Navigating Shame

Originally published Wednesday, 26 July 2023.

I was recently asked to teach a two-hour workshop on navigating shame. As with any such invitation, I pray, read the Word, and reference other notes and materials I may have written or taught through the years. As I began to prepare for the workshop, I researched many binders of notes. I was surprised to find that even after fifteen years of teaching ministry, I had almost nothing in the way of content on shame. I was shocked. I began researching our ministry’s website and found that it, too, lacked in-depth teaching on shame. I have been teaching single mothers for over fifteen years and had written almost nothing on shame. Shame’s persistence in the lives of so many women and single mothers should’ve surely lent itself to hundreds of writings on the matter! So, today, alas, we begin the journey through the shame struggle. 

If anyone is, I’d like to think I’m a resident expert on the matter of shame. I’ve certainly carried its heavy weight through the years and on many occasions. Like an astute student eager to learn all its nuances, I’ve often perfectly positioned myself to experience it through a myriad of wrong choices and complex, unhealed wounds. For a young church girl, four pregnancies outside of marriage lent itself as a chief teacher on shame. Poverty, finding myself living in government housing using food stamps and welfare, was a close second. An alcoholic father who married six times and struggled with infidelity. Abusive boyfriends. Promiscuity. Shame has had a field day in my life’s journey. And yet, here I am, writing and sharing freely about the ugly intricacies of a life riddled with sin – both my own and others. Why? Because shame no longer binds me.  

Guilt vs. Shame

To begin our successful battle overcoming shame, it’s important to first understand the difference between guilt and shame. Guilt is a result of a poor choice. It’s often tied to an action or an event. It’s the who, what, when, where, of an occurrence. Guilt is the instant realization that a decision we made didn’t line up with who we are in Christ. We are created in the image of God, so when something doesn’t feel right, it’s not right. When we surrender to Christ, we receive the Holy Spirit that convicts us and helps us navigate guilt. Guilt becomes the what you do.  

Shame, however, transitions from what we do to who we are. Shame impacts our decision-making, thought life, and the lens in which we see the world. Shame takes conviction and transitions it to bondage. Guilt says, “I did something bad.” Shame says, “I am someone bad.” Shame becomes guilt on steroids. It becomes a badge we wear that we accept as defining who we are.  Shame is defined as long-standing guilt, it sticks with us for an extended time. 

What’s the potential risk if we don’t battle shame well?  

  • Lack of boundaries // Shame says, “I don’t deserve to be treated well, because of all I’ve done, so I’ll take whatever this guy/girl is giving.” The result? We often lack the skills needed to establish strong boundaries in relationships of all kinds.  

  • Sin // Shame says, “I’m not a good person, because I’ve done so many things wrong, so why even try? I might as well do what I want.” What we don’t realize is the depth of the doors we open and the pain that cyclical sin produces. 

  • Bondage // Shame produces a heaviness – a feeling that something simply isn’t right. It becomes a heavy weight that some sojourn night and day to be free from for years. 

  • Cyclical abuse // Abusers don’t intend to become abusers. However, shame can often produce abuse through generations. An example would be when someone is sexually abused, we know they are more likely (statistically) to become verbal or physical abusers. While more complex than citing one incident of unresolved shame, it can certainly be a factor.   

Where does shame come from? There are many answers to the question, but here are a few points to ponder. Shame comes from: 

  • Mishandled guilt // Guilt is a natural and healthy response to sin, when short-lived, and when it leads us to repentance through Holy Spirit conviction. Mishandled guilt, however, is when we don’t deal with it. When we don’t address it, confess it, and move on, shame can be produced. 

  • Abuse // Molestation as a child, sexual abuse in a relationship, physical abuse by a parent or bully, verbal or emotional abuse by a partner, parent or someone in authority can often manifest shame. Victims sometimes ponder inwardly, “Did I do something to deserve it? Did I do something that caused my abuser to abuse me? How could I have prevented this?” Shame causes us to shift from blaming an abuser to blaming ourselves.   

  • Satan’s manipulation // Satan is a master manipulator, and he specializes in lies. He is the father of all lies. He comes to steal, kill, and destroy according to John 10:10. He comes to steal your joy, kill your hope, and destroy your future. If you are immobilized in shame, you are ineffective for Kingdom purpose. He wants to convince you that you cannot move past this issue.  He’ll say, “if only they knew….you wouldn’t belong, be welcomed, or fit in.”  Shame is a tactic of the enemy to hold you hostage. 

