Shame Good & Evil

First let me apologize for the long gap in posting on my blog. Fall is a very busy time in this part of the world. It is very lovely so just say I have been enjoying all the blessings of the fall season.

Shame is a very powerful emotion and because of that can be used to shape our minds and hearts, for good or for evil.  A person can experience shame when they commit an offense that they know to be wrong. That is a good thing since if we respond appropriately it can correct us to do better. Shame can be felt when we don’t measure up to an expectation such as in athletics or academics. A person might be giving it all they have but still not be able to measure up, particularly if they are  performing in front of a group or someone who will pass judgement on their performance.  This kind of shame has more to do with our own expectations of ourself. Shame can also be felt by outward expressions of disapproval from others when they judge our performance against their expectations, when otherwise we would not have felt any shame. This would be to humiliate a person to act in accordance with the person passing the judgement.

I hear stories of husbands who used the unhealthy shame to control their wives.  Parents have used this to control their children, bosses have been known to pressure their employees, all to get the result they feel is important. I plead guilty to having used it too many times in my life.  It is such an easy way out. The Bible has many examples of shame, both good and bad.  The story  Nathan the prophet told to King David about the rich man who stole the poor man’s sheep, caused David to see his own shame (this is good shame) and caused him to repent and get right with God. You can read the story here:

Peter grew up with shame being a big part of his life.  He always felt that his father was not happy with him and that he was a great disappointment to his father.  The father believed to encourage or compliment him was to damage him, so he never heard anything that would make him feel good about himself.  At the same time criticism was very common.  He was constantly reminded of things he did wrong or things that didn’t measure up. This caused him to feel very defeated, which made him withdraw from trying and achieving.  His heart was rebellious as he had no voice in how he felt and was never encouraged to expression his feelings.  Many of the things said to him made him feel awkward and out of place.

He grew up finding it very hard to take criticism as he sought to protect himself from further pain. He longed for acceptance which he never felt.  Even after he became an adult he had the haunting feeling that he would soon loose respect from his co workers. This was so ingrained in his head that it was hard to know fact from fiction.  He reports that conversations in his head would tell himself that they really didn’t like him and were only being polite and would soon expose all that was wrong with him. He found compliments felt more like he was being placated, they couldn’t possible mean what they were saying.  At the same time he really wanted affirmation  so that he might have more self confidence. These feeling kept him from trusting people or being able to get very close to anyone in his life. He found ways to keep his distance and was sure no one would ever want him as a life partner. Almost every task he performed he heard to voice of criticism telling him he was doing it wrong.  Failure continued to be a big part of his life. He struggled to change after receiving counseling but often felt hopeless that change would ever come, until he came to understand God’s love and acceptance of him. He was able to know with confidence that what God said was what really mattered, and he could get beyond what others were saying and rest knowing God really loved him in spite of who and what he was with all his faults and failures.

Steven Tracy in Mending the Soul helps us see where we should except blame and where blame is doing undeserved damage.

“I once served as the college pastor in a church near a state university. I met hundreds of college students during my tenure there, but Mary Beth was one of the most memorable. Bill, one of our graduate students, had invited Mary Beth to our church several times during the school year, and she finally agreed to visit. After I met Mary Beth I understood why Bill had worked so hard to reach out to her. She was neatly dressed and attractive but was so painfully shy and withdrawn it almost hurt to look at her. Her hollow eyes were focused on the floor during her entire visit. I called her later that week to invite her to have lunch with Bill and me at the Memorial Union. She very reluctantly agreed. As soon as we sat down, she informed me she wouldn’t be back to our church, as it had been a big mistake for her to visit. I assumed she had some objections to Christianity or to the lesson. I began to gear up for a defense of the faith, but in stammering words she slammed a verbal line drive into the outfield that I could not catch. She began to apologize profusely for visiting our church. She blurted out that she was so sorry she had contaminated our sanctuary, and that if we had only known what kind of evil person she was, we never would have allowed her into the church. I did my best to assure her that everyone in our church was a needy sinner, and that God loved her more than she could imagine, but I sensed my words had penetrated no farther than a fist-sized rock would penetrate the armor of an M1 tank. I was baffled by Mary Beth’s utter inability to accept God’s love until later that week when Bill connected the dots. Mary Beth had been molested for years by her stepbrother and was immersed in shame and self-loathing. She was severely anorexic and had been hospitalized several times during the previous year. Compulsive exercise had permanently damaged her knees, but she continued to jog many miles a day. When Mary Beth looked in the mirror, she saw a fat, wicked young woman who deserved to suffer for the sexual acts that had been done to her. Her brother’s abuse had filled every cell in her body with destructive shame. I desperately longed to help Mary Beth experience God’s healing, but, in spite of our calls and invitations, I never saw her again. 


