Shame can be a challenging emotion to recognize. We struggle not only with identifying this feeling, but also with understanding the impact it has on our behaviors and potential for healing. Shame is a feeling that takes us beyond guilt—past the feeling that suggests we did something bad, to a deeper feeling that tells us we are bad.134
It happened again. As I snuck out of his apartment, unable to remember many details from the night before, I was overwhelmed with guilt. I didn’t even know his last name. He was handsome and charming and said all the right things in all the right ways. Over drinks and in the moment, I was valued, adored, and loved. I was happy.
As I drove home, I tried to put the pieces together. How did this happen again? Work had been especially challenging this past month. As part of a team, I was working on a big proposal and our presentation was yesterday. All week long, although I was doing my best, I had endured negative comments from a female coworker—comments belittling and demeaning my work. Despite the fact that my supervisor was happy with my work, I felt intimidated and unsure in my abilities.
When I thought about my feelings of guilt and shame, I was immediately reminded of my childhood. My family home was very chaotic. I was the third child of five, which made for a very busy home. Both my parents worked full-time jobs, so after school I was home with my siblings.
Most of the time, my older two siblings fought with each other while the younger two watched TV or stayed in their room. However, there were some days when my older two siblings turned their aggressiveness toward us younger three and made us participate in cruel or inappropriate behavior with one another. They threatened, “If you ever tell Mom or Dad, they won’t believe you. They will know you’re lying and they won’t love you anymore.”
I remember feeling so much shame and guilt from what I was forced to do with and to my younger siblings. At times I felt angry—angry that my parents didn’t protect me and angry that my older siblings got away with such cruelty. I believed their threats and was fearful that if I ever told anyone about this, my family would reject me.
Anonymous sex with strangers was becoming part of a disturbing pattern. I recognized that when I was feeling undervalued and unappreciated at work I would often go to the bar looking for a hookup. Although it left me feeling overwhelmed by shame, I became more desperate for connection and validation through sex when I was feeling harassed at work or fearful that my job was in jeopardy. Fearful that I would be rejected. Fearful that if anyone knew the truth about me, they wouldn’t love me.
When we are controlled by shame, it becomes the lens through which all self-evaluation is viewed. It not only affects our self-perception, it affects the way we engage in relationship with God and others. When we feel shame, we isolate. We think such negative thoughts about ourselves, fueling the shame, but also creating a negative feedback loop in our head: “They can never know what I’ve done. If they knew, they would reject me. They would hate me. They would abandon me.”
This thought pattern plays over and over and over in our mind. In our distorted thinking, we believe that we have committed an unforgivable sin. Not just one, but many. So many unforgivable sins that if anyone ever knew the truth about us—the whole truth—they would certainly reject us. We would be forced to live a life of isolation. So, as a means of selfpreservation, we impose this life of isolation on ourselves, allowing our feelings of shame to hold us hostage, keeping us from ever experiencing true relationship with God and others.
Shame can convey many meanings. From a clinical perspective, “shame means being exposed and feeling diminished by that exposure.”135 When we feel we have done something wrong or bad, many of us will experience guilt. Dr. Brené Brown suggests that guilt can be a beneficial emotion, motivating us to make a change in our behavior that moves us toward health.136
For example, all of us have experienced times where we lied, or perhaps we said something or did something hurtful to another. When we feel guilty about our behavior, we immediately work to restore the relationship. We confess. We apologize. We make things right. We take responsibility for our sin and work toward health in relationship.
However, what would happen if we didn’t take the opportunity to make things right, if we didn’t confess or apologize—if we didn’t work to restore the relationship? In many ways, we would begin to feel the consequences of our sin. By its very nature, unresolved sin in our lives creates a condition of shame: we hide; we keep secrets; we seek isolation. We may not recognize it in the moment, but shame propelled by sin is toxic.137
When we live in a constant state of shame, it contaminates and permeates all areas of our lives. We deceive ourselves into believing that if others knew the truth, they would reject us. We believe that the only way to stay in relationship is through an illusion we create, allowing others to only see what we want them to see. Our illusion creates a barrier to keep others at a distance, and at the same time, continues to perpetuate our shame.
Guilt is a feeling that tells us, “I did something bad,” so we feel guilty about it.138 When the guilt we feel remains unaddressed, it morphs into shame. Shame misleads us further, providing the basis for why we did something bad. Shame produces a feeling that tells us, “I did something bad because I AM bad.” Shame convinces us that, “There is something wrong with me.”
Shame and guilt impact our lives in many ways, and no one knew this better than the woman at the well (John 4:4-29).
He had to go through Samaria on the way. 5Eventually he came to the Samaritan village of Sychar, near the field that Jacob gave to his son Joseph. 6Jacob’s well was there; and Jesus, tired from the long walk, sat wearily beside the well about noontime. 7Soon a Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Please give me a drink.” 8He was alone at the time because his disciples had gone into the village to buy some food. 9The woman was surprised, for Jews refuse to have anything to do with Samaritans. She said to Jesus, “You are a Jew, and I am a Samaritan woman. Why are you asking me for a drink?”
Jesus replied, “If you only knew the gift God has for you and who you are speaking to, you would ask me, and I would give you living water.” 11“But sir, you don’t have a rope or a bucket,” she said, “and this well is very deep. Where would you get this living water? 12And besides, do you think you’re greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us this well? How can you offer better water than he and his sons and his animals enjoyed?” 13Jesus replied, “Anyone who drinks this water will soon become thirsty again. 14But those who drink the water I give will never be thirsty again. It becomes a fresh, bubbling spring within them, giving them eternal life.” 15“Please, sir,” the woman said, “give me this water! Then I’ll never be thirsty again, and I won’t have to come here to get water.” 16“Go and get your husband,” Jesus told her. 17“I don’t have a husband,” the woman replied. Jesus said, “You’re right! You don’t have a husband—18for you have had five husbands, and you aren’t even married to the man you’re living with now. You certainly spoke the truth!”
