Shame: a Blessing and a Curse

What is shame? Is it that one thing we deliberately push away every time we think about it? If others knew about that one thing, are we absolutely certain they’d look at us differently? Why do we feel this way? How do we find freedom? This week, Gary Wilkerson talks about the answers to these questions and more.

What is shame? Is it that one thing we deliberately push away every time we think about it? If others knew about that one thing, are we absolutely certain they’d look at us differently? Why do we feel this way? How do we find freedom? This week, Gary Wilkerson talks about the answers to these questions and more.

    Bob: Well, Gary we're talking today about a topic that everybody deals with, I guess, at one time or another, and that shame. Although we realize that people deal with it, I guess some of our listeners and viewers may be asking, "So why are you talking about it?" Why do you think this is an issue that we need to address?

    Gary: Each week, Bob, we pray about, we talk about what topic to discuss here. When we think about putting something online and somebody reads it and it says, "Hey, listen to this podcast because it's talking about shame," my mind goes to who's going to want to listen to this? What merit… because so many of us don't even know that we have shame. It's not a word we use as often or an emotion we describe as often as we do say like, fear, anxiety, stress, exhaustion. Those are topics that sort of like, "I want to hear that because I'm facing that." This one is harder because someone may not even know they have it.

    I've been a Christian since I was about six years old and I was just thinking about this this week as I've been studying this issue of shame. I realized I have never heard a sermon on shame in my whole life. I've read a couple of books, one by the famous author Brené Brown, a secular author and then one by a Christian doctor named Kurt Thomas. Both of them have written on shame, and they describe the same thing that for decades now this has been sort of an untapped topic. The reality is why this is so important is because shame is the fuel for almost every other emotional difficulty. Someone who is angry, nine out of ten times they're angry because they've been shamed.

    Somebody reacts in an angry negative fashion because somebody accused them of something or hurt them. That caused shame, that shame caused anger, or that shame caused, in other people it caused fear, "I'm afraid I'm going to be rejected by you, so my heart is ashamed." It causes shame before the presence of God. A Christian has a sense of being a failure, of being of being not enough in God's eyes and God's presence. It filters through to them as well. It's really important, and so many people are facing this.

    Shame is sort of like cancer to a degree. Most people don't know they have it until it's really deep in their system and so it's really a topic that I think is really important for people to listen to, to assess, to take an inward look. Paul says examine your hearts. I want us today to examine our hearts to see if there's shame in us, where it came from, what we can do with it. Yes, I think it's is important.

    Bob: Maybe we should start with a definition, because I imagine some listeners are thinking, "I thought shame was a good thing. Shame keeps us from doing bad things, shame keeps us from going back to bad things that we have done." Apparently, that's a wrong view. Give us a definition, if you would, of what shame is.

    Gary: All right. Some words that correlate with it are embarrassment, to be embarrassed, but I think that probably doesn't quite describe it. Others would look at it as a sense of being wronged and the hurt by that, or doing wrong and being hurt, the inner hurt of sensing of a failure. For me, I think I describe shame as that sense of not being enough, and then how that relates to other people. For instance, anxiety is a very personal thing, I'm just anxious, but shame is a shared-- It's a relational crisis, it's a relational problem. It's not just, "I'm ashamed, I feel shame inside of me." It has to do with a connection with other people.

    As an example, let me think of this. Let’s use a teenage girl. She comes home from school. She got a smile on her face, she has a piece of paper in her hands. She got a 92 in her test, and her mother looks at it and goes, "What happened the other 8%? I expect better from you." That girl's going to be ashamed. She's going to say, "No matter what I do, I'm not enough. I can't please anybody." The shame is relational. It has the connection to do with her mother and has connection to do with friends, or lack thereof, or what somebody said to you. I guess it is the embarrassment of events, of circumstances, of things said to you, and then ultimately of how you feel about yourself.

    The phrase that would come to the mind of this teenage girl or anybody that's ashamed, "I'm unprepared to live a life that is pleasing to others, therefore, I am feeling insufficient, inadequate, unwanted myself." It comes down to some really core issues of the heart, it that causes a lot of pain. Then as I said earlier, that shame internally causes all these other secondary issues. Normally, we're dealing with the secondary issues. "Why am I angry? Why am I fearful? Why am I stressed?" But shame is the core. Shame is the first, by the way, I know you didn’t ask this, [chuckles] but I'll get here anyway. Shame is the first emotion ever mentioned in the scriptures, before fear, even before—

    Bob: In the garden?

