A Pilgrim's Guide

Overcoming Shame



This Pilgrim’s Guide explores a subject you rarely hear about,
but which vitally affects our hearts and minds: shame.


Whether or not you suffer from it particularly yourself,
you will undoubtedly be in contact with people who do.


Overcoming Shame provides keys
to help us overcome this destructive emotion
and to enter entirely new levels
of freedom and fruitfulness.


It will prove useful in house groups
as well as for personal study.
We pray you will find it a really helpful tool
to diagnose where ‘shafts of shame’
are affecting your walk with the Lord
– and that it will help you to move on
beyond their reach!

A Pilgrim’s Guide to Overcoming Shame

Consciously or subconsciously, many of us carry shame in our hearts as the result of many things ‘going wrong’ in our lives: failed relationships or businesses, children who turn their back on the things we most hoped they would prize, and mental and physical illnesses that take the shine off daily life – to say nothing of inherited weaknesses and our own foolishness. We marvel that we could have been so stupid, and others so unfair – and shame lurks close by ready to sink its talons into our hearts.

When Peter denied his beloved master, not once but thrice, and then declared that he was returning to his fishing trade, shame could easily have caused him to slink away from all involvement in the Kingdom of God. Jesus, knowing all He had in mind for him, and not wanting him to begin his apostolic mission with a heart weighed down by shame, went to great lengths to restore his shaken servant’s morale and confidence. (Jn. 21) The whole of Peter’s subsequent ministry shows how effective his ministry had been. We see Peter acting with confidence, with a heart full of gratitude rather than shame. (2 Peter 1:18).

The emotionally healthy learn to heed inner warning bells when they are in danger of committing shameful acts. Their conscience warns them ahead of time of potential dangers and consequences. More of us, however, know what it is to have shafts of shame operating at levels deeper than merely feeling guilty and embarrassed about getting specific things wrong. Where this develops as the result of a lack of affirmation during our formative years, it radically affects our outlook on life.

Shame can make us believe that everything we are and that we do – our whole identity in short – is fundamentally flawed. We then begin to judge ourselves, rather than the specific actions that we take. Especially when it is twinned with regret, shame has the power to become the predominant emotion in our lives. Eager to avoid the ‘raw sewage’ of shame seeping into our lives, many of us develop a ‘mask’ to hide behind. Whether that takes the form of high achieving perfectionism, secret tendencies, or something entirely different, this ‘second personality’ has the potential to establish itself as the dominant force in our lives, overlaying our real self.

From stabbing tabloid headlines that savage reputations to the infinitely more subtle ways in which we cast aspersions against each other, we live in a fundamentally shame-inducing culture. We may not be able to do very much about the external issues that we face, but there are always things we can do about our attitude to them. As Myron Rush put it,

‘Attitude is far more important than aptitude when it comes to determining our altitude in life.’ (Rush, M. Burnout. p. 126. Scripture Press.)

Shame is such a ‘life-denying’ characteristic that it merits our taking time out to examine to what extent we are affected by it – as well as celebrating our need to embrace the opposite quality: the ability to honour one another.

Guilt-spreaders or love-bearers?

 On the farm muck spreaders do a great job manuring the crops.
When we become infected by shame and guilt, however,
we risk becoming ‘guilt spreaders’.
We scorch and wither everything we come into contact with.
May we become love spreaders rather than muck spreaders!

If we rarely received much affirmation from others when we were growing up, we are likely to take longer to recover when failure comes our way in later life. Shame is so insidious because it builds on the unhealed damage caused by previous ‘shame episodes.’ The danger, then, is that we may end up settling for what we know and are familiar with, and therefore be less willing to attempt new things.

Toxic drops seep into our hearts every time we are actively discouraged. Enough drops form a subterranean pool of guilt and shame. Submerged emotions tend to resurface somewhere else, so it is no wonder if we find cruel and cutting words emerging out of this overflow. What we need is some sort of a filter that sifts out the poison from these drops. Why should we go under just because others are trying to impose unwarranted guilt upon us? We will find it of the greatest help to have someone pray with us about these matters. If we did do something wrong, God still hears our belated repentance, even though consequences have to be worked out.

