Understanding Shame in a Theological Context

By Jim Uhley, D. Min.
Faculty, College of Theology

Women comforting an upset friend

Almost 20 years ago now, I did my Doctor of Ministry on shame and recovery of self-worth. The lessons have stayed with me and continue to shape my life, ministry and teaching as nothing else does.

Dr. Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, has done a number of TED talks and written a lot about this topic. In one of her videos she states that “shame is highly correlated with addiction, depression, eating disorders, violence, bullying and aggression.”

Defining Shame

Perhaps we are relearning ancient lessons. Jewish and Christian cultures in the first century were shame and honor based and so the Bible is full of insights that have been overlooked. The church needs to recover these insights if it is to help our addictive, narcissistic culture.  

In his book, The Depleted Self, proposes that shame has been ignored because Westerners consider shame‑oriented cultures of the East inferior and because shame has been considered a feminine emotion (1993, p. 84‑85). James Fowler, a noted theologian says, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer is almost alone among 20th‑century theologians in giving importance to shame” (1993, p. 819).

“Shame is man’s ineffaceable recollection of his estrangement from the origin; it is grief for this estrangement, and the powerless longing to return to unity with the origin. Man is ashamed because he has lost something which is essential to his original character, to himself as a whole; he is ashamed of his nakedness.”
–        Bonhoeffer (1955, p. 145)

Shame and Crucifixion

It is no accident of history that God chose to send his Son into the world while the Romans were regularly crucifying their enemies. It is hard to imagine a more brutal, humiliating, dehumanizing, frightening way to publicly demonstrate the insignificance of those who were conquered by the Romans.

In the shame/honor culture of the Jews, crucifixion was terrifying. Yet God chose the cross to atone for the sins of the world. The author of Hebrews tells us to look to “Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2, English Standard Version).

The humiliated One is exalted. He was despised and yet despised the shame of being held up to public ridicule, naked on a cross. His motivation was the joy of his Father and the joy of redeeming humanity.

Restoring Your Relationship with God

To everyone who has been shamefully used by others in some form of sexual abuse, by being bullied and humiliated into behavior that damaged their ability to feel valuable, Jesus understands. To everyone who has fallen into addiction and the downward spirals that result from it, Jesus knows your sense of worthlessness. Jesus came to restore our relationship to God.

To repeat Bonheoffer here, Jesus came to give back to us what we have lost.  We are “ashamed” because mankind has “lost something which is essential to his original character.” This essential can only be restored by the Redeemer, who buys us out of our slavery to sin and the depleted self, to give us a new self, recreated in his image.

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Bonhoeffer, D. 1955. Ethics. Edited by E. Bethge. New York:  The Macmillan Co.

Capps, D. 1993. The Depleted Self: Sin in a Narcissistic Age. Minneapolis:  Fortress Press.

Fowler, J. W. Aug. 25‑Sept. 1, 1993. “Shame: Toward a Practical Theological Understanding.” The Christian Century. 816‑19.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.