I was small for my age. When I graduated from high school, I was 5 feet 7 inches and 120 pounds. (I added 2 inches and 25 pounds in the first two years of college.) In middle school, I was even smaller. When I was twelve, my younger (but taller) sister and a friend of hers began to chant, “Sam is short, shorty-pants, skinny-pants, dinky Sam!” And I slugged her.
My dad witnessed it. He never moved quicker in his life. He hustled me to his office as fast as a speeding bullet and sat me on a sofa. And then time slowed down. With surprising gentleness, he whispered, “Are you ashamed of yourself? You should be.”
And I was ashamed. Ever-so-much. He asked me what my shame felt like, and I said:
- I’m embarrassed that I’m so short and skinny;
- I’m mortified that I erupted in anger, and horrified that I hit someone younger than me;
- I’m humiliated that my sister’s friend saw me do it, and I’m scared because you did too;
- I feel stupid, weak, dirty, and ashamed.
My dad began to weep. I did too. My dad then told me that when Jesus was on the cross, he not only took our punishment, he took our shame. He said that the only way to rid ourselves of the sense of shame is to see Jesus absorbing into himself all the disgrace we’ve ever felt.
He asked me to pray each point of shame to God, and give it to him, as in, “Jesus, I’m embarrassed that I’m so small; did you take that on the cross? I feel stupid and dirty; did you absorb that too? I’m ashamed that I hit my sister; did you also receive that for me?”
It was the first time in my life I ever deeply worshiped God.
Agnostic Advice Will Fail Us
Shame is one of the more debilitating traumas experienced by humans. Over the last thirty years, the book industry has exploded with solutions to combat its self-destructive spiral.
And yet the epidemic of shame is exploding even faster. Ask any group of westerners if they feel much guilt in their lives, and you’ll see few raised hands. Ask them if they feel shame, and every hand will shoot skyward. Except those too ashamed to admit it.
Secular writers prescribe solutions to our shame: be self-compassionate, grab hold of self-esteem, practice positive thinking, and recast the stories we tell about ourselves.
Despite the rising tide of books and advice, we remain awash in shame. Why? It’s because these answers are agnostic—not anti-God but devoid of God—and shame is deeply spiritual.
Dan Allender said, “Shame is an excellent path to exposing … where we believe life can be found. It unearths the strategies we use to deal with a world that is not under our control.”
When I was twelve, I thought “life could be found” by being taller or stronger. After hitting my sister, I thought “life could be found” by being more self-controlled. In the absence of those life givers, I felt shame. Worship is what we ascribe ultimate value to; anything we turn to find life is the object of our worship.
In other words, I slogged my way into a swampland of shame through worship, and the only way out of my shame was to change my worship. Thomas Chalmers said it like this, “The only way to dispossess the heart of an old affection is by the expulsive power of a new one.”
Agnostic therapists advise, “Reject shame, just banish it, and practice self-compassion.” But that counsel doesn’t work. And it never will. Shame is essentially spiritual and so is its solution.
My dad advised, “Pray your shame to God, every sliver, each shard, and see Jesus absorb into his being all your humiliation, rejection, and inadequacy. See him soak up your shame until it’s gone.” Jesus prayed the psalms every day. He would have prayed this verse a thousand times:
Uphold me according to your promise, that I may live, and let me not be put to shame in my hope! (Psalm 119:116)
But Jesus was put to shame, even though he alone deserved none. He publicly infused our dishonor and nakedness, that we need never fear disgrace again. On the cross he cried to the Father, “Give to them that promise of Psalm 119, and give to me their shame.”
P. S. Many victims of trauma (especially sexual assault) feel shame for their past. But just as guilt can be true or false, so too shame can be true or false. Scripture is clear: we are not held responsible when we are sinned against. For some of us, it is enough to know we are not guilty for those assaults. But for others, we still feel their shame, and secular answers have failed.
Even in false shame, worship can be our greatest ally. Jesus took on himself our real shame (by absorbing into himself all our sense of dirtiness) but he also took our false shame (he was horribly mistreated by the very authorities who were supposed to protect people). He was lynched for his love for us.