Shame is defined as a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety. Have you ever experienced shame? Most of us have but I find it is one of, if not the, most difficult emotion to talk about.
Today I had a complete stranger attempt to shame me. To be clear, there was no sin in my actions or lack of action. My predicament was the result of a shortcoming for which I’d already felt the weight of many times. His response indicated, I suppose, that I hadn’t done what he thought I should’ve done or what he would have done in the same situation. In this post I want to share how I responded, a few things I’ve learned about shame, and what the experience taught me.
Well-Placed Vs. Misplaced Shame
John Piper has written an excellent post about the topic of well-placed vs. misplaced shame and I recommend you read it if you’re interested in a more exhaustive treatment of the subject than I will provide in this post.
I believe shame is an appropriate biblical response to sin. Piper states:
Well-placed shame (the kind you ought to have) is the shame you feel when there is good reason to feel it. Biblically that means we feel ashamed of something because our involvement in it was dishonoring to God. We ought to feel shame when we have a hand in bringing dishonor upon God by our attitudes or actions.
In the case of my shortcoming pointed out this morning, God was not dishonored. I’ve suffered the consequences of my procrastination but I haven’t sinned. So what I was feeling was misplaced shame and I knew it thanks to the truths I’ve learned in God’s Word.
Nevertheless, it hurt and I wanted to cry. I wanted to “fight fire with fire”. I wanted to snap back with some clever cut-down that would make him feel as bad or worse than I had allowed his words to make me feel. But I did something else instead.
How I Responded to a Shame-Monger
First, I took a deep breath, forced a smile, and took a sip of my water. Nothing magical happening here other than hitting the pause button on my reaction. Pauses are powerful in comedy and life.
In Exodus 14:13, When Moses and the children of Israel were cornered between Pharaoh’s army and the Red Sea, he gave them this instruction: “Do not be afraid. Stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord, which He will accomplish for you today.“
Second, I distracted myself by looking around the room. My shortcoming was not a sin but my thoughts were about to lead me into sin. What I saw as I looked around the room stopped my thoughts and turned them in a different, totally unrelated direction.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, my strength and my Redeemer. Psalm 19:14
Third, I turned back and looked at him. I mean, I really looked at him. He was studying his computer screen, entering my information, so I had the chance to notice what he was wearing, the shape of his face, and the color of his eyes. I saw his humanness. I considered that he is a son, an employee, and an image-bearer. I also considered that he may be a father, a widow, a grief bearer, and a shame carrier.
Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things. Philippians 4:8
Fourth, I considered kindness. I realized that I didn’t know his name even though he knew mine and much more about me from facts I’d shared. I sat in silence and waited, watching the facts-he-used-as-fiery-darts fall to the floor and burn themselves out in front of me.
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Colossians 3:12
He finished typing, printed and stapled pieces of paper, and handed me his card along with the forms. I noticed his name, looked him in the eyes, and smiled.
“Thank you, Mr. Lewis. I really appreciate your help today.”
He smiled and responded, “When you get the information you need, feel free to come back and I’ll help you through the rest of the process.”
Thankful I did not “fight fire with fire”, I left the office and drove home.
Three Things I Learned About Shame Today
Misplaced shame is dangerous and unless handled properly we may:
- Deny Christ’s sacrifice
I believe in the sufficiency of Christ’s sinless life and sacrificial death. Holding on to shame, well-placed or misplaced, suggests that I think there’s something I can do to save myself or be unworthy of the salvation and forgiveness Christ offers.
Therefore, as through one man’s offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man’s righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life. Romans 5:18
2. Diminish Our Redemption
If I don’t “tear down the arguments that raise themselves against the knowledge of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5) I can quickly go from “I made a mistake” to “I am a mistake”.
There is now therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Romans 8:1
3. Damage Our Witness
Knowing and believing Romans 8:1 has rescued me from myself time and again. Today I was tempted to believe the lies the Enemy whispered to me—that my shortcoming, or even my confessed and forgiven sin, nullifies my right standing with God in Christ. Believing that I am on my own and alone in this world, stirs in me a paralyzing, self-protecting, unholy fear that tempts me to believe my only option is to “fight fire with fire”.
Fight fire with fire.
Do you know where that phrase comes from?
Shakespeare, in King John, 1595:
Be stirring as the time; be fire with fire;
Threaten the threatener and outface the brow
Of bragging horror
The Bard may have been the first to put the notion on paper, but he didn’t coin the phrase ‘fight fire with fire’, that came much later.
The source of this phrase was actual fire-fighting that was taken on by US settlers in the 19th century. They attempted to guard against grass or forest fires by deliberately raising small controllable fires, which they called ‘back-fires’, to remove any flammable material in advance of a larger fire and so deprive it of fuel. This literal ‘fighting fire with fire’ was often successful, although the settlers’ lack of effective fire control equipment meant that their own fires occasionally got out of control and made matters worse rather than better. ¹
Unless you’re an actual fire-fighter, “fighting fire with fire” always makes matters worse.
We have a more powerful weapon.
“God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” 2 Timothy 1:7
When I am faced with hurtful words and find myself dodging insults I need a sound mind to respond with love and grace.
Scripture is the source for a sound mind. Renew your mind. Clothe yourself with Christ.
“But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. Matthew 5:44-45
“Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven. Matthew 5:16
What I Learned From The Experience
I don’t know why he chose to dole out words of shame like it was part of his job.
I don’t know what kind of day or month or life he’s had but I learned today that I don’t ever want to say words that will help another person feel the way I felt sitting across from him today.
But I know I have.
We’ve all felt the shame of sin in our hearts. Shame is part of the human condition. We don’t need anyone to help us feel shame or deepen our shame. What we do need is grace and mercy and kindness.
Kindness costs me nothing because Christ has already paid the price.
Today I commit to the outrageous generosity of the grace and mercy I’ve received freely in Christ.
I will not hand out shame like it’s my job, like I’m doing you a favor.
I refuse to try and make others feel stupid over things that don’t matter or even over things that do.
I will choose kindness.
I will be kind on the phone.
I will be kind face to face.
I will be kind in traffic.
I will be kind standing in line.
I will be kind in the meeting.
I will be kind to my husband.
I will be kind to my children.
I will be kind to my neighbor.
I will be kind to you.
I will be kind to my enemy.
I will be kind to the person who chooses differently than me.
I will be kind to the person wh0 comes up short.
I will be kind.