    Gary: In the garden. It says they ate the apple-- They ate the fruit, not the apple, but they eat the fruit, and they said, "We realized we were naked and we were ashamed." Then they covered themselves and they hid themselves. Maybe later the podcast too we’ll talk about the effects of shame and the hiding part of it.

    Bob: How do you contrast it with, say, guilt? Is there a difference? Are they synonymous terms?

    Gary: In a secular mindset, say a psychotherapist or a counselor, an author, a Brené Brown type person, an Oprah type person, they would look at shame as totally negative. Very rarely is there anything good out of shame. The Bible is different. The Bible has two types of shame. One is the false lies of the devil, the accusation, the fear. The other one is a little bit more healthy, even though it doesn't feel good. It's mentioned in Jeremiah Chapter 2, where God's speaking to Israel and said, "You keep going after other gods. You keep running into every field and you set up your idols there, and you're not even ashamed that you're doing it."

    God seems to be saying there that that sense of shame when you're backsliding, when you're living in sin, when you're committing adultery, when you're cheating on your income taxes, when you're not honoring your family, caring for your kids, that there could be a sense of guilt and shame inside of you. Guilt is, "I did something wrong." I'm embarrassed to say this, but I like to be vulnerable. The other day I was with a friend and he said, "Did you get that basket I sent you?" I said, "Yes, I got it. Thank you." He goes, "Did you like the little drink?" It's a fizzy water with flavoring, because I usually drink mine straight.


    Bob: Just ice.

    Gary: Yes. I said, "That was so good, thank you." I walked away and I was so embarrassed. I actually didn't drink it, but I didn't want him to feel bad. The Holy Spirit told me, "You just lied to him. You got to go tell him, 'Hey, excuse me. I'm sorry, I just--'" Because I don't want to be a liar, and I want to keep my heart clean. I was guilty. I told a lie. That's guilt, but then I was ashamed of it. "I can't believe-- I'm 60 years old, and I'm a pastor, and I'm going to be on a podcast," and I can't believe I'm actually talking about this right now.


    Gary: But shame keeps things in the darkness, like, "I can't talk to him. I can't mention this now because it's going to make me look bad." That's what shame does, but guilt is, "I actually did that wrong. I told a lie. I'm guilty of that." Shame is how I feel about my guilt. I can go and confess. I can make it right. I can feel confident enough to be, and I'm not going to be crushed by talking about this. I can deal with shame. Guilt is, "I did wrong." Shame is, "I am wrong." "I did something bad," is guilt. Shame is, "I am bad, I am worthless, I am no good, I am a liar, I'm a loser. I keep making the same mistakes over and over again."

    The three enemies of the believer is sin, self, or the flesh, and Satan. All three of those are shooting arrows of shame at us. It's this trifecta of, "You are bad," but sometimes shame can also-- Guilt is there, and then the shame starts speaking like you're not doing anything about your guilt. Jeremiah 2, "You ran away from God." That's guilt. Shame starts speaking to you like you're not functioning healthily, you're messing up, so it can draw you back if you allow shame to be functional in the good way, allow shame to draw you to repentance. To be ashamed of our sin, to be ashamed that I lied.

    Probably if I just had guilt and not shame at that point, I might not have repented, but the two together work hand in hand healthily. Now, if I don't repent and I continue-- Shame, when I've done something wrong, can draw me towards repentance and righteousness, as when others have shamed me, then I'm not at fault. The mother who says to the teenage daughter, "What happened to that other 8%," young man who graduates from college and his father doesn't show up for the graduation because he's drunk, or he shows up drunk, there's that shame. It's like somebody else did something to you.

    That's not biblically something that you are called to repent of or feel sorry that you are that way, that you deserve that. That you must have done something wrong for your mother to say that, or your dad to be like that. That is something to be rejected, to be dealt with, to be moved away from your heart.

    Bob: I think everybody's been through a situation you just described. We did something wrong, we feel some shame for doing it, whether that's our personal shame or one that came from someone else. What happens when we let that sit there? When we don't deal with it? What comes into our lives and what gets messed up as a result?

