There are several things that help break the power of shame and deliver us from its paralyzing grip.
(1) We wage war against the lies that bring shame by fighting for faith in the forgiveness of God. In other words, belief in the truth of the gospel is the power to overcome shame.
The prostitute who anointed the feet of Jesus with ointment and wet them with her tears had much of which to be ashamed. She was a “sinner” and an outcast. But Jesus pronounced that her sins were forgiven and told her to “go in peace” (Luke 7:36-50). Jesus overcame her shame by promising that her sins were forgiven and that she could now live “in peace.” She could have chosen to believe the condemnation and judgment of the other guests, and remain mired in shame. Or she could choose to believe that Jesus had truly forgiven all her sins. The way to wage war against the unbelief that we are not truly forgiven is to trust the promise of Christ.
The solution to sin in our culture is to celebrate it, brag about it, join in a public parade to declare your pride in it. Thus, people tend to cope with the pain and weight of guilt by simply declaring that the behavior in question isn’t bad after all. It’s actually quite good and will contribute to my sense of identity and flourishing in life. As someone said, “By denying sin, they attempt to take away its sting.”
But the solution for shame isn’t celebration or denial but forgiveness. The message of Scripture is that you are probably far worse than even you can imagine, but that you are far more loved than you could ever possibly conceive. You can’t solve your struggle with shame. Only Jesus can. And God’s immeasurable and inconceivable love for you was demonstrated and put on display by his sending of his Son Jesus to endure the judgment you deserved.
Some of you think that the solution to your shame is to try harder, do more, obey with greater intensity. Sometimes you are tempted to create even more rules and commands than are found in the Bible and by legalistically abiding by them all you hope to suppress or diminish or perhaps even destroy your feelings of inadequacy and shame and worthlessness. No! The solution is found in only one place: the cross of Christ, where Jesus took your shame upon himself and endured the judgment of God that you and I deserved.
(2) We overcome the crippling power of shame when the Holy Spirit strengthens us to trust and experience the reality of God’s immeasurable love for us in Christ.
“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:14-21).
The Holy Spirit is directly responsible for making possible our experience of feeling and rejoicing in the love God has for us in Christ.
(3) We break free from shame when the Holy Spirit awakens us to the glorious and majestic truth that we are truly the children of God.
“For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom. 8:15-16).
“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God” (Gal. 4:4-7).
Notice that in both texts the experiential, felt assurance of our adoption as the children of God is the direct result of the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts.
(4) We win in the war against shame when, by the power of the Spirit, we turn our hearts to the unbreakable promise of Christ that nothing can separate us from his love.
“But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me. Follow the pattern of sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you” (2 Tim. 1:12b-14).
Here we see that Paul overcomes the tendency to be ashamed by trusting the truth of God’s promise that he will guard him. It is “by the Holy Spirit” that we find the strength to guard the good deposit of the gospel. “The battle against misplaced shame,” says John Piper, “is the battle against unbelief in the promises of God.” As Paul elsewhere says, “everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame” (Rom. 10:11).
(5) When we are made to feel shame for something that we didn’t do, we conquer its power by entrusting our souls and eternal welfare to the truth and justice of God.
“But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore, do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God” (1 Cor. 4:3-5).
In other words, explains Piper, “for all the evil and deceitful judgment and criticism that others may use to heap on us a shame that is not ours to bear, and for all the distress and spiritual warfare it brings, the promise stands sure that they will not succeed in the end. All the children of God will be vindicated. The truth will be known. And no one who banks his hope on the promises of God will be put to shame.”
(6) We overcome the enslaving power of shame by confidently believing that the promises of God of a glorious and more satisfying inheritance are true.
“By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered the reproach [or shame] of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward. (Heb. 11:24-26).
The “reproach of Christ” likely means the public disdain, rejection, and shame that one experiences from unbelievers for having prized Christ above all earthly praise, possessions, or promotion. He strengthened his soul to endure undeserved shame by fixing his faith on the promises yet to come.