How do we deal with the invisible plague of shame?

Rebecca Winfrey writes: As they sat in the front seats of the parked car, Judith know that her mother was about to launch into one of her rants about Judith’s recent gain in weight. But on this occasion, things turned out differently. An enormous Lion stepped into the space between Judith and her mother, and as her mother drew breath to begin her tirade, the Lion started to roar. And his roar was so loud that Judith couldn’t hear a word her mother was saying.

This was the mental picture given by God to someone who came to me for prayer ministry. She needed help with crippling inner shame which had affected her since childhood. It had led to an eating disorder and several episodes of severe depression. She smilingly told me a few weeks after our prayer session that she had been able to return to work with her head held high because she knew that the ‘Lion’ was with her. This time of prayer had been one small step, but a significant one, in her healing. A ministry of allowing God to reframe shaming memories is part of the practical outworking of my theological conviction that toxic shame (a sense of wrongness in who one is, not in things done wrong) is an important category of brokenness, though it is one that has been largely ignored by the Western Church.

Shame and guilt are often confused, and it is very important to distinguish them clearly because they need dealing with in very different ways. Please note that here I am not talking about the kind of shame that comes from being guilty. I am writing of the kind of shame some have called ‘toxic shame’ which stands alone and can be distinguished from guilt in the following ways:

Someone who is guilty says ‘I did that bad thing’.Someone who is ashamed says ‘I am a bad person’
Someone who is guilty feels regret.                        Someone who is ashamed feels small.
People who are guilty see their acts as separate from themselvesPeople who are ashamed see their whole selves as inadequate.
People who are guilty are concerned with the effect of their actions on othersPeople who are ashamed are concerned with how others see them

Jon Kuhrt, in his review of my Grove book The Cross and Shame, which was published on this blog last month, noted that the shame I am speaking of is a particular issue for the homeless and young people, which it is. But Judith is not homeless, nor is she a young person. She is a middle-class, white professional. She represents many unexpected people who have been touched by what I have written and taught about shame.

One clergy-person came up to me after listening to a talk I gave on this topic, and admitted, ‘Your words may just have changed my life’. But when I have spoken to others, they haven’t been able to see that it affects them too. Perhaps that is because it is simply too painful to admit to it. Or perhaps it is only those who have found themselves lower in status who can identify with this. Women, divorcees, those who have been made redundant, those who have been mentally unwell, those who are disabled or have been bullied at school or at work – all these will have experienced shaming and may still struggle with it. Even if ministers can’t identify with this for themselves there will be a large proportion of their congregation who will. Once you start to see it, it appears all over the place.

What is it that prevents a bishop from acknowledging that one of his clergy has been a perpetrator of sexual abuse? The shame of association. What is it that drives the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement? The shame of being treated as ‘less’ for the colour of one’s skin. What is it that makes it a titanic struggle for a woman to leave an abusive marriage? The shame of years of erosion of her self-respect. What makes it so hard for young graduates to keep sending out hundreds of unsuccessful job applications? The shame of rejection. So many of the issues that are acutely painful in our society revolve around shame. ‘Am I worth it?’ is a question that won’t be resolved by using a well-known face cream ‘because you’re worth it.’

Shame, rather than guilt, is the sense of wrongness in themselves that most people in our society are familiar with. In the past people struggled with guilt, perhaps because they had a stronger sense of duty. But in my pastoral work I have rarely had anyone say this is a problem for them. In contrast it is so common for them to be struggling with shame. We urgently need to focus on the aspects of the gospel that deal with this presenting issue.

Jesus spent his life dealing with shame, but we haven’t seen it because we’ve been so concerned with his work of dealing with guilt. The man with leprosy who came to him at the beginning of Mark’s gospel hadn’t done anything wrong. But he had been shamed and excluded by many people, so he was unsure how Jesus would react to him: ‘If you are willing, you can make me clean’ (Mark 1.40). Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. ‘I am willing, he said. ‘Be clean.’ Jesus had done so much more than healing the man’s leprosy. In those words ‘I am willing’ was the affirmation that would heal his shame.

