Breaking the Power of Shame

Her life was a wreck. After five failed marriages she stopped with the formalities. She came to the well when the sun blazed so she could draw water alone and hide from the comments, the whispers, and the condemning looks (John 4).

He was a powerful man who abused his power to sleep with another man’s wife. But he got her pregnant. And out of fear of exposing his wickedness he tried to hide behind a cover-up that turned murderous (2 Samuel 11).

She had suffered from a vaginal hemorrhage for twelve years. All that time: unclean, uncomfortable, and uncomforted. She saw Jesus heal others and longed to receive his touch. But how could she ask him in front of the whole crowd? So she sought to hide in anonymity by just touching the fringe of his robe (Luke 8:43–48).

These are three biblical portraits of people who tried to hide their shame in the wrong places. But the wonderful thing is that all three experienced God’s power to break shame’s hold over them and set them free. And this wonderful experience can also be ours.

What Gives Shame Power

Shame has plagued us since Adam and Eve bit into the fruit and realized they were naked. Their first instinct was to hide from each other and God (Genesis 3:7–11). And no wonder. They now stood guilty before God and were vulnerable to each other and Satan in a whole new horrible way. Suddenly, they were sinful, weak, damaged people living in a dangerous world. They found themselves under God’s righteous judgment (Genesis 3:17–19; John 3:19; Romans 6:23), exposed to other sinners’ sinful judgment and rejection, and wide-open to the condemning accusations of the evil one (Revelation 12:10).

We also live in this dangerous world and have the same instinct to hide ourselves.

Because sin is alive in our bodies (Romans 7:23) and because we are beset with weakness (Hebrews 5:2), the kind of shame we often experience is a potent combination of failure and pride. We fail morally (sin), we fail due to our limitations (weakness), and we fail because the creation is subject to futility and doesn’t work right (Romans 8:20). We also fail to live up to other people’s expectations. And because we are full of sinful pride, we are ashamed of our failures and weaknesses, and will go to almost any length to hide them from others.

This means pride-fueled shame can wield great power over us. It controls significant parts of our lives and consumes precious energy and time in avoiding exposure.

Hiding in the Wrong Place

Like the woman at the well, King David, and the hemorrhaging woman, our shame frequently encourages us to hide in the wrong places.

We hide in our homes or away from our homes. We hide in our rooms and in our offices. We hide in housework, yard work, and garage puttering. We hide behind computers and phones and newspapers and magazines. We hide behind earphones and Netflix and ESPN. We hide behind fashion facades, education facades, career facades, Facebook facades, and pulpit facades. We hide in busyness and procrastination. We hide in outright lies or diversionary conversation. We hide behind sullenness and humor. We hide behind bravado and timidity. We hide in extroversion and introversion.

You see, we have our own noontime well visits, our sin cover-ups, and our anonymous touches. Pride moves us to use whatever we can to hide our shame.

The Key to Breaking Shame’s Power

But just because pride moves us to hide our shame in the wrong places doesn’t mean that our instinct to hide is completely wrong. It isn’t. We do need a place to hide, but we need to hide in the right place.

And there is only one place to hide that offers the protection we seek, where all our shame is covered and we no longer need to fear: the refuge of Jesus Christ (Hebrews 6:18–20). Jesus’s death and resurrection is the only remedy for the shame we feel over our grievous sin-failures (Hebrews 9:26). There is nowhere else to go with our sin; there is no other atonement (Acts 4:12). But if we hide in Jesus, he provides us a complete cleansing (1 John 1:9). And when that happens, all God’s promises, which find their yes in Christ (2 Corinthians 1:20), become ours if we believe and receive them. And the grace that flows from these promises to us through faith are all-sufficient and abounding and provide for all our other shameful weaknesses and failures (2 Corinthians 9:8).

The key to breaking the power of pride-fueled shame is the superior power of humility-fueled faith in the work of Christ and the promises of Christ. Shame pronounces us guilty and deficient. Jesus pronounces us guiltless and promises that his grace will be sufficient for us in all our weaknesses (2 Corinthians 12:9–10). Christ is all (Colossians 3:11). As we trust Jesus as our righteousness (Philippians 3:9) and our provider of everything we need (Philippians 4:19), shame will lose its power over us.

That’s what happened to the woman at the well. She listened to Jesus and believed in him, and her sin-wrecked life was redeemed and her shame destroyed.

That’s what happened to King David. He confessed his sin and repented (2 Samuel 12:13) and trusted the pre-incarnate Christ, and his guilt and shame, which was great, was imputed to Christ and paid for in full.

And that’s what happened to the hemorrhaging woman. Jesus did make her tell the crowd about her shame, and in doing so she received the healing and cleansing she needed. Jesus made her shame a showcase of his grace.

And this wonderful experience can also be ours. All it requires is child-like, wholehearted belief in Jesus (John 14:1).