Have you ever felt the pressure to confess to something you have never done? Shame is such a powerful emotion that it can induce some of us into doing precisely that. When the enemy steps up to us, like a tough guy in an interrogation, it is no use trying to force ourselves to agree with his sweeping statements of how bad we are. All that leads to is endlessly berating ourselves. In all probability, we did what we could in the light of what we understood to be the best course of action to follow at the time. On several occasions, I have heard the Lord tell me quite clearly, ‘You are not responsible for this.’ It makes up for the times when something really is my fault!

The secret is to deal with these things as they come up, lest we become skilled at absorbing their poison and passing on our bitterness and displeasure. We do not even need to use words to achieve this. It is quite possible to ‘sulk loudly,’ as someone put it. As for ‘looks having the power to kill’, and ‘using the silent treatment’ to make people pay for what they have done (or in order to get our way) – may the Lord deliver us from all such subterfuges!

The side effects of shame

Because the Sovereign Lord helps me,
I will not be disgraced.
Therefore have I set my face like flint,
and I know I will not be put to shame.
(Is. 50:7)

Shame stifles the free flow of the Spirit in us, and inclines us to be shy and secretive. Whereas an objective assessment may suggest we need to improve in some area of our life, full-blown shame causes us to curse ourselves. It not only makes us miss out on many worthwhile possibilities, therefore, but accelerates and deepens the sense of disintegration in our hearts.

Where shame has obtained a strong hold on us, we may even come to the point where we fear lest any sign of weakness on our part – let alone any genuine failure – may prove unacceptable. ‘Three strikes and you are out’ is a hard enough standard to have hanging over us – but we are afraid that in our case it may be more like one strike and we will be on the way out! Does this ring any bells? Jesus not only gives the power to succeed, but also the freedom to fail!

Subconscious feelings of shame make us strive extra hard to maintain our external image. When prickles of shame rise up, we paste a smile on our face – but the discerning see through our posturing. We kid ourselves in supposing that if we look good on the outside and perform well, then we must be ok.

Another unwanted by-product of shame is that we end up striving to attain standards the Lord was never asking us to live up to. Does the fact that we are neither mega fit, stunningly attractive nor overwhelmingly ‘successful’ consign us to living with our heads bowed in shame? Mike Bellah warns that,

‘It is the labels we place on ourselves that become self-fulfilling prophecies, resulting in either shame or success.’

Will we allow the fact that certain people dislike us, and all that we stand for, to dominate our thinking and influence our actions? The way we respond to such challenges is crucial.

How does shame affect you?
Here are three contrasting attitudes that may help to show us to what extent shame is operating in our hearts.

Attitude I:
I feel easily ashamed, because I . . .
‘am too young . . . old . . . can’t keep up with . . . am never listened to . . . am too thin, overweight, single, divorced, unhappily married, have a lousy job, never get anything out of church, have made a complete mess of, never thought anything like this would ever come my way . . .’

Customise and continue this list as it affects your circumstances!

For a much more comprehensive test to discover the degree to which shame affects your way of thinking, go to: where grace abounds – the effects of shame.

Attitude II:
Ideally, we should trust that Christ (X) plus ourselves (o) = good results for the Kingdom (K) (X+o=K). Many of us have grown used to taking ourselves out of the equation, however. X+c=d-. In this equation, c = (outside circumstances such as ‘the work’, or ‘a stroke of good luck!’) and d- = ‘the not very good results I always seem to come up with’.

Shame tells us that our contribution is bound to make things worse, and that God can work much better if we keep out of the way. At times that may be sound counsel, but in this context it is important to remember that shame-based feelings always distort the true picture, even though they may contain a measure of truth.

Many of us need to put ourselves back into the equation. Our active presence and participation is essential to what the Lord wants to do. Christ in us = overcoming shame = Kingdom life and living!

Attitude III:
Shame is losing its effects on me because I know that God has called me according to His purposes. I am learning not to berate myself when I fail and falter. When I feel down I simply pray for the Lord to turn things round for His glory. I make the enemy wish he had never bothered trying to slow me down and make me feel ashamed!

