Shame is a complex issue.
It impacts our thinking, our behaviors, and our relationships. It plays a significant role in addiction and compulsive behaviors with pornography, alcohol, drugs, depression, anxiety, ongoing anger, and other unwanted behavior in our lives.
Shame lies to us about our identity, who we are as a child of God, and who Jesus is calling us to be. Since shame is so impactful to our Christian walk and our identity in Christ, we need to think about it more deeply.
And we need to call out shame’s lies so we can truly find freedom from struggles like pornography.
The Power of Shame
I remember feeling intense shame over my compulsive behavior with pornography. I promised my wife, God, and others that I wouldn’t look at pornography again. But my intense prayers and promises never seemed to last. Every time I used pornography, I felt horrible shame for having failed again.
It’s often referred to as the shame cycle. A person may use porn, food, sex, or alcohol to medicate bad feelings. They then feel shame for their behavior, which creates intense self-loathing. Shame gets mixed in with triggers like anxiety, anger, and boredom, and the cycle of acting out with one’s sinful behavior starts over again.
This toxic self-hatred not only shouts, “I messed up,” but it also says that as an individual, I am messed up. I am uniquely defective, a hypocrite, and God doesn’t hear my prayers. Here is the perfect acronym for SHAME: Self-Hatred At My Expense.
Shame and Self-Righteousness
We hate our feelings of SHAME and we certainly don’t want anyone else to know.
Many struggling Christians conceal these emotions behind self-righteousness and acts of service to the church and to others. The benevolence makes them feel better about themselves if only for a short period.
It is like two sides of a coin that flips routinely. On one side of the coin is perfectionism, even grandiosity. Often, this side of the coin is focused heavily on rules and outward appearance. But this perfectionism doesn’t deal with the roots of woundedness and shame, and a person can try harder only for so long.
When the person fails, the coin is flipped, and a man faces incredible self-loathing. After a period of wallowing in self-contempt, the coin is flipped again, and the Christian returns to working hard, praying, and serving but is still trapped in the shame cycle.
This is Satan’s perfect revolving trap: perfectionism and shame, perfectionism and shame.
Shame vs. Godly Guilt
We need a new way to look at sin. The healthy companion amid these feelings is godly guilt. But guilt and shame are often confused.
- Guilt says, “I have done something wrong.” Shame says, “I am wrong.”
- Guilt says, “I have done something bad.” Shame says, “I am bad.”
- Guilt says, “I made a mistake.” Shame says, “I am a mistake.”
Guilt reminds me that I have fallen short of God’s standard, that I am hurting others, and that my actions are not only unhelpful to myself, but also damaging to my relationships, character, heart, and spiritual well-being. Guilt prompts a desire to grow, to change, to renew my mind.
Guilt is an urging of the Holy Spirit that pushes me toward my need for my Savior and fellow believers. I might be the lost sheep, but Jesus wants me to join the ninety-nine, and He endlessly pursues me. My sin is not a secret to Him, and His grace is sufficient. Guilt provides an opportunity—a door to walk through—to break the shame cycle.
It leads to honesty, confession, and repentance with fellow believers.
The Deep Roots of Shame
So far we have talked about the present tense of shame—how our sin and actions in the present time bring feelings of shame. But there is more to shame than how we feel about our most recent sin.
Often, attitudes of shame and lack of self-worth were cultivated in men’s lives at an early age. In our schools, communities, and churches, we have stuffed shame into the backpacks of children and adolescents, and they carry those weights into adulthood.
Some people struggle with shame because shaming was used as a weapon of control in their youth. Some parents use shame as a tool to bow to their children. Some teachers humiliate poorly performing students. Unfortunately, adult authorities have tried to use shame to stop or change behavior in boys, but typically, it inflicts scars instead. Children also shame each other. Kids denigrate each other for body size, hair color, and freckles. Teens deride each other for just about everything.
In our worldly culture, image often seems to matter more than substance. People become distracted from their true worth by themselves and others. They even carry shame about sexual, physical, and emotional abuse. We should never carry shame about the things done to us, but we do it anyway.
Shame Teaches Us to Hide
As adults, we are supposed to just get over it. Most of us don’t, however, and our shame is reflected in our emotions and reactions: self-consciousness, bravado, anger, boastfulness, regret, anxiety, and feelings of being alone.
This doesn’t mean cowering in a corner. A person struggling with shame may function well enough. They work, raise families, attend church, go on vacations, and manicure their lawns. They may find self-value and self-esteem in their work, sports, hobbies, and roles in their homes and churches. But that doesn’t make them honest and open within the Body of Christ.
We often put on a good front to prove our self-worth through pleasing people, self-promotion, over-identifying with our work or profession, and even our religiosity and perfectionism.
Calling Out Shame
Shame rarely shows up as shame. It’s a very complicated issue. It operates best when it is undetected. It is often elusive and hard to identify. Christian counselor Edward Welch wrote in his book Shame Interrupted:
“Look behind the resume and you often find an ashamed little kid who is still trying to prove his worth. What about the people who are self-confident and boastful? There is more trouble there than you might think as well.”
People can find how shame invades their hearts by asking simple questions:
- What would I hate for someone to know about me?
- What do I want to avoid?
- What makes me avoid others?
- Why do I feel unworthy in certain circles?
We are afraid of being truly seen and truly known. Because if we let down our walls, we might be ostracized, cast out, less valued, less admired, or less respected. What do you want to hide? That is a shortcut to identifying shame in your life.
Freedom Begins When We Stop Hiding
Sin, shame, and secrecy reinforce each other.
To find healing from our wounds and from our sin, we need to be transparent about our shame and our sin. Within a safe environment, people learn to shed their shame, anxiety, fear, and self-reproach. All of the pent-up angst can be overcome in a safe environment over time.
In addition to my work with Covenant Eyes, I volunteer with an organization called the Samson Society. I host newcomer meetings, where guys learn what Samson Society is all about. During every meeting, these two sentences are included in a reading, just before we talk about our lives.
“In sharing, we speak honestly out of our own experience. We tell the truth about ourselves, knowing that our brothers will listen to us in love and hold whatever we say in strictest confidence.”
The final two words, strictest confidence, reverberate through the room as every man says them in unison. Whether you are attending a Samson Society meeting for the first time or the hundredth time, the message rings clear in all of the men’s voices.
This is a safe place.
We also empathize with them, and in doing so, we more readily accept their empathy for us. We discover we are not alone. The stories may not be similar, but receiving compassion creates a greater bridge for healing for everyone involved. Galatians 6:2 tells us to “Carry one another’s burdens; in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ”.
Telling one’s story is not only about the wounds received but also about examining how those hurts influence our thinking and behaviors. You can learn more about creating a safe place with safe processes in my book, The Healing Church.