The story of the woman with the haemorrhage is another such. She also had been excluded from the community through no fault of her own. Jesus’s insistence on seeing who had touched him, and on praising her for her faith, healed not only her body but her shame, and brought her back, standing tall, into the community. Here was Jesus’s teaching ‘the last shall be first’ fleshed out.

Shame doesn’t respond to the message ‘repent and receive the forgiveness of God’, because it is not about something we have done. We need more in our toolbag for curing  souls than confession and absolution. It is looking into the face of God and finding affirmation that heals shame. ‘Restore us O God; make your face shine on us, that we may be saved’ (Ps 80.3).

We say that to get to the point of being able to look into the face of the God we need to come to the Cross. But when dealing with people who are particularly affected by shame, we need to be very careful how we talk about the Cross. Penal substitution, the explanation that Christ was sent by his Father to take on himself the death sentence due to us for our sin, is a good model of the atonement to explain how the cross deals with guilt. I am aware that it is a model much loved by evangelicals. But I would ask them to consider carefully the effect it may have on a person struggling with shame.

One problem with it is that to explain the cross in this way you have to start by telling the person that they are a sinner. I’m not saying that that is not true—of course it is—but this may not be a good place to start. The urgent question the person struggling with shame is asking is ‘Am I worth it?’ not ‘How can I deal with my guilt?’ If someone already feels that there is something profoundly wrong with them, telling they are a sinner will only drive them further away.

The other big problem is that a person suffering from shame may well be the victim of past abusive behaviour. Statistics show, for example, that nearly a third of adult women have been the victims of domestic abuse (Crime Survey of England and Wales 2018). This figure is large enough; it does not include another large group who have been abused in childhood. A minister may well be unwittingly speaking to someone whose sense of shame has been evoked in this way. The description of God deliberately sending his Son to the cross echoes too loudly with these people’s experience of an abusive parent for them to see it as anything other than ‘cosmic child abuse’. Traumatized people’s brains have been re-wired to be hypervigilant. They continually scan the environment for anything that has the same feel as the abuse that happened to them. You can ask them to accept the logic that God the Father sent Jesus to the cross with his full consent all you like, but it is neither fair not realistic to expect their subconscious to stop flagging up ‘don’t trust him’.

It seems to me that, to deal with shame, it is much more effective to draw on older explanations of the cross, as the Eastern Orthodox church does to this day. The Early Fathers described humanity’s problem as being in bondage to the devil, which fits very nicely with a shamed person’s experience of a taunting inner Accuser. Using Irenaeus’s concept of recapitulation we can say that he pioneered a path through death to resurrection and glory. We know that Jesus has identified with our shame in the most shameful death possible. He now takes us with him out of the ‘death’ of the devil’s prison of shame and up into the resurrection and the glory of the affirming love of God. Then ‘we, with our unveiled faces all contemplat[ing] the Lord’s glory [will be] transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory’ (2 Cor 3:18). That glory is the opposite of shame.

At a later date, as their relationship of trust with God develops, people will feel safe enough to deal with their guilt, and penal substitution may be a helpful model of the atonement at that time. But it is by no means the only explanation of the cross that can be drawn from the biblical text. We need to follow the example of St Paul in Acts 17, and shape our presentation of the gospel to the needs of the listeners.

So please don’t ignore shame. If you can admit to even a small effect of shame in your own life, it helps with empathising with it in others who are more profoundly affected. And once you have seen it for yourself, you will start seeing it everywhere. Lots of theologians are already doing this. There has been a flurry of books released on this subject in the last decade. Here are my favourites:

[Ed: see also Sally Nash’s Shame and the Church: Exploring and Transforming Practice]

Do read them. They will open your eyes to a whole new way of seeing pastoral issues. They will open your eyes to a whole new way of seeing the Bible…and unfasten a fresh window onto the incredible compassion of God.

(The story at the beginning of this piece has been told with the consent of the person concerned and with her name changed.)

