As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame (Romans 10:11).”

Wake up from your drunken stupor, as is right, and do not go on sinning. For some have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame (1 Corinthians 15:34).”

Are the above passages contradictory, or is there some key to understanding how they can both be integrated?

Our culture these days seems to be filled with so much toxic shame. It is akin to condemning others, as though we, as mere humans, would presume to place ourselves on the throne of God to issue decrees about the condition of another person that has a self-righteous air of finality about them. A person made in the likeness of God is so often unjustly accused, judged, and offered no hope to transform by another imperfect person or group. Such hateful accusers seem to be operating in the devil’s domain. (Satan actually means “the accuser”.) Unfortunately, this kind of attitude and action is not confined to non-religious folk, as James reminds us:

With the tongue, we praise our Lord and Father, and with it, we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness (James 3:9).”

On the other hand, some people have reacted to the relational problems toxic shame has left in its wake, that they assume that there is absolutely no place in human life and community for shame. They can’t imagine that there might be such a thing as healthy shame. It’s like we are being driven by some prominent voices in our day to pretend that all shame is categorically and intrinsically evil.

However, the Scriptures, life, and even brain science reveal that there is a place to experience shame that is meant and used for good – healthy shame. Sadly, many, if not most, people have never had healthy shame messages come their way. The only shame they’ve known is the toxic kind. As a result, people are fiercely defended against receiving any kind of correction from others and an epidemic of shameless runaway narcissism has resulted in our culture, organizations, and even churches.

Even so, being known as a “shameless” person is not a good thing in our world!

So, like so many things, there is a “third way”; a “radical middle solution” between the extremes of being shameless or shameful. The apostle Paul alludes to this in 2 Corinthians 7:8-10:

For even if I made you sorry with my letter, I do not regret it; though I did regret it. For I perceive that the same epistle made you sorry, though only for a while. Now I rejoice, not that you were made sorry, but that your sorrow led to repentance. For you were made sorry in a godly manner, that you might suffer loss from us in nothing. For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death.

Notice these things about the passage:

  • There is “godly sorrow” that leads to repentance (literally, a change of mind) and transformation.
  • There is a “sorrow of the world” that leads to death.
  • Paul temporarily regretted that he had made them sorrowful, but he wasn’t regretful in the end, because his correction landed well.
  • Paul wasn’t glad to make them sorry, but he was glad that their necessary and temporary sorrow was useful. It led to them not losing out on many good things God had for them to gain.
  • Offering healthy correction is laced with challenges.

According to the extensive and proven research of Life Model Works, the circuit in our brain that triggers the big emotion of shame is the same circuit triggered for both toxic and healthy shame. The vital difference is how we learn to process and handle these kinds of experiences. Toxic shame must be resisted, while healthy shame must be received. In order for our character to change, our brain needs to be temporarily disrupted from its status quo. The prick of pain that happens when a healthy shame message comes our way is meant to alert us that a change in our lives is in order and being called for. It provides a memorable foothold for us to push off from to get the lift we need to more easily “mind our Father” in the future. 

A healthy shame message always gives a clear answer to who we really are and how we would act as our best selves. Hope arises from seeing who we really are in God’s sight and that we can now live and act that way. The powerful feeling of shame is meant to pass through us and not be our normal state. The emotion of shame is meant to be metabolized. However, toxic shame is hard for us to turn into anything good. It only serves to corrupt our identity and character. It seeks to incarcerate us into “badness” and leave us no hope for change. As a result, many people have, to their own detriment, become entirely shame avoidant.

“For the commandment is a lamp, and the law a light; Reproofs of instruction are the way of life…. (Proverbs 6:23).”

Finally, here is the big challenge for the people of God: healthy shame messaging can only become effective when a multi-generational community has built a culture over time that is undergirded with substantial and authentic relational joy, deep hesed* love, and healthy group identity.

Here is a hint from Scripture about how healthy shame is offered: “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted. (Galatians 6:1)

Receiving and giving healthy correction is a relational art form we desperately need to recover in our day. To learn more about the vast difference between toxic and healthy shame, join a Life Model Study Group that is built around the book The Other Half of Church by Jim Wilder and Michel Hendricks.

*hesed is one of the rich Hebrew words for love that takes a paragraph in English to fully explain.

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