If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins,
and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)

A young preacher was called out of a life of sin to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. While in the pulpit one day, he received a note in which someone had written all his past sins. “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself? And you’re up there telling people to get right with God!” The young preacher read the note, bowed his head in prayer, and said, “Ladies and gentleman I have received a note, and here is what it says.” In front of that whole crowd, he read every one of those sins. Then he said this: “Yes, I am ashamed of myself, but I am not ashamed of my Saviour!”

Lord, Your Word says that ‘No one who trusts in You will ever be put to shame’ – but I want to confess that shame has scarred my soul. It has made intimacy with both You and those I would like to be closer to harder to sustain.

Help me to identify the roots of shame in my life and to confront these things with the Word of God and the power of Your Spirit. Come to my heart, Lord, as you came to Peter, to cleanse my backlog of shame and guilt and failure, so that both my expectations and my trust are enlarged again. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

The shame and pride axis

God resists the proud,
but He enjoys the company of the meek,
because their boast is only in Him.
(1 Pet. 5:5-7; 1 Cor. 1:28-31)

You would expect those who suffer from a ‘shame and inferiority complex’ to hang their heads and to walk with a stoop. Sometimes, however, the opposite is true. Though it may not be immediately apparent, there is a close link between shame and pride. The shame-filled-but-outwardly-proud are often to be found occupying senior positions in organisations, using the authority that comes from their position as a ‘mask’ to deflect people’s attention away from their inner shame.

Pride makes us quick to blame others, but slow to accept wise suggestions, let alone open criticism. It makes us compare ourselves continually with others because we want to appear in a superior light. At the same time, we are keen to avoid too close an inspection, in case the image we are projecting is found to be false. (2 Cor. 10:12; Rom. 12:3)

There are, unfortunately, plenty of shameless people around. It is often necessary for a sense of genuine shame to be aroused before a fully functioning sense of right and wrong can develop in their hearts. Repentance is still the gateway by which God brings souls to life. As such, it is by no means to be dismissed, just because certain psychologists consider it their duty to tell us to ‘accept ourselves as we are’, and to explain such embarrassing convictions away.

Such attitudes quickly become a vicious cycle. The more ashamed we feel, the less we anticipate that anyone would even want to come anywhere near our self-absorbed orbit. The more humble we are, the easier people find it to relate to us.

How self-centred are you?

    • Do you find it hard to rejoice when others do well?
    • Does it tug at your heart and bug you every time you think about it?
    • Does your desire to ‘protect’ your image make you quick to put anyone down who dares to call it into question?
    • Do you have a BSE mentality – ‘Blame Someone Else?’ – whether it be the boss, our parents, children, partner or even our dog – some people will go to any lengths to avoid facing their own shortcomings!

Shame-based or Spirit led?

Shame-based people are those whose emotions have closed down, at least in part. As surely as those who are Spirit-led are quick to affirm and bless, the shame-filled find it hard to make positive emotional affirmations. They rarely tell people that they love them, for example, because they have never realised how important it is to learn a supportive ‘emotional’ vocabulary. It does not mean that they are filled with hate – it just means that they need releasing!

Are you shame-filled or Spirit-led?

    • Shame makes you so tense and rigid that it chokes your discernment. Instead of responding calmly, you find yourself lashing out, or laying down the law with far more harshness than is called for.
    • Just when God gives you insight into some issue, you hold back, because you assume your perspective must be faulty.
    • You make various efforts to share your perspective, but if you do not appear to be getting anywhere you quickly become discouraged – especially if you feel rebuffed. All this does is to allow shame to suppress your real gifting – which in turn robs other people of benefiting from what you have to offer.
    • Your fear of confrontation is so great that you cover over things that really do need bringing out into the open.
    • When challenges come your way, do you feel a complete failure and crumple inside? Storm off and protest that it isn’t fair? Or do you humble yourself acknowledge the rightness of at least some aspects of the challenge and trust the Lord to deal with the rest?

Shame-based families rarely encourage others to express their opinions. This is either because they are so sure that they are in the right that they refuse to see things from any one else’s perspective, or because they do not trust their own grasp of situations. They discourage people’s hopes and dreams, in case they come to nothing – or because they suppose that they will be left behind if they do come to pass. Talk about counterproductive attitudes!