Rebecca Winfrey worked as a doctor in general practice, hospice medicine and in a mission hospital in Uganda. Since acquiring an MA in pastoral theology, Rebecca has pursued her interests in psychology and theology as a pastoral worker in a church with significant outreach to disadvantaged families. She explores the issue of shame and the cross in her Grove booklet The Cross and Shame: speaking of atonement in a shame-filled society.

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32 thoughts on “How do we deal with the invisible plague of shame?”

  1. I think shame probably does have some roots. The unredeemed sinner is depraved etc. Surely, if you can tell where the kernel of truth is and follow it up with how the kernel has been solved then that is a more fruitful endeavor than denial, or self-love.

    Also, if women as a group have always been inclined to shame then it does not seem as if that peaching of God sending His Son has been damaging for most of history. And sure the answer to the question ‘Am I worth it?’ of ‘God sent His Son to die a shameful, painful death upon a cross so that you might be saved, so yes’ is surely a very uplifting answer?

      • Thank you for your support in this, David. This issue of whether women suffer more from shame than men is interesting. Brene Brown, who has done a lot of research on this area, initially thought that it was a problem that women struggled with more than men, but she later found that it was simply that men found it more difficult to admit that it affected them,and they found it particularly difficult to admit it to women. Who knows what the truth is? What I do know is that shame can be crippling and very difficult to talk about, and we need to let those who suffer with it know that the gospel applies to them.

        In answer to the question of whether our presentation of the gospel has been missing the mark for most of history, – no, that is not what I am saying. The key thing that has changed is that there has been very rapid cultural change going on in our society recently, and our presentation of the gospel needs to take account of that if it is still to connect. It is being argued by some that our Western culture has been changing in the last half century or so away from a guilt culture to a shame/honour culture. We know that Jesus heals both shame and guilt but we have not needed until now to speak much about the shame aspect because guilt was the primary way people experienced their own ‘wrongness’. As the culture has changed, the need for talking about the parts of the gospel message that address shame has increased. We see this in the rise of concern about discrimination, bullying and abuse and the patterns of mental ill-health that have changed in the last half-century.

        In addition because our culture is now more multi-cultural, many of those we speak to will have originated in honour/shame cultures and therefore we need to adjust how we present the gospel to them. There are some differences in the way shame plays out in these cultures from the way it is present in our own, mainly because they are much more collectivistic than our own, but there has been some excellent work done by Jayson Georges in ‘The 3D Gospel’ and ‘Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures’ and on his website which is well worth a look if you wish to pursue this.

        • Rebecca that is very helpful and interesting—but it leaves me with one big question.

          As a NT scholar, I am constantly reminded that the first century world was shaped by honour-shame culture. That means that we should be confident of finding resources to engage with that in the NT—but how come, for example, the preaching in Acts is consistently about guilt and not about shame…?

      • I agree Kyle that this is the logical answer to the ‘cosmic child abuse’ accusation. The problem is that traumatised people’s negative reaction to the truth that God sent his son to die is not a logical reaction. I’m drawing here on neurological studies of the brains of those who have suffered from post-traumatic stress – they have an automatic reaction of terror to anything that is a ‘pattern-match’ to the trauma they suffered. Their brains have literally been rewired to protect them from something similar ever putting them at risk again. This is a reaction that logic cannot reach. Those who had shell-shock after WWI (now called Post-traumatic stress disorder) could not be talked out of their terror whenever they heard a loud bang by logic. Many people suffering from severe shame have experienced significant trauma in the past (often physical or sexual abuse as children). A description of God sending his son to die is too similar to their parent abusing them for them to accept it with equanimity. I am suggesting that for these people, who will be present in any congregation even if we don’t know it, a way of talking about the Cross which is less likely to set off such a reaction is more helpful.

    • Kyle. Unless I have misunderstood you here I think you have misunderstood what Rebecca Winfrey is saying. It is not that ‘women as a group have always been inclined to shame’ (whatever that means exactly). Still less that this is good and an outcome of faithful, gospel preaching. Rather, she tells of the way women have too often suffered deeply from being shamed. I would add that I think men need this discussion too. That is very, very different. And it is a neglected pastoral insight much needed for the work of ministering the grace and love of Christ. Sorry if I am misreading you.

