The Importance of Shame

Two of the most important concepts in Christian living involve shame.

These are difficult concepts for American Christians to fully grasp, however, because of our limited understanding of the concept of shame. Our sense of honor and disgrace has been so colored by a broadening individualism that when a member of society does something contrary to social norms we often don’t know whether to applaud their uniqueness or condemn their behavior. Our collective list of taboos has been shrinking.

But, shame has been and still is an incredible important cultural motivator in much of the world. So called “honor killings” in Muslim societies, in which family members murder fellow family members who have brought shame on the family name, illustrate the concept in an extreme way. The principle, though, runs deep in many cultures, and still maintains a small foothold in the Western world. We still teach our kids that what they do reflects on their family, on their parents, on their church and their school.

The problem for us Western Christians, though, is that our culture has applauded individualism so much (“life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” the American Dream, climbing the ladder of success, etc.) that when a taboo is violated, or a moral boundary crossed, many in our culture see it as either a completely isolated event, having no negative bearing on the violator’s family and acquaintances, or they view it as progress and escape from cultural oppression.

But, Christians must learn and teach shame. Our salvation depends on it.

First, Paul tells us that “godly grief produces repentance leading to salvation.” (2Corinthians 7:10) His point, of course, is that a proper sense of shame and dishonor over sin, and the guilt such a sense produces, are important factors in motivating us to make a the necessary commitment to change and follow Christ. We need to feel like our sins are horrible, like we are the worst of sinners (1Timothy 1:15), like our failures have brought us dishonor. Otherwise, there is no godly motivation to change such behavior.

Second, Paul tells us that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” (Galatians 3:13) We are so utterly sinful that to overcome the dishonor of our sins we need something miraculous. We need Christ cursed, Christ shamed, Christ beaten, and disgracefully murdered on a criminal’s cross. Christ became our shame to remove our shame. But, that does not mean a whole lot to someone who has no sense of shame.

So, we must learn, again, the importance of shame. We must own what we have done and what it means so that we can hand the guilt over to Christ. We must recognize how deeply our sins cut us, God, our families, and our world so that we can learn to avoid them at all costs (Matthew 5:27-30). We must praise God for what He has done through Christ to give us honor.

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