The Gospel Response to Shame

Leslie Janikowsky  |  July 02, 2018

Post written by Leslie Janikowsky, RUF Campus Staff at Rhodes College. 

I am a single woman in my late 20s living in the south. Recently, I find myself walking into rooms where I am the only or one of a few single people or scrolling through social media pictures of my friends getting married and starting families. In those moments, I am often crippled by insecurity and fear about my singleness. I fear it means that I am not worth knowing or that something is wrong with me. I find myself asking questions – Have I done something wrong? Is my life less than theirs? Ultimately, I am asking “Am I enough? Am I worth knowing? Am I worth being loved? Does God really love me?”

 As I meet with college students, they are asking these same questions. College constantly demands more– better grades, more campus involvement, more friends. Students wonder if they have value and worth as they compare themselves to their peers. They live in fear of being told they are unnecessary or unimportant. If we are honest, this fear does not end when we graduate from college. We are constantly asking “Am I enough?” in our jobs, in our appearance, in our families, in our friendships, and in our churches. We think if we are honest about our struggles and failings people will stop loving us.

This feeling is Shame. Shame is the belief that we are not enough, we are wrong, and we are unlovable. In the words of Brene Brown, “Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and THEREFORE unworthy of love and belonging.” Shame denies the truth that we are created with worth and dignity because we are made in the image of God. Instead, shame tells us our sins, our brokenness, our struggles make us unworthy of being known by our heavenly Father and by our community. We feel shame in three primary ways. Frist we feel shame because of things we have done or not done. Second, we feel shame because of things done to us that deeply hurt and wounded us. Thirdly, we feel shame for who we are or who we are not. We can feel shame because our jobs are not what we hoped, because we are single, because our families are hard, and so many other reaons.

It is important for us to distinguish between guilt and shame. We are all sinners desperately in need of the saving work of Jesus. Guilt is feeling proper remorse for our sin. Guilt causes us to throw ourselves on the mercy of our Savior knowing we cannot save ourselves and he paid the penalty to restore us to right relationship with God. It moves us toward repentance and restoration. Shame, on the other hand, turns us away from repentance and the Gospel to focus on ourselves. Shame first appears in the Bible in Genesis 3 after Adam and Eve sin by eating the fruit God commanded them not to eat. Instead of turning in repentance to the Lord, they try to hide. They use fig leaves to try to cover themselves and blame each other. In shame, we believe our sin is greater than the saving power of the gospel. Our shame feeds on the lie that we are too broken and too sinful for the Gospel and too messy to be loved and received by his people.

Like Adam and Eve, when we believe the lie of shame, we seek to hide. We look to everything besides the Gospel to give us worth - success, exercise, relationships, food. As we turn to these idols and coping strategies we are longing for something to tell us we are known and loved. These idols never meet this need. Our relationships disappoint us, we hurt our friends and family, our resume is always lacking, our bodies fail. Yet, we continue to hide because in our shame we believe our loneliness, the pain in our homes, our sorrows prove we really are unworthy of love or belonging.

Only the Gospel frees us from the cycle of our shame. The Gospel is the only place where we are loved not for what we do but because of what God has done and who he says we are. Isaiah 43:1 says “But now thus says the Lord, he you created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” You only use a person’s name when you know them. When God says in Isaiah he calls us by name, He is telling us He knows everything about us. He knows everything we are ashamed of, every sin we committed, everything we try to hide, and he claims us as His own. He tells us we are loved and redeemed and we have nothing to fear. The Gospel is God’s promise that He knows us entirely, loves us completely, and wants us to rest in and believe that truth.

The cross is the ultimate reminder of this love and belonging. Jesus died on the cross so we never doubt we are known and loved. In moments when my shame overwhelms me and I ask “Am I loved? Am I known? Is this really God’s best life for me?” I remind myself of a quote from The Jesus Storybook Bible: “It wasn’t the nails that kept Jesus there (on the cross), it was love.” Because of Jesus’ death on the cross, I do not have to ask “Am I loved? Am I enough?” The unequivocal answer from the cross is a resounding YES! Jesus loved us so much he went to the cross and died for our sins and our shame. He loved and valued us so much he died so we never have to ask if we are loved or known. We often talk about how the cross pays the price for our guilt, but we must also proclaim this truth - the cross frees us from our shame and our insecurity.

But we struggle with believing that don’t we? This is why I love how Isaiah 43 continues. In verse 19, God says “Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” Often, in our shame, we feel like we are in the wilderness feeling hopeless and overwhelmed by our feelings of worthlessness. In these moments, Jesus promises he is the way in the wilderness and the river in the desert. His death and resurrection declare we are loved and belong and we can trust He is working powerfully in our lives. This frees us to know we do not need to live in shame when our stories are different than others around us. Instead, we live with the knowledge that the God of the universe loves and knows us. This frees us to start to be honest with the people around us. We cannot possibly be loved or valued more than we already are by our heavenly Father so we can invite others into our insecurities without fear. We can live transparently and in community because we do not have to prove our worth.

Our lives cannot be mistakes because we are loved entirely by our heavenly Father. That is a great comfort to my heart.  My prayer is the deep, unending, and abiding love of our heavenly Father enables us to walk boldly into rooms where before we were crippled by shame.