    Gary: When shame has its work in us, it causes us to, as we read in Genesis, third chapter there, it says, "At the moment, their eyes were open, and suddenly they felt shame at their nakedness. They sewed fig leaves to cover themselves," to cover yourself. Then later on, God comes into the cool of the garden and says, "Where are you?" They said, "We hid because we knew we were naked, and we were ashamed." Shame is a hiding. The inner voice of shame, the inner critic of shame says, "You're not good enough, you're not worth enough, you're not loved enough, you're not beloved, you don't belong. You're insignificant." So, we hide ourselves. We don't venture out into really who we are.

    I think at the root of shame is a demonic attempt to stifle who you are actually. You're this joyful, creative, adventurous, other-centered person, and you give and you love to give. That's who you are. Then shame comes in, like, "I tried to give and I was rejected. This person hurt me." Each event is drawing you in more inwardly until your system shuts down and you're saying, "I'm just going to go to work nine to five. I'm not going to make any waves. I'm not going to talk to my-- I'm not going to suggest any new ventures. I'm not going to present this new thing, or I won't maybe look at getting further education for a career."

    There's no risk. It's too scary, because you're already ashamed of who you are and any more failures is just too much to bear. That's why I said earlier, it causes fear, anxiety, stress, boredom, because your shame has you hide who you are. Even when you're at a fellowship, or a party, you're just not being yourself and you have this protective wall. Picture a community group at a church, a core group, care group, whatever they call them. A small group that meets in a church. Let's just say I'm covered with shame and I'm hiding. I'm so full of the sense of I'm not enough. I don't have anything to offer. I'm afraid I'm going to say something wrong.

    I walk into that room. Let's just say I'm with 10 other people, and they all have the same thing to some degree or another. Some are better at being boisterous and compensating for that shame, but they still feel it. They're the aggressive type, and they're the know-it-alls, and they have every scripture verse. Others are taking their shame, and they're doing opposite with it. "I have nothing to offer. I have nothing to say. I just read something really good in Genesis 3, but I don't dare say that, because it may not be good enough." The whole room is filled with these people with these fig leaves around them.

    Shame destroys community. It destroys creativity, and then it destroys peace—a sense of that quiet confidence that we have in the Lord, that he's for me and not against me. Shame, I would say, also masks. One of the problems it does, it masks the voice of the Lord. It filters it the wrong way. So, I was reading the other day. It says Jesus said to his disciples, and he's saying to us too, this blows me away. I can't fathom this.

    Jesus turned to his friends, and he's saying to us, "Hey you guys, I just want you to know something." "Yeah, what is it, Jesus?" "You guys are the light of the world. You light up the world. Everywhere you go, you're brilliant. You're luminous. You guys, there's darkness everywhere. Everywhere you go, you’re brilliantly lit up."

    When I read that, my filter of shame sometimes will say like, "Okay, good admonition. I've really got to try to be the light of the world. I'm not right now, but I'm going to, because I'm going to try harder. I'm going to work at this." Or, "I better not screw this up. He told me I'm the light of the world. That's my job. I'm not doing it well (because I'm full of shame, self-hatred really). I'm going to really work hard at be the light of the world."

    Now you're not coming out of the sense of, "He just called me the light of the world. The King of Kings thinks that well of me." Instead of enjoying that, and then actually glowing in that, basking in that glow of his word over you, you're filtering it through shame, "I'm not good enough. I'm not light enough." Now you're striving for that, and that diminishes the light. You're still hiding yourself, because of being afraid of being ashamed again, of not being worth it again, of not being lovable enough again.

    Bob: Shame certainly short-circuits who we can be and who we are. Does it get in the way of our relationship with God?

    Gary: Totally. Shame it comes through the brain. I'm not a scientist or a doctor here, so please forgive me if this isn't quite accurate. From what I understand, your brain has different elements, and when you're being formed in your mother's womb, the brain stem is the first thing to form. Then it goes up to the secondary of your brain, third, fourth area. The last area to be formed is the one that processes all the thoughts of every other part of your brain. It's the rational. Shame is rationally thinking like, "I'm not enough. I'm a failure."

    We try to deal with it through thinking, "Okay, maybe I should stop thinking that. That's a bad thought. Stop thinking that. I rebuke that thought in Jesus' name." That thought comes from another part of your brain that's deeper inside of you, that is your emotions, and your emotions are-- It's almost unsaid. You can't really-- That's why shame is very difficult. As much as I've read about this, and studied it, and looked at scriptures, it's a hard one to define. I mentioned lying before. I can define lying, it's not telling the truth. Shame, as you could tell, I was having a harder time, even as the authors that wrote whole books on it are having a hard time.