  • Emotional wounds // Shame can also be produced by feelings of insecurity, unworthiness, or the idea that we don’t feel good enough. Emotional wounds develop a complicated layer of shame on top of shame on top of more shame. 

  • Uncontrollable life event // Life events beyond our control can lead to shame, e.g. a father who is in jail, a mother who is an alcoholic, a brother who is an addict, or a major health issue or disability.  

We now know the why and what, but how do we experience freedom? Here are five ways the Lord has shown me to experience my own freedom. I hope they’ll help you, too.  

  1. Seek Christian counsel // While licensed, Christian therapists are ideal, it is not always an option for everyone, so seeking wise counsel from Christian counselors, mentors, Bible study leaders, and pastors can help us work through the root causes of shame. They can shed light on blind spots, highlighting the areas where shame has bound us. Talking about the challenges of shame give light to what has been dark in our lives. Freedom is found in the exposing. Dark cannot exist where light is welcomed. 

  2. Repent // Now, wait. Please know, as has been mentioned already, not all shame was derived from sin. However, there are some of us that are experiencing deep shame, because of our own past or present sin, so we cannot ignore it. Ask the Lord for forgiveness, when you have fallen short of His standard. Repent means we turn away and avoid it in the future. There’s not condemnation for those in Christ Jesus, according to Romans 8:1, but God’s grace is not our license to wallow in unrepentant sin. He is calling us to a higher standard. James 5:16 tells us to, Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results. The Word is teaching us that our healing will come through our repentance and confession.  

  3. Stand on truth // Stand on truth and not your feelings. Feelings are great in that we can experience the joys of life. Feelings can help us determine how we can or should react in certain environments or situations, but they cannot be our master. We do not bow to our feelings.  Jeremiah 17:9 teaches us that the “heart is the most deceitful of all.”  The world says, follow your heart, do what feels right. It doesn’t matter how you feel. God’s word teaches us who we are. His word tells us we are victorious, chosen, called back from the ends of the earth, forgiven, redeemed, healed, transformed. Truth will help us become empowered and emboldened to truly fight shame in our lives, despite how we are feeling in a moment. We sometimes struggle to believe the truth. Am I really forgiven? Does God really love me?

    "Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death?(As the Scriptures say, “For your sake we are killed every day; we are being slaughtered like sheep.”[a])No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us. And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,[b] neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love.No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 8:35-39)

    We must go back to the truth again and again and practice receiving it. The more we do, the more powerful and strong we become.  

  4. Learn to lean into the Holy Spirit // There is power in walking with the Spirit of the living God. The same power that rose Christ from the grave lives in us. No demon in Hell stands against this power. Acts 2:2 displays the power of the Spirit. “The sound of a might rushing wind…” Man, what that experience must have been like! The presence of the Holy Spirit changed things, when it came on the scene. The Holy Spirit changed the way the disciples did ministry and how they lived their lives. It should do the same thing for us. The Holy Spirit offers freedom, where bondage was. He offers power, where weakness was. He offers truth, where lies were. He offers strength, where timidity once was. There is a Holy Ghost boldness that can rise up on the inside of  us that will give us the ability to cast down every lie of the enemy. The Spirit causes darkness to tremble. When we lean into the power of the Holy Spirit, he reveals who we are in Christ. This allows us to move past any bondage, including shame. 

  5. Put on the full armor of God // The key word here is the full armor – not simply a piece or two, but the full armor. Don’t come half-dressed to the war at hand. Ephesians 6:13-18 gives us the description of the full armor and the necessity of each piece. Don’t skip the suit-up. Practically, this means we must stay in the Word of God daily, so that we know the authority granted to us as daughters of the King. We must continue to pray and praise. We must live righteously and obey God’s teachings. We must tear down every stronghold and lie of the enemy. This is where our freedom is found. It’s already been bought and paid for. 

Jennifer Maggio is a mom to three, wife to Jeff, and founder of the national nonprofit, The Life of a Single Mom Ministries. She is author to four books, including The Church and the Single Mom. She was named one of the Top 10 Most Influential People in America by Dr. John Maxwell in 2017 and 2015 and has appeared in hundreds of media venues, including The New York Times, Family Talk Radio with Dr. James Dobson, Joni and Friends, and many others.