How To Deal With Shame

Everybody has shame and everybody has a way of dealing with shame—often manifested in one of three ways:

1. Play the Victim Card

We play the victim card when we try to side-step responsibility saying, “It’s not my fault, I’m the victim.” In today’s world, it’s hard to find someone who admits personal responsibility for wrongdoing.  Rather, we often see people blame their parents, society, government, etc.  We’ve seen this recently with the onslaught of sexual misconduct among certain men—stories that created the “#MeToo” movement. Even when these men “apologized,” so many of the apologies fall short of taking ownership for their offenses.  For example, Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey both pledged to seek treatment for their misconduct.  Commenting on these pledges, Benedict Carey wrote in the New York Times, “Whatever mix of damage control and contrition they represent, pledges like these suggest that there are standard treatments for perpetrators of sexual offenses. In fact, experts say that no such standard treatments exist.” In other words, it’s not like there’s some pill or vaccination for sexual assault.  The problem is that people are unwilling to say, “I was wrong.  I have selfish and lustful desires that I did not keep in check.”  Instead they say, “I have a sickness that I must be treated for.”  In other words, “I’m not to blame.  I have an excuse.  I’m the victim.”

2. Play the Relative Card

We play the relative card when we blur the line between right and wrong.  We live in a culture that is flooded with moral relativism. We’ve done away with the biblical category of sin because by and large, we’ve done away with God.  But a society that loses an understanding of God, loses morality, or at least any clear grounds for morality.  In other words, denying God results in denying absolute morality.  Martin Luther King Jr. made this point in his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail. He said that if there was no higher divine Law, you would have nothing to appeal to, other than your subjective feelings, to determine whether something was right and wrong. If there is no God, then why have a sense of outrage when injustice and sexual harassment occur?  Isn’t that just the way it is—survival of the fittest?  Here’s my point:  Our culture is inconsistent.  The people who want to play the relative card in dealing with some sins want to put it on the shelf when pointing out other sins.  The hypocrisy is obvious and thus playing the relative card holds no water.

3. Play the Religion Card

We play the religion card when we try to hide our own flaws by pointing out the flaws in others (Luke 6:42).  The Pharisees were excellent at playing the religion card.  They made themselves feel better by pointing out how sinful or undisciplined were the people around them. Even today, this response to shame is especially aggressive among self-righteous religious people and can run rampant in church culture.

The problem with these three ways of dealing with shame is that all three are measuring shame on an unreliable, subjective scale.  If you play any three of these cards, you’re left with the best-case scenario being that you don’t feelas much shame?  But just b/c you don’t feel it, doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be there.  Just b/c you don’t feel shame for something you do doesn’t make what you do right. History shows no indication that Hitler ever felt shame for his evil, and yet that doesn’t make it any less evil.

Suffice it to say, these three common ways that people deal with shame come up lacking because they’re all subjective.

But there isanother way—the biblical way.  The biblical way of dealing with shame is entirely different.  The biblical way is objective, rooted in an historical event that actually puts shame to death.

On the cross, Jesus dealt with your shame.  “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21).  If you believe that, Jesus says that you’re cleansed from all sin, guilt, and shame—forever. That means your shame no longer defines you.  As Gerry Breshears said, “Your identity [is] marked only by what Jesus Christ has done for you and no longer by what has been done by you or to you.”  Jesus is the only definitive answer to our shame.

Dear Christian, embrace the identity that is yours in Jesus—and live in light of it.

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