In a remote rural region, a woman ‘blew the whistle’ on a man over a morality issue with an under-age girl. To her intense surprise and dismay, the local community turned on her. One day, the owner of the only shop in the township hurled her change back at her. ‘You should have swept the matter under the carpet,’ she hissed. What happened to the man in this shame-based, yet also shame-denying community? He was rewarded with promotion, both in his place of work and at church! Shame that is not faced, let alone confessed, often causes people to go on the offensive, pouring out accusations faster than bullets from a machine gun. If we do not protect ourselves vigorously against these barbs, they risk making us believe the complete reverse of what is really going on.

God’s Word penetrates to the heart of our shame.

‘I live in a high and holy place,’ He declares, ‘but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite.’ (Is. 57:15)

The more we respond with humility to the challenges that come our way, the more likely it is that they will succeed in jump starting us into a greater transparency, accountability and inner honesty.

We have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. (2 Cor. 4:2)

The shame of feeling the odd one out

‘Hearts bruised with loss and eaten through with shame.’ (Swinburne)

Anything that makes us feel ‘different’ from other people takes special handling, lest it increases either our sense of pride or our worthlessness. An elderly man I was with the other day was recalling his school days with shame because he used to write his numbers backwards. His teacher used to pick on him continually. ‘You blockhead!’ he yelled, ‘I’ll crucify you to the wall!’ These words, along with regular hefty thwacks around his ear, savaged his confidence and cowed his spirit. With the potency of a curse these words dogged his steps throughout his adult life.

In this example, all our sympathy is with the boy who was being humiliated. Later on in life, issues are often more complex. Take the example of a couple who have separated, with the man being somewhat unfairly excluded from having any contact with his children. The man’s already low self-esteem is almost certain to plummet still lower in proportion to the freefall in his public reputation.

At the deepest level, people fear total abandonment, convinced that if others knew how bad they really were, they wouldn’t want to have anything to do with them. However guilty they may feel for what they have done, they feel still more ashamed for what and who they are. Shame pushes the person into still deeper hiding, thereby greatly increasing the chances of more wrong deeds being committed out of resentment, bitterness or frustration.

When certain people in authority pronounce their verdict against us, it is easy to allow footholds to shame. ‘You’ll never amount to much’, they storm, openly revealing their contempt for us – or perhaps just projecting their anxieties for our future. Parents, teachers and pastors are often amongst the guiltiest here, usually when they give voice to layers of shame in their own life that they have neither acknowledged nor overcome.

Praise God for people who refuse to accept such things lying down! Just think of all that would have been lost had the likes of Thomas Edison, Billy Graham and D.L. Moody believed that they would never amount to anything much – despite authority figures telling them so repeatedly.

Others feel guilty because people are praising them far more highly than they think they deserve. The way I handle these contradictory thoughts is to remind myself that when God allows certain people to think that I am worse than I really am, He makes up for it by permitting others to think that I am much better than is really the case!

Rather than assuming that it is ‘unworthy’ to receive anything in life unless we have earned and paid for it, our Heavenly Father invites us to celebrate a wonderful mystery: He freely gives us all things to enjoy. When the Lord created children with the instinct to play, He deliberately put something of His own nature into them. We need to go one better than the old slogan for Mars’ Bars and: ‘work, rest, play and pray!’

Do not allow the sense of shame you are carrying as the result of people’s attitudes to overcome your will to prosper in the Lord. By making yourself available to Him, and by consciously refusing shame’s downward spiral, you will be in a far better position to help others overcome it too.

Shaking off the shame

Do you see what this means
– all these pioneers who blazed the way,
all these veterans cheering us on?

It means we’d better get on with it.

Strip down, start running – and never quit!

No extra spiritual fat, no parasitic sins.
Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in.
Study how He did it.

Because He never lost sight of where He was headed
– that exhilarating finish in and with God –
He could put up with anything along the way: cross, shame, whatever.

And now He’s there, in the place of honour, right alongside God. (Heb. 12:1-2 The Message)

The more we refuse the sting of shame’s lash, the easier we will find it to experience the Lord’s approval. Often we will need to catch ourselves in the middle of thinking destructive thoughts, and redress the balance by affirming the Lord’s perspective.

