Exposing the Truth about Honor and Shame: The 4 Dimensions Christians Must Understand

This article, co-authored with Jackson Wu, was originally posted at Christianity Today on Ed Stetzer’s blog (Feb 16).

Shame is getting exposed, finally.

Commentators now observe how Western culture, especially the millennial generation, is becoming more shame-prone. Consequently, more Westerners are seeking release from the dis-ease of shame—that dreadful feeling of unworthiness and isolation.

Building on the popular books and TED talks from shame-researcher Brene Brown, evangelical authors like Christine Caine, Lecrae, and others have written books about becoming Unashamed. They share a common message: You shouldn’t feel ashamed, so stop listening to the condemning voices of others. For Christians who have known the gospel as simply the forgiveness of trespasses (i.e., salvation from our guilt), this news about salvation from shame can be truly liberating.

While this “gospel for shame” is true, it not entirely true.

The assumptions of Western psychology shape the common perception of shame as a negative, internal emotion of low self-esteem. This individualistic, subjective view of shame limits our reading of Scripture. So if we are going to expose shame, let’s expose it for what it really is.

In the Bible, honor and shame have multiple dimensions.

Shame, subjective and objective

Shame sucks. We humans often feel inferior for the wrong reasons: an abnormality, an embarrassing incident, or an abusive comment. God heals us from that subjective, personal experience of disgrace. But interestingly, sometimes shame can be good.

A sanctified conscience has a proper sense of shame (Mal 1:6–9). God wanted Israel to feel shame (Ezek 16:60–63), and Paul deliberately evoked shame among the Corinthians (1 Cor 6:5; 15:34). So, people aren’t created to be entirely shameless.

But, there is another, far more serious type of shame—objective, theological shame. As disloyal children, our sin despises (Num 14:11; 1 Sam 2:30; Mal 1:6), scorns (2 Sam 12:14; Prov 14:31), and dishonors (Prov 30:9; Rom 1:21–23; 2:23) our heavenly Father. People fail to honor God (Rom 3:23).

Moreover, our dishonoring sin brings shame upon ourselves. Recall Adam and Eve. They were naked yet unashamed, but then their disobedience made them feel unworthy of God’s presence. God said about Israel, “They sinned against Me; I will change their glory into shame” (Hos 4:7). In the Bible, shame is far more than a psychological issue; it is a theological problem: God’s honor has been robbed, and humans are in shame.

The crippling shame we feel before other people is ultimately rooted in our objective shame before God.

Fortunately, Jesus solves the entire problem of shame. As a faithful son who honored the Father, he atones for our objective shame before God and liberates us from subjective shame. Paul and Peter both declare, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame” (Rom 10:13; 1 Pet 2:6; cf. Isa 28:26; 45:17).

Honor, objective and subjective

Not only does Christ remove our shame, he also restores our honor.

To use Reformed language, God imputes his own glory to us. Jesus said, “I have given them the glory that you have given me” (John 17:22; cf. Rom 2:10). Believers will be glorified and honored with Jesus (2 Thess 1:12; 2:14). Our status is transformed. God turns our “shame into praise and renown in all the earth” (Zeph 3:19). As Peter summarizes, “So the honor is for you who believe” (1 Pet 2:7).

The gospel changes believers’ group identity; we now belong to the people of God (Eph 2:10–20). This transforms our subjective sense of honor. We no longer need to “build a name for ourselves” (Gen 11:4) or do shameful things (Rom 6:21). Rather, we seek glory, honor, and praise from God (Rom 2:7, 29). Even Jesus explains true faith in terms of glory:

“How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (John 5:44)

Theological Implications

A fuller perspective on honor and shame makes our worldview more biblical. At the one level, understanding honor and shame as cultural values helps us interpret Scripture according to its original social context. In light of honor and shame, we can make better sense David’s adultery, the prodigal Son, and even Paul’s purpose in writing Romans.

But honor and shame are not just merely anthropological categories; they are foremost theological realities essential for an fully biblical view of theological doctrines, such as like the image of God, sin, Christ’s death, atonement, justification, and eternal judgment.

Practical Applications

A broader, more biblical perspective of honor-shame enables more holistic ministries. For example, honor and shame can influence the following areas of ministry:

Countless applications exist. As you look around, how might honor and shame influence your life and ministry?

To learn more, we invite you to join us at the 2017 Honor-Shame Conference at Wheaton College, June 19–21. This event brings together biblical scholars, theologians, missiologists, and practitioners for learning and collaboration on the topic of honor-shame.

Jackson Wu is a professor of theology and missiology for Chinese pastors in East Asia. He blogs at jacksonwu.org. His books include Saving God’s Face and One Gospel for All Nations.

Jayson Georges is founding editor of www.HonorShame.com. His most recent book is Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures.

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2 Comments on “Exposing the Truth about Honor and Shame: The 4 Dimensions Christians Must Understand

  1. I’ve been reading “The Mis-Reading of Scripture Through Western Eyes”. I’m curious if you have read it, Jayson, and what you think of their section on honor-shame. I appreciate their distinction between shame and being shamed. I think I hadn’t recognized that difference before. You’ve probably elucidated that in the past and I just missed it.
    My biggest struggle with these concepts is how deeply I don’t think this way and therefore how difficult it is to truly shift my paradigm so that I think and talk and address issues from this different angle. Lots of work to do.

    • Duke—Yes, Misreading Scripture Through Western Eyes is great! Our organization actually use it for pre-field training for cross-cultural workers. The chapter on honor and shame does a good job explaining the topic (though I might disagree on their David/Bathsheba interpretation: https://honorshame.com/did-bathsheba-seduce-david/).

      And yes, the idea of honor-shame remains foreign for me as well, even after years of study. I compare learning a new cultural paradigm like honor-shame to a second language—Yes, I think and speak in Russian after years of study, but it is still hard, tiring, and not natural compared to speaking English. Also, I didn’t learn Russian by reading a book or two, but mostly by being immersed in it…the same with honor-shame cultures. And the final comparison to language learning…it takes time and lots of mistakes to really learn a new cultural/moral paradigm.

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