Jesus was intentional about His journey through Samaria. Most Jews and rabbis would have avoided this geographical area, but Jesus had a divine appointment.139 As Jesus rested beside Jacob’s well, a Samaritan woman came to draw water. In this desert region, most women would draw water from the well in the early morning or late evening, but this woman came to the well around noon. The woman was surprised when Jesus said to her, “Please give me a drink,” for Jews did not associate with Samaritans. Puzzled by Jesus’ behavior, she asked, “Why are you asking me for a drink?”
Jesus’ reply is so profound: “If you only knew the gift God has for you and who you are speaking to, you would ask me, and I would give you living water.” Even more confused, the woman takes this statement literally. But Jesus says,
“Anyone who drinks this water will soon become thirsty again. 14But those who drink the water I give will never be thirsty again. It becomes a fresh, bubbling spring within them, giving them eternal life.”
At this point, the conversation takes an interesting turn. When the woman says, “…give me this water!” Jesus changes the subject. He asks the woman to go get her husband, already knowing that she doesn’t have a husband, has been married five times, and is not currently married to the man with whom she is living. Jesus needed her to know that He was the real deal. He was the only one who could give her living water.
“Sir,” the woman said, “you must be a prophet. 20So tell me, why is it that you Jews insist that Jerusalem is the only place of worship, while we Samaritans claim it is here at Mount Gerizim, where our ancestors worshiped?” 21Jesus replied, “Believe me, dear woman, the time is coming when it will no longer matter whether you worship the Father on this mountain or in Jerusalem. 22You Samaritans know very little about the one you worship, while we Jews know all about him, for salvation comes through the Jews. 23But the time is coming—indeed it’s here now—when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. The Father is looking for those who will worship him that way. 24For God is Spirit, so those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth.” 25The woman said, “I know the Messiah is coming—the one who is called Christ. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.” 26Then Jesus told her, “I am the Messiah!” 27Just then his disciples came back. They were shocked to find him talking to a woman, but none of them had the nerve to ask, “What do you want with her?” or “Why are you talking to her?” 28The woman left her water jar beside the well and ran back to the village, telling everyone, 29“Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did! Could he possibly be the Messiah?”
This woman was ecstatic to discover that despite her current and past behaviors— married multiple times and currently living with a man to whom she wasn’t married— Jesus was offering her eternal life. He was offering her a genuine, life-giving relationship. She ran back to her village, thrilled to tell others what happened at the well, wanting them to experience the same freedom she found in Christ.
The effects of shame in our life can be so paralyzing that we fail to look for a way out. We have lived in a state of shame for so long, we are resolved to remain captive. We cannot begin to imagine what life would look like without shame. This is what the enemy of our soul wants for us: to feel hopeless, isolated, and alone. But God has already given us a way out. He gave us Jesus.
He gave us grace. It would be amazing, if once we received God’s grace—through the saving knowledge of His Son, Jesus—we fully understood grace. That is often not the case. For many of us, we will spend our entire lives developing an understanding of God’s grace—not because we get hung up on God’s part, but because we feel so undeserving. We fail to comprehend and recognize how God’s grace plays out in our life. At our core, we struggle with receiving grace—when God gives to us what we don’t deserve. Our shame keeps us blinded to grace, but we don’t have to stay this way.
The power of God’s grace is invincible! Even with our strongest shame-shield in place, when we experience the depth of God’s grace, it transforms our life. The blinders fall away. For the first time, we see ourselves from God’s perspective—as His dearly loved daughter.
If we want to reduce the shame in our lives, we have to experience God in our lives. We don’t have to be afraid. We can let go of our secrets. We can allow God’s abundant grace to pour over us and fill our wounds with his love.
Removing our shame-shield requires risk. We don’t know what it looks like to step into a place of grace. We want it and fear it at the same time. We want to experience and live in freedom, but we will have to risk vulnerability to get there. This will take time. We have to be intentional. We have to begin by strengthening our understanding of grace. We must embrace grace.
Use the following scriptures and questions to expand your knowledge of grace.
God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. 9Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. 10For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago. EPHESIANS 2:8-10 NLT
Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
It is not enough that we know of God’s grace—that we have a head-knowledge of what the Bible says about grace. We have to experience God’s grace. Much like the woman caught in adultery (chapter 5, lesson 3), we have to feel God’s grace.
Imagine what that must have been like: standing before her accusers, men who were ready, willing, and eager to stone her to death, waiting for Jesus to give the go-ahead. When Jesus comes to the woman’s defense, her accusers slip away one by one.141 When they have all gone, Jesus asks her, “Has no one condemned you?”
“No one,” she said. Then Jesus says the greatest words of grace:
“Neither do I. Go and sin no more.”
The gift of no condemnation allows us to stop sinning and walk in true relationship with God. When we experience the free, unmerited favor of God—when we accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior—we experience the fullness of God’s grace.
Imagine standing before your accusers, humiliated, disgraced, and full of shame. Fearing judgment and rejection, being ostracized, and possible death. All of your worst failures and sins on display for everyone to see.
Then, Jesus steps in and defends you, offering you this same gift of no condemnation
Complete the FASTER Scale, Group Check-in, Self-Care lesson, Thoughts/Feelings
Awareness Log, and Change & Growth Analysis in your Unraveled: Weekly Tools before
the next group meeting.