer when He points out sin in our lives so that He can forgive and heal us! Psalm 32 is a beautiful portrayal of this. Had David resisted feeling ashamed and guilty for his sin, he would not have experienced the freedom, relief, and happiness (“blessed/happy is the one whose sins are forgiven”) of being made clean.

So it really is true that sometimes, when we sin, we should be ashamed of ourselves! But it’s also true that when we confess our sins, we should fully embrace His forgiveness and rejoice in His unconditional, affirming love. So shame is only temporary in a world under the Curse. It’s the necessary pathway to confession and repentance and Christ’s unconditional forgiveness and restoration of relationship. What will be eternal is a beautiful relationship unmarred by our sin, infused and overflowing with the grace of Jesus.

Photo by Dhemer Gonçalves from Pexels

Stephanie Anderson is the communications and graphics specialist at Eternal Perspective Ministries.