    They say, in their books, it's hard to define. Well, because it's not just in the thought, "I think this," but it's, "I feel this about myself." Then that emotional part of the brain comes from the deepest part of your brain, the very thing that is formed without words. It's the deepest sense of emotion, and so you have this emotional sense of, "Man, I feel something in me. I can't put words to it, but it's something wrong." What's that going to do with this? As we've just been talking about, it's going to hinder us.

    This is a long answer to your question about how it relates to God. That brain that I have is the only brain that I have. It's my mind, the spirit, soul, body, and part of the soul is our mind. Not just the functional brain, but the mind that thinks and feels. All those comes from our mind. You're talking to me, and you're talking to my mind in a sense, and my mind is thinking of things to respond to you. When I relate to God and when God relates to me, it's not a different mind. Does that makes sense? It's not like I have my Christian God mind and my friend, co-worker mind.

    Bob: That schizophrenic, right?

    Gary: Yes.


    Gary: I say all that, it's a long way around to get to the core of what the answer is. The way we relate to others, we don't have a choice to relate to God differently. It's who we are. If there is shame in my mind, if I feel like, "Every time I go to work, when I come home to my wife, when I'm around my kids, I feel like I'm not enough. I'm insignificant, I'm unworthy." If I'm feeling that way, that's my mind saying that's who I am. It's not something that I can escape then when I'm in the presence of God.

    When God says something to me like, "You are the light of the world. You are my beloved son in whom I'm well pleased," it's filtered through that shame. We go like, "Yeah, right, God, sure I'm loved like others you love." You have Christians who-- I've had so many come to me in my pastoral ministry in the counseling office, and say-- They read the Word and they're not reading it incorrectly, but they read it like-- As an example they read about David and Saul. When they're reading about it, they relate to Saul. "I'm a Saul. I'm going to backslide at the end, I'm going to fail."

    Read about the 12 apostles, "Well, I'm the Judas. I'm probably going to backslide." Shame causes us to even read the scriptures in relationship to-- I'm David, not when he says, "Better is one day in the house of the Lord," I'm David staring at Bathsheba. They see themselves, they identify with all the bad, shameful, wrong things, because their mind is saying that's who they are. There is that element of filtering it through that. When they hear a sermon, they pick up on the bad things. They just see that. Instead of the rose-colored lenses, it has this dark lens of—

    Bob: You're talking about unbelief in God's word then. Your view of yourself overrides what God has said about you-

    Gary: That's a good point.

    Bob: -and brings in unbelief. Just this week, I was watching one of one of your dad's sermons. He was talking of unbelief about someone he counseled, who said, "I had this word from God who said He was going to do this for me. It didn't happen." "God doesn't answer prayer," was the unbelief that stood in his way. I guess shame can be that unbelief at the same time, couldn't it?

    Gary: Yes. Shame is so insidious because what it will do then is it will take that realization of unbelief, and instead of repentance and restoration, it shames you even more. I had shame that caused unbelief. I didn't believe God's word. Now I'm ashamed that I didn't believe God's word. It just doubles up, and then it quadruples, and then it goes eight times, just a constant work of increase and increase. It's a devastating thing unless we start looking at ways to escape that, and that's what the Holy Spirit has for us.

    Bob: If we've done something wrong and we believe God had forgiven us of that, does your shame stand in the way of that ever being accomplished, or is there some different dynamic at work there?

    Gary: You're asking if we—

    Bob: If God's forgiven me, I have not forgiven myself. Is that continuing to sin? If I'm not forgiving myself, if God has already forgiven me.

    Gary: It is, yes. It goes to unbelief, but if you don't deal with the shame, it's going to be hard to deal with unbelief. It's almost like if you don't deal with the shame, it's hard to deal with fear. Going back to this girl that got the 8% wrong, so she starts feeling, "I'm unworthy, I'm no good, I'm worthless." God comes up and says, "You can do all things." She doesn't believe that. That's unbelief. She could repent of that and say, "Okay, I'm going to really start believing that," but if she still in her core believes, "I'm no good, I'm worthless," that's going to be a little bit harder to deal with. I'm not saying she is not still responsible for belief. You have to take God's word and believe it no matter what you feel.

