Shame, whether it comes from the outside or from within, has great power over us emotionally. We are hardwired to hear the voice of shame as the loudest of all voices. It’s as if the volume is turned all the way down for praise and affirmation, and all the way up for condemnation.
I’ll never forget when Mariah Carey, then a beloved diva who had more No. 1 hits than anyone in the history of music except for Elvis Presley and The Beatles, said in an interview that she can hear a thousand praises and just one criticism, and the criticism will completely drown out the voices of the thousand praises.
Ever since that interview, I have had a special fondness for Mariah Carey. Not only did she tell the honest truth about herself, she also told the honest truth about me.
Most of the time, I walk around with a lurking and unsettling feeling of shame. Usually the feeling is vague, but it’s there as a constant undercurrent. When I get an email and the subject line says, “We need to talk” or “About your sermon,” my impulse is to start panicking internally. Before I even know what the person wants to discuss, my internal voice starts shouting, “You have blown it this time.”
It’s as if I’m hardwired to expect accusation and condemnation. There’s a part of me that’s constantly waiting for the shoe to drop, to be exposed and rejected, known and not loved.
Shame also has power over us socially. Think of people like Justine Sacco, a PR consultant who was publicly shamed on Twitter after her poorly worded, misinterpreted joke tweet went viral. She lost her job and her good reputation.
Similar to those who shame and publicly air their grievances today, the New Testament Pharisees were also known to “look down on others with contempt.” It’s there in Simon the Pharisee as he shames the woman anointing Jesus with perfume and washing His feet with her tears and hair. She is “a sinner.” Not a person, but a thing. Not a woman, but an animal. Not the image of God, but sub-human trash.
What Our Shame And Shaming Tells Us About Ourselves
The pious Pharisee’s righteous indignation is merely a mask for self-justification. Forming a mob around a common enemy—around “the sinners”—was the groupthink of insecure men looking for a way to medicate their fragile egos at the expense of a scapegoat.
When tempted to join the mob and to shame, it’s really important for us to shift our eyes away from our screens, and to turn our eyes toward the mirror instead. It’s important to get to the bottom of why we, too, enjoy the caricature and the labeling, and why we, too, are prone to “like” and “share” when someone else’s whole life is reduced to their most foolish, offensive public moment.
Brene Brown answers the “Why do we shame others?” question as follows:
After studying vulnerability, shame and authenticity for the past decade, here’s what I’ve learned: A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically and spiritually wired to love, to be loved and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We hurt others.
We shame and respond unlovingly to others because deep down, we feel that our own need for love and belonging are not being met. We shame because we feel ashamed. We hurt because we are hurting. When we accuse and tear others down with words, when we gossip and slander instead of sharing our concerns directly and privately and in love, when we nurse, enforce and broadcast our grudges instead of forgiving as God in Christ has forgiven us (Matthew 18:15-35), it shows that we, too, are dealing with the demons of shame.
The Healing Of Shame
Before moving to Nashville to become the pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church, I got to spend five years learning from and serving alongside Dr. Timothy Keller at New York City’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church. Tim is an amazing preacher and movement leader, and during those five years, I came to admire a lot of things about him. But one of the things I admire most is that Tim is the best example I have ever seen of covering shame with the Gospel.
In five years, never once did I see Tim tearing another person down to their face, on the Internet or through gossip. Instead, he seemed to always assume the good in people. Occasionally, he would talk about how having the forgiveness and affirmation of Jesus frees us for this—for “catching people doing good” instead of looking for things to criticize or be offended by. Even when someone had been in error, Tim would respond with humble restraint and self-reflection instead of venting negativity and criticism.
He did this because that’s what grace does; it reminds us that, in Jesus, we are shielded and protected from the worst things about ourselves. Because Jesus shields us like this, we should of all people be zealous to restore reputations versus destroying reputations, to protect a good name versus calling someone a name, to shut down gossip versus feeding gossip, to restore broken relationships versus begrudging broken people.
Tim could receive criticism, even criticism that was unfair, and it wouldn’t wreck him. He taught me that our critics, including the ones who understand us the least, can be God’s instruments to teach and humble us:
First, you should look to see if there is a kernel of truth in even the most exaggerated and unfair broadsides. Even if the censure is partly or even largely mistaken, look for what you may indeed have done wrong. Perhaps you simply acted or spoke in a way that was not circumspect. Maybe the critic is partly right for the wrong reasons. Nevertheless, identify your own shortcomings, repent in your own heart before the Lord for what you can, and let that humble you. It will then be possible to learn from the criticism and stay gracious to the critic even if you have to disagree with what he or she has said.
Brennan Manning once said that only reckless confidence in a source greater than ourselves can empower us to forgive the wounds inflicted by others. That same confidence can also empower us to stop inflicting wounds and to start catching people doing good instead.
The Source Brennan Manning was speaking of is the same source drawn on by Tim Keller and millions of others who have tasted release from shaming and living ashamed. That source is the voice of Jesus, properly amplified to drown out the voices of shame from outside and within. It’s the voice that, having absorbed every bit of our shame on the cross, now shouts to us:
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus … If God is for us, who can be against us? … Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justified. Who is to condemn? … Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? … For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:1, 31-39).
Let’s turn the volume up on this, shall we? Because when the volume goes up on this, the voices of shame can’t help but be silenced.
An earlier version of this article appeared on scottsauls.com. Used with permission.
Scott Sauls is senior pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee and author of several books. He also blogs weekly at scottsauls.com, and can be found on social media at @scottsauls.