      • Hi David,

        I’m not saying that shame is being produced by gospel preaching, I am saying that it exists and that the cure is gospel preaching.

        I have reread it and I do see that Rebecca Winfrey does point out women as a group that has experienced shaming, rather than one inclined to shame. I don’t think this is accurate, however. It seems to me, if anything, the other way round But I think that it is an issue impossible to measure, and hugely lead by one’s vantage point.

        Even if it is true that women do experience more shaming than men, then *unless this is a new development*, then my point remains unchanged which is that the success of the gospel presented directly and truly worked for hundreds of years and frankly probably found more favour with women, the disabled etc.

        • There is indeed a curious paradox that if the way that the gospel has been presented has been in some sense more harmful to women—why is it that more women attend church than men?

          • Ian. I would be very interested in Rebecca’s response to this. But question is in danger of presuming that women who attend church all do so for the same reason and experience the faith journey in the church the same way. But it was women who actually started the church in the beginning of course.
            Conversely, is it possible that for some men, shame is a factor in why they don’t go to church?

          • I don’t know the answer to this Ian! But what I would say is that people often don’t realise the difference between their own guilt and their own shame unless they are taught about it. Many women I have seen pastorally have said they have spent years thinking that the reason they do not feel ‘forgiven’ is because they have not repented adequately. If you ask them what it is they don’t feel forgiven for, it often becomes clear that they have been confessing a vague sense of unworthiness without specific wrongdoing. Once they have had it explained that this is shame not guilt then they can be released from feeling they have to confess it endlessly. Forgiveness is not the remedy here: looking into the face of Christ, knowing that he too has experienced profound shame, and finding his affirmation is.
            Perhaps more women than men get caught in this trap – I don’t know, because most of the people who have talked to me about these personal issues have been women. Perhaps some of you men who have been involved in pastoral care can enlighten me on this point.

  2. Thank you. I think that there are a couple of other points I would make. First, this approach is the one a Muslim is much more likely to engage with. Their culture is an honour/shame culture not an innocent/guilty culture. Right and wrong lies not in the act itself but whether or it brings shame or honour to you or your family. If you haven’t watched ‘Honour’ on ITV it helps to open a window on this. One particular line sticks with me – when one of those eventually convicted in relation to the honour killing tells his solicitor that if he went home to his own country he would be treated as a hero (because he would have salvaged the honour of the family).

    Second, perhaps inevitably(!) Kenneth Bailey’s exposition of the parable of the prodigal son is a real eye-opener on this. He is seeking to answer what he says is a common question from Muslims – ‘Where is the cross in the parable of the prodigal son? Nobody dies.’ He shows that culturally the returning son is dead (and without his father’s intervention is likely to be physically dead soon too) and how the father commits social and cultural suicide in front of the whole town to rescue him. Culturally both father and son die, and the elder brother compounds it by treating his father with cultural contempt. Again the father commits cultural suicide in front of his guests by going out to the elder brother rather than insisting he does his filial duty by coming in and giving him the honour he is due as his father.

    Alongside a brief cultural explanation I think this parable could have great power in helping those who suffer with shame?

  3. The negative impact of ‘shame’ and ‘being shamed’ is so helpfully explored here and on a previous blog review. But I note that the opposite – being shame-less/without shame – only generally has a negative, judgmental meaning and I wonder why? It means we seem to have no affirming vocabulary for the good experience of living outside the grip of toxic shame.

    • Yes – we don’t have enough different words for this area. Being shameless is a bad thing, even though we also need healing from shame. I have been listening just today to Judith Rossall talking about this in a video which is a precursor to a conference being held tomorrow by the Transforming Shame Network. She speaks of how shame is an automatic part of our psychological make-up because we are made for connection. Shame is an important warning system when our connection with others is likely to be threatened by our behaviour. Being shameless is a dangerous thing, especially when combined with power, because the automatic check to behaviour that threatens relationships is missing.( There is a very good example of this going on in America at the moment). So some degree of shame is a good thing. It’s when it becomes toxic and is not dealt with that it becomes problematic, and that is the kind of shame that I have been talking about.