    It's not by feelings, it's by faith, so she has to have faith, but her feelings can still work against her to come into a full faith if she doesn't deal with that simply by realizing, "Where did that come from. It didn't come from God. It came from the deceiver. It came from the wicked one. The vessel at that point was the conversation my mother had with me about not being enough, but it's my system of hearing that word and believing about myself things that God has not said about me, believing things that the critic says about myself, that I say about myself, that my flesh says about myself, that the devil says about me."

    We deal with sin and shame. Some shame is as a result of sin, and that repentance works real well with that, but the type of shame that is not sin, like, "I didn't sin, I was sinned against, or I was hurt and it caused me shame," that's not a matter of repentance, that's a matter of healing. I was just in a country in Europe last week, and there was about 2,500 people there. This country is known for being reserved, they're not very emotional, they don't deal with their past, they don't talk a lot or openly about, "This hurt me." It's a very like, "Go to work and do your job" type of culture.

    There's 2,500 people there, and I gave an altar call after speaking on the topic. We might have it online at some point, healing of the wounded heart. I just talked to them about this issue of shame and hurt and woundedness, things that have been said to us that we begin believing these lies about ourselves and it cripples us. Then I gave some hopeful means of escaping that. I gave an altar call. I was expecting because they told me beforehand, "This is not a very emotional crowd." Knowing your subject might not be one that a lot of us can relate to. We can relate to it, but we won't be open about it.

    Out of 2,500 people, I would not be exaggerating if I say maybe 2,000 people came forward at the altar call to respond. Tears, weeping. The sponsors, they were sitting up on the stage with me, they were in shock because we've never seen anything like this. I went down into the crowd and started talking to people. There was a 75-year old man, he said, "I'm 75, and every word you said, the Holy Spirit was just digging in my heart. I've been dealing with this for my whole life." But then he said, "But not really dealing with it, just knowing it's there, but not really facing it, not really confronting it, not really giving it to the Lord. Just feeling like I have to tough it out and be strong in the Lord and claim my…"

    He just says, "I have all these wounds, it hurts and I've never just let the Lord heal them. I never offered them to the Lord and said, 'I'm hurt, my heart is broken over this,' or 'Here's how I feel about myself,' or 'Can you heal this broken image my mind says to me about myself?'" Then next woman I prayed for, she's probably her early 40s maybe, something like that. She brought her six-year-old daughter. She's has tears in her eyes, she says, "I was molested as a little girl, and I just found out last month my six-year-old girl was molested as well by a family member." She goes, "I'm just so--" She felt guilty. She felt shame in a wrong way, "How did I let this happen to my daughter? Did I do something wrong that this happened to me?"

    Shame is working in 2,000 out of 2,500 people so much so that when they have an offer of healing, they run to the altar with tears, saying, "Thank you, Jesus. There's hope.

    Key Questions from the Podcast

    • What is shame? Is shame good or bad?
    • Is there a difference between guilt and shame?
    • What happens if we do not deal with our shame?
    • How does shame affect our relationship with God?

    Notable Quotes from the Podcast

    Shame is sort of like cancer to a degree. Most people don't know they have it until it's really deep in their system. It's really important for people to listen to, to assess, to take an inward look. Paul says examine your hearts. – Gary Wilkerson

    Shame keeps things in the darkness. – Gary Wilkerson

    The three enemies of the believer are sin, self—or the flesh—and Satan. All three of those are shooting arrows of shame at us. It's this trifecta… - Gary Wilkerson

    Shame destroys community. It destroys creativity, and then it destroys peace—a sense of that quiet confidence that we have in the Lord, that he's for me and not against me. Shame also masks the voice of the Lord. It filters it the wrong way. – Gary Wilkerson

    Some shame is a result of sin and requires repentance. Other shame is because you were sinned against and requires healing. – Gary Wilkerson

    Resources Mentioned in the Podcast

    About Gary Wilkerson

    Gary Wilkerson is the President of World Challenge, an international mission organization that was founded by his father, David Wilkerson. He is also the Founding Pastor of The Springs Church, which he launched in 2009 with a handful of people. He has traveled nationally and internationally at conferences and conducted mission ventures such as church planting, starting orphanages, clinics, feeding programs among the poorest of the poor and the most unreached people of the earth. Gary and his wife Kelly have four children and live in Colorado Springs, CO.

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