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Understanding the Biblical Concept of Shame

by Robert L. Cobb
-Administrator, News For Christians Dot Com

On Friday, July 18th, 2003, basketball star Kobe Bryant was charged with the sexual assault of a 19-year-old hotel worker in Eagle, Colorado.  Soon afterward, he issued a statement in which he denied the charge but admitted to sexual contact with the woman. The statement included the words: "...I sit here before you embarrassed and ashamed for committing adultery..."  Can you imagine being forced to admit your sin and failure before the whole world?

It is not often that a news story captivates the whole of society as this one has done.  As Christians, we should always look for spiritual truth and opportunities to witness in every current event.  Now is a perfect time to study the Biblical concept of shame. Shame is a word that reminds us of embarrassment, remorse, guilt, humiliation, and disgrace. We will see in our study that the Bible teaches a twofold truth about shame: a positive truth and a negative.  The concept of shame is a barometer of a society's goodness and an individual Christian's closeness to His God.

I.   Shame was First Seen in the Garden.  In Genesis 2:25 we read, "And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed."  Human beings were created by God as innocent creatures, perfect in the image of God Himself.  The meaning here is that Adam and Eve were not "self-conscious" about their nakedness.  As a little child can run and cavort without clothes and have no shame, so did the first couple.  There was no sin against God or each other...No evil thoughts...No harsh words...No unhealthy desires...All of nature was in the perfect will of God.

But after sin entered, the Bible says in verse seven, "And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons."How and why did shame enter the picture?  Many have used these verses to cast a bad light on the sexual act, saying that sex is in-and-of- itself wrong and sinful.  There is no basis for such an intrepetation.

From where did the first instance of shame arise?  Let us examine this question from a couple of angles.  First, Adam and Eve saw their humanity as being unlike God.  God was both their Creator and their Companion.  He was their Model and the Object of their worship.  Certainly God was not a sexual creature.  But the animals all around them were sexual creatures!  This "opening" of their eyes revealed contrasts with their God.  In their innocence, they had never contemplated this truth. 

Second, their sin separated them from each other.  God had made them "one flesh."  Before their sin, Adam and Eve functioned like Siamese twins.  Each of their thoughts and actions were anticipated and approved by the other.  Their sexual union had been mutually joyous and perfectly compatable.  Now they saw each other in their sin and imperfection.  When sin entered, selfishness entered.  Contrasting desires entered.  Uncertainty of each other entered. 

Lastly, they now looked within themselves and saw weakness and inadequacy.  Whereas before, there was no sef-awareness at all, now there was self-doubt and a sense of unworthiness.

Thus, shame entered the world at the same time sin did.  Shame is a result of sin, an extension of sin.  Adam and Eve believed the Serpent's half-truth that they would be as Gods, knowing good and evil. Now they had a working knowledge of both, and shame is the result.

II.  Shame Implies a Perfect Standard Not Met.  Shame is the sense of "not measuring up."  Kobe Bryant admitted that his sexual dalliance with a young woman (if we believe his contention that there was no rape) was wrong and dishonorable.  But by whose standards?  By society's standards?  By his own personal standards?  By his family standards?  It is interesting to notice that Bryant used the word "adultery" in his statement.  That is a Bible word.  It is a word that is not used often in our culture today.

Our Bible is God's revelation of Himself. Regardless of society's opinions, God has decreed that He is the perfect standard by which we are measured.  (Lev. 11:44) "For I am the LORD your God: ye shall therefore sanctify yourselves, and ye shall be holy; for I am holy." (Isa. 6:3) "And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory."  (Exodus 15:11)  "Who is like unto thee, O LORD, among the gods? who is like thee, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders?"

We live in a time of situation ethics.  "What's right for you may not be right for me; and what's wrong for you may not be wrong for me."  Modern day philosophers contend that right and wrong are constantly changing and we should not judge the deeds and motives of another.  Yet humankind still at times displays a sense of shame and guilt.

III. Shame Can Be an Instrument of a Merciful God.  Historically, this country's laws and principles are based on the Bible and the Judeo-Christian concept of God.  He is the standard.  He is the measuring stick.  (Rom. 3:23)  "For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;"  (Rom.11:32) "For God hath concluded them all in unbelief..."  (Ecc. 7:20)  "For there is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not."   We, as God's creation, have reason to be ashamed of ourselves and our actions.  In Psalm 44, David speaks to God about shame.

  But thou hast saved us from our enemies, and hast put them to shame that hated us.
  In God we boast all the day long, and praise thy name for ever. Selah.
  But thou hast cast off, and put us to shame; and goest not forth with our armies.
Psalm 44:7-9

Notice how God used shame in the lives of Israel's enemies and in their lives as well.  Shame is an instrument of God.  Shame is the result of our own sin.  Did not Peter, when he denied the Lord, go out and weep bitterly over his sin?  Notice too, Israel's attitude in Jeremiah's day. (Jeremiah 3:25) "We lie down in our shame, and our confusion covereth us: for we have sinned against the LORD our God, we and our fathers, from our youth even unto this day, and have not obeyed the voice of the LORD our God."