  4. I found this helpful but would value more focussed biblical exposition. How the gospel is good news to those who know their guilt is well-trodden ground; I would value illumination on what is the good news to those who feel they are intrinsically shameful. Saying that nonetheless Jesus loves you is true, and I know actions can speak louder than words, however I would still value exploration of the words and biblical themes that might become good news here.

    • I haven’t read my copy of Rebecca Winfrey’s Grove Book yet, John, but flicking through I see there is a chapter, ‘Biblical Approaches to Shame’, and another entitled ‘Adjusting How We Explain the Gospel’. How ‘focussed’ these chapters are I cannot say until I’ve read them, though!

    • I would recommend Robin Stockitt’s ‘Restoring the shamed:towards a theology of shame’
      and Judith Rossall’s Forbidden fruit and Figleaves’ for more biblical exposition. They will help you see how shame is there all over the Bible – it’s just that we in the West have not been able to see it. Robert Jewett’s ‘Romans: a short commentary’ which is from an honour-shame perspective might also be of interest.
      How to alter our presentation of the gospel in a succinct way for a Western shame culture is still under construction I would say, having discussed this with others who have written on this topic from the Transforming Shame Network. Trevor Withers from that group has written an excellent paper on this which was presented in a BIAPT conference a few months ago. He speaks of Jesus coming among us to identify with us in our shame, his preference for spending time with people who were shamed by society, his willing death saying how much we are worth to him, his resurrection being God confirming the value of his Son despite his shaming by humans, our connection to Jesus meaning we share in that validation, and our adoption to belonging in his family as healing shame. Paul Goodliff in ‘With Unveiled Face’ speaks of looking into the face of God as what is healing. I have argued in my Grove book that it what heals shame is being taken with Christ through death into resurrection, with him conquering our inner Accuser, and that meditating on stories such as the man with leprosy in Mark 1 or the woman with a haemorrhage in Luke 8 can bring healing; Simon Cozens in ‘Looking shame in the eye’ talks of the motif of ‘new life’ from the NT being the opportunity to gain a new identity that allows us to discard the old, shame-filled one. Will van der Hart argues in ‘The power of belonging’ that it is in belonging – to God and to other people that we find healing from shame.
      Many also speak of the need for the church to work much harder on becoming a community which is accepting of the shamed.
      It should be pointed out that the healing of shame is the work of a lifetime; it is not going to be solved overnight!

  5. Some interesting distinctions made here. I’ll need to think about them. My mind turned to Hebrews 12… who for the joy that was set before him… despising the shame. Can shame be reduced by a focus on what God is doing in our lives.

    Regarding guilt I think it helps to maintain a biblical psychology. Romans 7 is helpful here.

    (ESV) 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. 17 So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.

    Twice Paul repeats ‘it is no longer I that do it but sin that dwells within me’. He is recognising a distinction between the ‘I’ he is and ‘indwelling sin’ or ‘the flesh’ as a power that pulls him down.

    In chapter 8 he brings in the power of Christian living, namely the Holy Spirit. Galatians 5 discusses how the renewed ‘I’ is called to sow to the Spirit not the flesh.

    My point is, that when I sin, I should acknowledge that it is I who sinned but at the same time recognise that this action is not arising from the true me. The true me, is a new creation, who has died to sin and lives to God by the power of the Spirit. The true me is the new me, the new nature and life I have through the new birth and the shared resurrection life of Christ. It is this ‘me’ or ‘I’ who will live forever. This ‘me’ is holy and good.

    Thus, I confess my sin, but insist it is not who I really am. I resolve by God’s grace to work at being who I really am.

    Can shame not be treated in a similar way? Can the person not be helped to see that shame rightly belongs to the old self, not the new self?