If we are called to go through ‘shameful’ situations, in which the Lord allows us to be misunderstood, we are in the very best of company. Jesus endured the extreme shame of the cross, and so too have many of His finest saints. The glory that lies ahead is our ultimate hope – but there are, unfortunately, other occasions in which indignities are forced upon us and our souls fill up with shame.

Over the years we have encountered many situations where one person is badly treating another (often, this is in a marriage context). We have often been amazed at how long it has taken the person being abused to realise that ‘it is not all their fault’ and that they do not deserve the abuse they are receiving.

The reasons for this are complex, but they often centre around them feeling too full of embarrassment and shame to be able to face the issues directly. Wanting to show mercy, and to keep faith with the ‘hurt person who is hurting them,’ they may also be afraid of the fallout if they do launch a challenge. They are usually eager, too, to preserve the look of things, and so they strive to keep up external appearances. Complex lines of co-dependency thus keep the abused person locked in to the relationship with their abuser. So-called ‘love’ that looks more like control to outsiders rotate in complex patterns making this a hard cycle to break into.

Knowing when to persevere in the hope of change, when to insist on making the other person face what they are doing, and when, finally, to accept that ‘enough is enough’ is a decision that calls for a great deal of wise counsel. When someone realizes that they need to escape from a controlling person’s orbit, the potential for abuse increases many-fold. Abusers and controllers hate losing face, let alone full control. As the proverb puts it,

Exploit or abuse your family, and end up with a fistful of air; common sense tells you it’s a stupid way to live. (Provbs 11:29, The Message)

Moving beyond the shame of abuse

As we continue to explore the shame that comes from matters related to abuse, we thought you might find it refreshing to read Scripture verses from Eugene Peterson’s distinctive paraphrase of the book of Proverbs.

‘We justify our actions by appearances, but God examines our motives.’ (Provbs. 21:2)

‘People who shrug off deliberate deceptions, saying, “I didn’t mean it, I was only joking,” are worse than careless campers who walk away from smouldering campfires.’ (26:18).

Nothing clever, nothing conceived, nothing contrived,
can get the better of God. (21:29)

There comes a moment when we rise up inwardly and realise that we no longer need to put up with being treated in the way that we have been. This is a crucial moment, when we realise that our response until now has largely been born of fear or misplaced optimism. Slowly it dawns on us that it is entirely permissible for us to respond more robustly.

As we begin to assert this new perspective, we are effectively declaring war on the source of our shame, and affirming our right to take action. The person who has been causing us shame will almost certainly disapprove, and do all he can to make us regret launching the challenge. We must be prepared for this.

Those who have been holding us back and pegging us down have long since worked out exactly how much pressure to exert in order to get their own way. This time, however, we can refuse to back down and embrace our customary shame-filled retreat (which we try to kid ourselves is a loyal and loving Christian response). Such a stand cannot be taken by halves. Neither should it be taken on our own.

There is no shame in realising that the call to honour one another does not mean automatically giving way to unjust demands. Study Luke 13:31-32, and chapter 23 of Matthew, and see how scathingly Jesus speaks about Herod and against the Pharisees. Jesus intensely dislikes both pride and hypocrisy.

In our bid to be courteous and compassionate we cannot afford to lose sight of truth and clarity – but neither should we use truth as a weapon with which to dishonour the people and ministries that God has raised up. This calls for considerable wisdom and clear-sighted discernment – but it is a vital part of escaping the weakening spiral of shame in our lives.

Sadly, we come across only too many situations like this in church life, as well as in families, with pastors and leaders making church members feel ashamed and disempowered. At other times, it is the other way round, with pastors being on the receiving end of the rough treatment – but that would be another subject in its own right.

The mind of the abuser is always full of faulty perspectives. In Proverbs 26:12 (which marks the beginning of a mini-series on self-deceit and sluggardness) we find people thinking that what they are doing is perfectly justified, because the other person ‘is in the wrong for opposing them’. All too often we hear men using the argument that wives should simply submit to them. It is by no means infrequent to hear them blaming their wives for ‘forcing’ them to leave in favour of another woman!

