Happy Monday, everyone. Thank you for tuning in and listening to the podcast as we move well into our tenth year now, 1770 episodes in. Here’s episode 1771. It happens to be on the theme of shame, of all things. It’s about healthy and needful shame — if there is there such a thing in the Christian life.
Here’s the question: “Pastor John, hello, and thank you for this wonderful podcast! My name is Phillip, and I live in College Station, Texas. I’ve noticed that a lot of Christians today equate shame with condemnation, thereby believing it’s wrong for Christians to feel shame. But Paul calls for shame in 2 Thessalonians 3:14, or so it seems to me. So what healthy role does shame play in the life of the church today? And who here is the object of the shame according to Paul in this particular text?”
One of the reasons this is an important question is that we can sometimes fall into the trap of thinking, “Well, if it’s always good to move beyond shame, then shame must always be a bad thing.” That would be a trap, I think. That would be like saying, “Since we should always seek healing from having our skin cut, therefore surgery is always a bad thing.”
You see the difference. Having your skin cut by a knife is not in itself a good thing, and neither is shame in itself a good thing. But given the reality of disease, being cut by a knife may become a kind of good thing because of what it leads to — namely, healing. That’s the way it is, I think, with shame in the New Testament.
“Sometimes shame functions like surgery to bring us to the healing that we need.”
Sometimes shame functions like surgery to bring us to the healing that we need, but that doesn’t mean that all shame has a healing function, any more than all skin cutting leads to health. There is surgery, and there is stabbing. So, we need to make distinctions, and the Bible helps us do this. So what Philip, in this question, is drawing our attention to is the fact that there is a proper function for shame in the New Testament — a healing, sanctifying function — and he wonders what it is.
So let’s follow the New Testament and draw out the distinction between what I have called misplaced shame and well-placed shame. So, there’s misplaced shame, the kind we should not have, and well-placed shame, the kind we should have, but only temporarily while it does its healing work.
So here are some examples of what I mean by misplaced shame. If you are tempted to feel this shame, you should strive to throw it off by faith in Jesus. This is 2 Timothy 1:8: “Do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner.” So, there are two kinds of things in that verse that you should not be ashamed of, shouldn’t feel shame about:
- speaking about the Lord Jesus
- being associated with somebody who’s in prison for the Lord Jesus
It doesn’t matter how many people belittle you or make fun of you. Which shows us that, for the Christian, the source of shame should not come from the false opinions of other people, no matter how belittling they are. That takes a great deal of self-identity in and for Jesus to live through that.
Another example is when Jesus said, “Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (Mark 8:38). If human opinion is more emotionally powerful than God’s opinion of us, and if the power of human opinion cripples us and silences us with shame because we claim to be a Christian, we are not going to stand in the judgment, Jesus says.
“Don’t feel shame for something that honors God, no matter how weak or foolish it makes you look in the eyes of others.”
And then Peter in 1 Peter 4:16 says, “Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.” So, I conclude from these few texts — and there are others — that the biblical criterion for misplaced shame, the kind we should not have, is this: don’t feel shame for something that honors God, no matter how weak or foolish it makes you look in the eyes of others.
Now, what about well-placed shame — namely, the kind we ought to have, at least temporarily? Paul says to the Corinthians who were doubting the resurrection, “Wake up from your drunken stupor, as is right, and do not go on sinning. For some have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame” (1 Corinthians 15:34). They ought to feel shame, he’s saying. And in 1 Corinthians 6:5, when the Christians were disputing with each other and taking that dispute into the secular courts, he says, “I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers?”
Or the text that Phillip, in his question, asked about: “If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter” — and these were people who were refusing to work in Thessalonica, refusing to work for a living because they thought the second coming was so near — “take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed” (2 Thessalonians 3:14). So, shame is a proper and redemptive step toward repentance and healing.
We see that in the very next verse. He says, “Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother” (2 Thessalonians 3:15). In other words, the cut that you make in his skin by withdrawing your fellowship is surgery, not stabbing.
So, from these examples, I conclude that well-placed shame says you should feel shame for having a hand in anything that dishonors God, no matter how strong or wise or right it may look in the eyes of men. Now, when I say that we should feel shame if it is well-placed because of our wrongdoing, I don’t mean that we should feel shame indefinitely, any more than we ought to spend the rest of our lives on the surgeon’s operating table. I call it well-placed shame because it ought to be there, but it ought not to stay there.
So the key question for both misplaced shame and well-placed shame is, How do we properly move beyond both of them? How do we get rid of both of them?
Now, before I give my basic biblical answer, let me acknowledge that there are some people who have been dumped on with so much misplaced shaming, perhaps when they were growing up, that their perspective is so distorted about God and about themselves, that they will need a lot of help from other Christians and perhaps counselors to see things clearly like they really are. In other words, I’m not claiming that the escape from misplaced shame is always easy. In fact, I would say it’s rarely easy.
But there is a way out of both misplaced shame that shouldn’t be there and well-placed shame that shouldn’t be there long or in any crippling way for the Christian. Here’s what Paul says about the way he escapes misplaced shame. Even though he endures mockery and imprisonment for Christ, which ordinarily would be very shaming, he says, “I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that day what has been entrusted to me” (2 Timothy 1:12).
So there’s the key phrase: “I know whom I have believed” — trusted, embraced, treasured, bowed to, loved. The key for Paul is believing. That is, he sees the glory of Christ. He embraces the glory of Christ, and he treasures it more than the opinions and persecutions of people. That’s the key: seeing and savoring and treasuring — believing Christ. With regard to putting away well-placed shame, it’s the same key: believing in Christ for the forgiveness of what you are ashamed of. Acts 10:43: “Everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
Let me give one more glorious promise from God that covers both cases of misplaced shame and well-placed shame, so that we can get rid of both of them appropriately, quickly. Here’s Isaiah 45:17: “You [namely, you who believe] shall not be put to shame or confounded to all eternity.” Which Paul then applies to Christians with these words in Romans 10:11: “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” No one, finally, will be shamed in the kingdom of God. It will be over.