    • The slight danger of this approach John is that it can discourage people from taking responsibility for their sin. Think of people like Ball, and Smith, and Fletcher. It’s very unclear how much responsibility they took for their own sin, or whether they just said “that isn’t the real me”. Clearly it was part of who they were.

      • Yes, I agree it is a danger. However, Paul’s pastoral focus is not people who are looking for an excuse for sin – for such he has only warning. Here he is thinking of people frustrated by the grip sin seems to have no matter how hard they try to overcome it.

    • Ive always found Romans 7 difficult to understand given 8. A number of scholars believe Paul is talking about the unregenerate in 7 and the regenerate in 8, particularly in the Jewish context.


      • Peter

        There is a debate whether the ‘man’ in Romans 7 is regenerate or unregenerate. The thing is he shows features of both. My own view is that he probably describes a regenerate person seeking to live by the power of the law. This only leads to failure for there is no power in law to sanctify and more than there was to justify (earlier in Romans). The power of the Spirit that comes through faith union (being married to Christ) is necessary for sanctification.

        The key to Romans 7 is, I think, the first 6 where he spells out the two relationships. The rest of Ch 7 is a working out of what being married to law implies. In Ch 8 we have life married to Christ and lived in the power of the Spirit.

    • Absolutely. Judith Rossall speaks in her book ‘Forbidden fruit and figleaves’ about how the biblical conception of sin is so much broader and more complex than we have made it. It includes shame and includes a power beyond us as individuals that infects the whole of our society. Shame leads to sin because it begets things like envy and rage and being sinned-against causes shame. The concept of old self and new self is key in healing as you say to the renewal of our identity as affirmed and honoured children of God , but it takes a lifetime to live into the truth of it.

  6. “Can shame not be treated in a similar way? Can the person not be helped to see that shame rightly belongs to the old self, not the new self?”
    The point that Rebecca is making is that shame is how we perceive ourselves to be right now. We become convinced – or very often have been convinced by others – that we should be ashamed of who we are. So it is very hard to convince someone that they are actually somebody else.
    And of course the Church has been guilty of burdening that shame on groups of people. The whole notion of ‘Churching women’ was that childbirth was somehow shameful, and they needed to have some service to wipe out that shame. But that was so very clearly tied up with the whole notion – which survived and survives – that just being a woman is shameful. So shameful that is some cases you are not allowed to speak in church, or have to dress differently than you want to, or can’t act as a minister, or should not receive communion if you are menstruating etc.

  7. Andrew

    I understand what you are saying. However, how can this be changed? What is the biblical way of changing this perception? Is it not the same as dealing with guilt? Is it not to change the perception of who we are or how society sees us by seeing ourselves as God sees us in Christ?

    I know of no other way of dealing with destructive thoughts and perceptions than to counter them with a gospel perspective. It is as we renew our minds with a biblical perspective that we find freedom from oppressive thoughts. I do not say this lightly. I have struggled with depression over many years but my resource (medication aside) has always been the gospel. We overcome destructive thoughts and feelings by thinking that is shaped by gospel faith… not overnight… perhaps not totally this side of heaven… but truly and substantially.

    • John – I’ve replied as well as I can to this in a post higher up in this thread. When medics diagnose depression they say that excessive guilt is an important symptom that can be indicative of depression. Having suffered from depression myself I think that diagnostic test actually needs modifying – I think that what the medics have called guilt is often really shame.
      How do we achieve this move from head knowledge to heart knowledge of the gospel and the truth of the shame-healing relationship with have with God? As you say, very slowly! Personally I have found meditating on verses like Ephesians 2:10, and Ignatian type meditation to encounter Jesus in gospel stories also helpful. As you say, Hebrews is a rich source of shame-addressing teaching. Praying for healing of specifically shaming memories by asking Jesus to come into those memories, as in the story in my post, has also contributed to my own and others’ healing.

  8. Thank you Rebecca for the article, and thank you all for an interesting flow of comments. Brene Brown has written helpfully on shame, and the difference between guilt and shame.


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