Popular, secular therapy proclaims the evils of shame. It’s wrong. Sure, shame is misused and abused, but deep-shame—deep shame alone—offers our only hope of grace-based healing. As J. I. Packer once suggested, “Seek the grace to be ashamed.” (This is a response to the anti-shame rant in the world around us.)
Scripture tells two stories of boatload catches of fish, the first at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (Luke 5:4-8) and the second at the end (John 21:2-7). In both stories:
- Professional fishermen fish all night.
- Their night of fishing is fruitless; not a single fish is caught.
- The following morning, an amateur offers unsolicited and unusual directions.
- The fishermen obey and catch so many fish that their boats begin to sink.
Despite their similarities, there is one, huge difference. After the first miracle, Peter exclaims to Jesus, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man.” After the second, Peter casts himself into the sea and breaks an Olympic-record-freestyle to get close to Jesus.
What changed in Peter that drove him to Jesus? He had finally experienced deep shame.
The modern world hates shame
Shame is a feeling that attacks the core of our spirit. Guilt is the thought “I DID something bad.” Shame is the belief “I AM something bad.” Guilt attacks our actions; shame attacks our being:
- Shame is the intensely painful feeling . . . of believing we are [deeply] flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance. (Brene Brown)
- Shame . . . is that sense of unease with yourself at the heart of your being (David Atkinson).
Shallow-shame nurtures an intense concentration on ourselves. We feel our flawed nature and we frantically try to fix it. Tim Keller asks,
What is the opposite of Righteousness? Evil? No, the opposite of righteousness is shame, and we do everything in our power to try to cover it.
We frantically cover ourselves with desperate attempts at perfection. We “hustle for our worthiness by constantly performing, perfecting, pleasing, and proving” (Brene Brown).
Shallow-shame breeds self-focus; but self-obsession is the root-cause of every problem in the world. Oppression, betrayal, and greed are all birthed by self-centeredness.
So what are we to do with shame?
Modern therapists suggest we dump shame and embrace worthiness. Secular Brene Brown writes, “The greatest challenge for most of us is believing that we are worthy now, right this minute. As is.” (Without the cross, it’s the opposite of grace.) *
Brown’s therapy teaches non-biblical, gospel substitution, self-hypnosis. It’s The Little Engine That Could, huffing and puffing, “I think I’m worthy, I think I’m worthy.” Scripture disagrees with Brown. Jeremiah says his generation’s problem was lack of shame:
Were they ashamed when they committed abomination? No, they were neither ashamed nor even knew how to blush. Therefore they shall fall (Jer. 6:15).
Mark Twain agreed with Scripture (amazingly) when he said,
Man is the only animal that blushes. And the only animal that needs to.
God’s answer to shame is deep-shame
The first time Jesus creates the miracle of the great catch of fish, Peter rightly senses his own unworthiness and asks, “Depart from me because I am a sinful man.” He is saying, “Leave me alone until I claim my own self-worth.” (Brown would be proud.)
Right before the final miraculous catch, Peter finally experiences deep-shame. He had just denied Jesus three times. He is not the brave man he self-proclaimed. He’s a coward. And that deep-shame finally drove him to God’s grace.
This is all that’s required for deep communion with God: to come empty, to admit we are unworthy. Everything else is smoke and mirror therapy.
A life without regret
Shallow-shame leads to self-claimed worth. Just before his denials, Peter exclaimed, “Those other disciples may deny you but I never will.” Then his self-proclaimed worthiness failed. When the cock crows three times, he finally experiences deep shame.
Paul explains the differing results between deep-shame repentance and shallow-shame self-proclamation:
Godly-grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly-grief produces death (2 Cor. 7:10).
Godly-grief (at deep-shame) leads to deep repentance and a life without regret.
Shame isn’t the problem, it’s what we do with the shame. We can be angry and sin not; we can also be ashamed and despair not. In fact, we can finally find life.
Every human wants an enduring love and worth. Therefore we need something stronger than self-hypnosis. We need grace. Grace says God loves us just because he loves us. His love doesn’t depend on what we do or what we claim.
That’s why Paul can write, “Nothing can separate us from the love of God which is ours through Christ Jesus” (not through our self-worth proclamation). Deep-shame can drive us to grace. Let’s seek the grace to be ashamed and yield to grace; no striving, no hypnosis. He loves us because he loves us. That can never be removed.
We come to God in little empty boats till we overflow with more than we can imagine.
* I like Brene Brown, especially her call to vulnerability and her battle against using shame to bully others. But her secular answers are substitutes for the gospel; they don’t require the death of the beloved Son of God.
Our solution is not: “believing we are worthy at this moment.” Our solution is to receive worth from the Son on the cross.