There is little God can do for such people until they are prepared to acknowledge the games they are playing. Until then, they will continue to find reasons with which to attempt to justify the unjustifiable. The extent of shame and confusion people feel at this stage can be right off the Richter scale – until the penny drops and they begin to see clearly. At that point they usually wonder why they have taken so long to do anything about it. Even then they will need a great deal of support in handling the shame of not having been able to repair or restore the marriage or relationship.

Abusers are past masters at scheming. They have a cold and calculating side to their personality that twists and turns what people say for their own ends. Their insecurity causes them to try to obtain by force what can, in reality, only be received by grace. To win friends, therefore, they resort to the barbed tool of flattery. Although they are experts at dissembling, sooner or later people see through their insincerity.

The person who is always cooking up some evil soon gets a reputation as prince of rogues. (Proverbs. 24:8)

No matter how cunningly (your enemy) conceals his malice his evil will eventually be exposed in public. Malice backfires, spite boomerangs. Liars hate their victims, flatterers sabotage trust. (26:26-28, cf 22:8))

What a bad person plots against the good, boomerangs; the plotter gets it in the end. (21:18)

The aspirations of good people end in celebration; the ambition of bad people crash. (10:28).

Rather than simply denouncing extreme cases, however, it might be timely to bring this whole issue of shame and abuse home to roost by pausing to consider how easily we ourselves demean each other. When we pause to think of the anger and cutting words that we ourselves have directed at loved ones who catch us at the ‘wrong’ moment, we can see how easy it is to cross the line, and to become abusers ourselves.

The good news is that through repentance and forgiveness, all or any can change once they become aware of the shame they are inflicting on others. Ask the Lord to search your own heart . . . and then bring ‘victims’ and their abusers alike to the foot of the cross – for the cross is the stopping place, where vicious cycles are finally broken.

Honour: the language of Heaven

Don’t just pretend to love others.
Really love them.
Hate what is wrong.
Hold tightly to what is good.
Love each other with genuine affection,
and take delight in honouring each other. (Rom. 12:10 NLT)

We have explored many ways in which we can escape shame’s downward gravitational pull. It is time to embrace the opposite quality: the ability to fulfil the Scriptural command to honour and affirm each other in Christ.

To ‘honour’ means ‘to make glorious, to validate, to praise and to esteem highly.’ Think of the men and women of God you most admire. Is it not their ability to draw out the best in people that you most appreciate?

Jesus shares with us the honour the Father gives Him, (John 17:22-23) – but our ability to honour one another depends to a large extent on how we view ourselves. Without straying into vanity, can you find it in yourself to honour what God is doing in and through you? Look in the mirror and affirm that God loves you and is blessing you.

Try and respond well when compliments come your way. Stop yourself, in mid-track if need be, when you find yourself about to say, ‘Oh it’s nothing really.’ You need to hear what the other person is saying. By thanking them, you receive the fullness of their blessing, and honour them by appreciating their compliment.

The more we esteem each other, the better things usually go for us in the long run. It certainly makes us nicer people to be around! Like yeast added to flour, small encouragements go a long way to bolster self-esteem and raise people’s spirits, and to prise off ugly dead weights of shame. Pause and consider: do we deliberately set out to honour and encourage those around us?

One of the things I most appreciate about my wife is the way she deliberately sets out to value and appreciate the ‘back room’ staff who keep institutions running smoothly. Many of them well up with tears as she speaks words of praise and encouragement to them. Again and again they say things like, ‘No one has ever said anything like that to me before.’ Such honouring eases people’s burdens, and paves the way for the work of the Kingdom.

It often only requires relatively simple steps to honour each other in such ways. Simple courtesies: cards, e-mails, phone calls, spending time together . . . Are there specific people the Lord would have you honour and affirm? Even if they do not appear particularly receptive or appreciative at the time, do not waste time feeling rejected or lapse back into shame again. Remember, you are escaping its orbit and advancing towards the heavenly kingdom, where Jesus is ready to welcome you.

This article is designed to be read in conjunction with other publications in The Pilgrim’s Guide series.

See the drop-down menu READ/Pilgrim’s Guides for the links to these.