A Look at Shame and God-Given Nobility

Posted by Ian Rhoades on


Guilt and shame, it’s a messy part of ourselves that we do not want to examine. The terms creep into our language, but we don’t know how to distinguish between the two. Often used interchangeably even though the meaning of the two words are distinct. Guilt is linked to our actions and can not be separated. Guilt points to something we did. I am guilty of road rage when I yell expletives in my car after being cut off in heavy traffic. Shame, however, associates with our feelings and develops our identity. I identify in shame when I yell in traffic and I consider myself an angry person, a trait I find undesirable. Shame is a voice trying to tell us who we are. Lewis Smedes in his book, Shame and Grace, discusses the power of shame to destroy and to affirm. Both an appropriate healthy shame and an inappropriate unhealthy shame exist in us. Shame is built into our anthropology. We were created in the image of God, a noble position, yet we often fall short of living up to this nobility. The doctrine of total depravity tells us that every single person to walk this earth has been unable to live up to the person they were meant to be.

Shame signals to us our own value by telling us that we fall short. “If we feel like a flawed person it is because we are in fact flawed.” [1] Smedes argues that shame is healthy when it motivates us to avoid the acts that extend our flaws. “A healthy sense of shame is perhaps the surest sign of our divinity origin and our human dignity. When we feel this sense of shame, we feel a nudge from our true selves.” [2] A Christian realizes that she fails to live a life which is congruent with the honor in which she was created. It is only when we lose our nobility that our shame becomes unhealthy.

We listen to our shame and believe that our feelings define who we are. Characterized by our actions, we create self-fulfilling prophecies. Acts of disgracefulness become oddly addictive, and we do them because we believe that we should be doing them. We believe that we should act as the unworthy person we think we are.

For example, in school, I feel better when I receive a B or C on an assignment than when I receive an A. If I get an A then I don’t consider that I earned it, I say the class was just easy. I do not allow myself to say that I was good enough to earn an A. Why do I feel this way? Smedes recalls a similar experience of one of his students. He maps out the pattern of shame trapping people. “First, he succeeds in order to win [an authorities figures] approval. Then he feels shame for having the success he was not worthy to have. Third, since he was unworthy of success, he felt obligated to fail the next time he tried.” [3] An ashamed person feels shame simply because he believes he should.

Often times a church can be a loud voice telling us we are unworthy. “Graceless religion tells us, that to be acceptable, we must live up to the customs and shun the taboos of its tradition. It shames us when we do what it forbids and do not do what it requires.” [4] Often our churches make claims that we can only belong there if we follow their guidelines. Of course, there are exceptions given to new believers, but as time passes the expectation to fall in line grows.

One of the biggest expectations of the church is that a believer has gratitude for the love of Jesus, as if, his love is dependent on our ability to be grateful. The hymn, I Gave My Life for Thee by Frances R Havergal embodies this point.

I gave, I gave my life to thee.
What hast thou given to me?

Or maybe you have been told “he gave his life you, what are you going to give to him?” The idea is the same, we are only worthy of Jesus loving us if we will eventually be able to pay him back.

Unfortunately, I know that I am a really poor investment. I will never be good enough to pay Jesus back even a fraction of what He has given me for free. So why should I even try? If Jesus really does not find me worthy of His love unless I can stop my sinning, then it certainly is a waste of time and energy to continue to act as if Jesus loved me. If I think I am worthless and if the church tells me that my actions are not enough, then why does God say I am deserving?

At first glance, it seems illogical that humankind is both prone to great evil yet still be nobility. How can a man be both sinful and totally unable to appease God and yet worthy of grace? (Romans 8:8) Yet there is a difference between being undeserving and being unworthy. Smedes explains it as such “If I deserve some good thing that comes my way, it is because I did something to earn it. If I am worthy, it is because I am somebody of enormous value.” [5]

Grace is an undeserved gift. A loving gift giver always believes it is worth it for the receiver to gain the gift or he would never give the gift in the first place. God has accepted our actions against Him because He always thinks his creation is worthy of Him. This acceptance is what we desperately long for. “Being accepted is the single most compelling need of our lives; no human being can be a friend of herself while at the edges of her consciousness she feels a persistent fear that she may not be accepted by others.” [6] Grace tells us despite all our flaws we never lost our worth to God.

Grace is progressively healing us. Law keeping may keep us from sinning but we will always feel the weight of falling short. The cycle can’t be broken. When grace enters into our shame it allows us to accept our faults and empowers us to act out of a good heart. Smedes explains the process of grace healing our shame.

Grace heals our shame, in the beginning, not by taking all our shame away and not by separating the sheep of undeserved shame from the goats of deserved shame but by removing the one thing all our shames makes us fear the most: rejection. Nothing that could make us unacceptable will keep God from accepting us. [7]

Grace speaks into our lives to tell us about reality. We are the noble creatures we were made to be. Our acceptance as noble creatures removes shame’s power to trap us in acting in shameful ways.

I enjoy St Jude because we talk about the nobility of men and women. My friends there stand with God and make sacrifices for the good other people, even if they won’t respond in the way we desire. I need to stop being so critical of myself and believe that I can produce good in this world. Sometimes I believe the world would be better if I just slept through my life and contribute less evil. But the Lord believes I was worth dying for and my life is worth living. 


[1] Lewis B. Smedes, Shame and Grace: Healing Shame We Don’t Deserve, (New York, NY: Harper One, 1993), 31.
[2] Lewis B. Smedes, Shame and Grace, 32.
[3] Lewis B. Smedes, Shame and Grace, 88.
[4] Lewis B. Smedes, Shame and Grace, 39.
[5] Lewis B. Smedes, Shame and Grace, 120.
[6] Lewis B. Smedes, Shame and Grace, 107.
[7] Lewis B. Smedes, Shame and Grace, 117-118.


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