IV.  Lack of Shame Is Evidence of a Decayed Society.  "I don't care what people think!  It doesn't matter what they say! I'll hold my head up high no matter what!  Never let them see you sweat!  Never give in, never admit that you're wrong."  These are the statements of a society in decay.  But this attitude is not new.

  ...thou hast played the harlot with many lovers; yet return again to me, saith the LORD.
  Lift up thine eyes unto the high places...thou hast polluted the land with thy whoredoms and with thy wickedness.
  Therefore the showers have been withholden, and there hath been no latter rain; and thou hadst a whore's forehead, thou refusedst to be ashamed.
Jeremiah 3:1-3

On November 26th, 1996, a middle age couple sat comfortably in their Eustis, Florida home.  A 16 year old self professed "vampire" and occult follower named Rod Farrell creeped inside, and in a drug induced stupor, clubbed them both to death with a tire iron.  He then stole their van parked outside and drove to pick up his friends.  Why do I tell this story?  Later, after he had been sentenced to death, he was asked, "How did you feel when you killed them?'  His answer, "I didn't."  The psychologists testified that he had a "personality disorder" which caused him to be anti-social. 

Other stories like this can be told one after another.  The woman who ran into a man with her car, watched him die lodged in her windshield with her car sitting in her garage, never called 9-1-1.  The rap singers, who sing of raping women, killing policemen, and selling drugs to little schoolkids, do it for the money and the shock value.

A member of the news media stated recently that Kobe Bryant's arrest for rape could have "street value."  He went on to explain that Kobe was not considered as an icon or role model by the urban,ethnic teens and young adults.  He has been seen as an "establishment" personality up until his arrest.  Now he might be considered more like "one of them."  Such a statement is an affront to minorities and an example of the decay of our culture.

  But they refused to hearken, and pulled away the shoulder, and stopped their ears, that they should not hear.
 Yea, they made their hearts as an adamant stone, lest they should hear the law, and the words which the LORD of hosts hath sent in his spirit by the former prophets...
Zech 7:11-12

V.  Shame for the Christian Can be a Negative.
There are two aspects of the Biblical concept of shame.  We have examined shame as an instrument of God and as lacking in our society and culture.  We would be remiss if we did not include a few words about misplaced shame.  This passage may explain it best...

  For whosoever shall be ashamed of me and of my words, of him shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he shall come in his own glory, and in his Father's, and of the holy angels.
Luke 9:26

As Christians, we get the concept of shame all wrong. We find ourselves ashamed of the godly aspects of our lives and proud of the ungodly ones.  Jesus promises serious ramifications for this misplaced shame.  Paul said expressly: "For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ..."  (Romans 1:16)  We owe it to our God to stand true and not be ashamed of His claims on our lives.

Ps 119:80   Let my heart be sound in thy statutes; that I be not ashamed.
Ps 119:116   Uphold me according unto thy word, that I may live: and let me not be ashamed of my hope.
Romans 5:5  And hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us.
Romans 10:11  For the scripture saith, Whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed.
1 Pet. 4:16  Yet if any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God on this behalf.

VI.   Our Own Shame Should be Evaluated and Dealt With. What shall be our attitude toward our shame?  Will we follow the advice of the psycho-analyst who tells us to forget our past sins and shameful behavior?  Will we bury our shame and move on?  Our will we bring our shame to God, who alone can deal with it and ease our pain?

  And at the evening sacrifice I arose up from my heaviness; and having rent my garment and my mantle, I fell upon my knees, and spread out my hands unto the LORD my God,
  And said, O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift up my face to thee, my God: for our iniquities are increased over our head, and our trespass is grown up unto the heavens.
  And now for a little space grace hath been shewed from the LORD our God, to leave us a remnant to escape, and to give us a nail in his holy place, that our God may lighten our eyes, and give us a little reviving in our bondage.
  For we were bondmen; yet our God hath not forsaken us in our bondage, but hath extended mercy unto us... to give us a reviving, to set up the house of our God, and to repair the desolations thereof, and to give us a wall in Judah and in Jerusalem.
Ezra 9:5, 6, 8, 9

At this writing, it is not apparent what will happen to Kobe Bryant.  Everyone has their opinion of his guilt or innocence.  But we do not know, nor can we say what happened.  But we can say that God knows, and the shame Kobe Bryant felt at that July 18th press conference is a good thing.  His shame was the instrument of God to bring him to repentance and be a warning to us not to follow in his path.

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