When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. (Romans 6:20–21)
When a Christian’s eyes are opened to the God-dishonoring evil of his former behavior, the Christian rightly feels ashamed. Paul says to the Roman church, “When you were slaves of sin . . . what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed?”
There is a proper place for looking back and feeling the twinge of pain that we once lived in a way that was so belittling to God. To be sure, we are not to be paralyzed by dwelling on this. But a sensitive Christian heart cannot think back on the follies of youth and not feel echoes of shame, even if we have settled it all with the Lord.
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.