I’m convinced that shame is the most powerful human emotion. It often overwhelms, directs, and transforms all other emotions, thoughts, and experiences. For instance, no matter what Mary Beth was told by friends, pastors, or her doctor, and no matter what she felt or experienced, the conclusion would always be the same: she was a dirty, wicked, fat girl who deserved to suffer. Her shame hijacked all other internal and external voices. Once a destructive shame virus has infected our mental hard drive, it’s extremely difficult to remove because it filters all thoughts and feelings that could be used to remove it. For example, when abuse victims like Mary Beth experience sensory pleasure (touch, pleasant music, and the like), they often instinctively feel guilty. These guilt feelings then reinforce the internal shame grid and strengthen the core belief that they are disgusting and dirty. This is true for positive accomplishments as well. For example, when Mary Beth received an A in one of her courses, instead of accepting that the good grade gave evidence of her academic skills and hard work, her shame acted as an emotional parasite. It sucked all the healthy nutrients out of the experience by letting the A in this course make her feel bad for all the times in her life she didn’t get an A. It might also have convinced her that she didn’t really deserve the A; maybe the teacher just felt sorry for her.2Thus, all experiences, including very positive accomplishments, indict and assault the self. While shame is universally and profoundly experienced, it is seldom understood. For instance, there’s no scholarly consensus on what constitutes shame.3But I’ll risk giving my own definition: Shame is a deep, painful sense of inadequacy and personal failure based on the inability to live up to a standard of conduct—one’s own or one imposed by others. Regardless of the subjectivity, fickleness, or rationality of the standard that was violated, if it’s a standard that we or others who are important to us value, it will produce shame. Because shame is connected with one’s failure to live up to an important standard of conduct, shame creates a sense of disgust toward self. Thus, shame makes us want to hide from others and even from ourselves.

Tracy, Steven R. (2009-05-26). Mending the Soul: Understanding and Healing Abuse (Kindle Locations 1405 -1441). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

There is healthy shame, or a nicer word would be correction.  A person who would seek to help another from sliding down a slippery slope which can lead to their harm, seeks to correct.  I like the description of this given in a devotional I read called “My Light and My Salvation” by Mark DuPre copyright 2015 found on October 22 devotional:

“Correction is part of the normal Christian life. Few people like it because few people really understand it.  Correction can be painful and when it is, the pain associated with it can cloud its benefits.  If we accept the lie of our enemy, we’ll learn to run from correction because we’ve associated it solely with pain.

But correction is simply getting us back on the right track, moving toward health and wholeness. It has a purpose. It’s not rebuke, antagonism, or reaction. Genuine correction assumes we’re heading down the right path but need the occasional adjustment to make sure we stay on the right path.

We need to learn the difference between the Lord telling us to stop something, rebuking us, chasing us, and correcting us.  It’s true that some of God’s stronger chastisements can cut deeply, but the only true damage from correction is to our pride. Pride is our enemy. Correction while painful to our pride, is beneficial  and therefore our friend.”

I know in my own life I have struggled with correction or what could be called healthy shame, I didn’t take it well and I understand better today why I had such reactions. I wish I could have understood better the purpose behind the correction and benefitted from it at a much younger age.  What I learn from this is the damage I can do with shame or the good I can do with correction when I speak with people.  I can analyze  my own motive:  Will this be for their good or will it be for the purpose of controlling them to get them to do what I want them to do.

A few thoughts from the Mending the Soul work book by Celestia G. Tracy copyright 2015 page 125: “ Shame can attach itself to our emotions, drives (such as hunger and sex), or needs (such as security, love, or attention). Typically, when a person is sinned against, it creates wounds that go very deep and, in time, can morph into sinful responses.

This is where I saw myself with the sin I struggle with, that is gluttony.  I most definitely tried to numb the pain with food.  The sad fact is when it is something that has morphed in to a sinful response and has been allowed to reign for way too many years, it is also very difficult to break away from.  If I ever got brave enough for you to see what goes on inside my brain you would find a very unstable and emotional mind trying desperately to keep me in bondage, lies of the devil because he knows how to keep me feeling defeated. For this very reason I can not stand in judgement of someone who struggles with other addictive behavior, what ever they might be. It doesn’t mean I condone the behavior, but it does mean I see and understand the challenges they face to get beyond them.

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