Good Shame, Bad Shame

“Neither do I condemn you.” John 8:11

Shame. That must have been the main feeling of the woman caught in adultery when she was dragged before Jesus. She had been caught in the very act by men who probably set her up as a test for this new rabbi with His notions of grace and easy ways with sinners. “Let’s see how he handles someone who is clearly guilty!”

The woman was actually guilty. Of course, equally so was the man, the ostensibly married man. It does take two to tango, or to commit adultery. We never hear anything about him. But let’s be clear, if we focus solely on the woman and her conduct, she broke a commandment. This is not trivial. Sins hurt people. Mainly they hurt the sinner.

So shame does serve a good purpose when it alerts us that we are out of alignment with God and His purpose for us. But let’s be careful even with this idea.

One of the great misconceptions about sin is that it simply offends God that we broke one of His rules, that we make Him angry. This upward concept of sin, that we must avoid making God angry, is so far from the truth. What God wants us to avoid is hurting ourselves and other people. He loves us so deeply, and He doesn’t want anything bad to happen to us. Sin hurts, and when all spiritual systems are working correctly shame creates humility and brings us back into alignment with God. That’s good shame.

The focus of the story in John 8, however, isn’t on good shame. The focus isn’t really on the notion of “go and sin no more.” That’s not a bad point at all. I just don’t think it’s the main point.

The real focus is on how God handles our shame.

Think of the scene where all the men have dropped their rocks and dispersed. The woman stood before Jesus. Now we know more than she did, and what we know is very important. Jesus would later say “if you have seen Me, you have seen the Father” (John 14:9). So the woman was standing, drenched in shame, real, accurate, appropriate shame, before God.

What happened next? You know the story. Jesus, removed her shame. “Neither do I condemn you.” God did not condemn her.

If you’re dealing with real shame, then you need to hear the heart of the gospel. God is not the giver of shame. He is the remover of shame. “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow.” Be free, even of good shame. God delights in doing this for us!

But what about bad shame? This is the shame that comes from other people, that has nothing to do with your actions, but ends up shaping your identity. Bad shame is the chronic condemnation by people who should have loved and affirmed you. Bad shame is the actions of others that somehow make you feel dirty, or worthless, or humiliated. Bad shame is the rejection by those who should be embracing you.

Bad shame is a whispered guilt. The first two letters sound like a secret. “Shhh! Don’t tell. Don’t repeat.”

Bad shame is also a shouted verdict. “FOR SHAME! Don’t every forget what you have done!”

I believe bad shame is far more prevalent than good shame. It is a drenching condemnation we carry around with us. It goes to the very heart of our identities, isolates us, and holds us back in a thousand different ways. It is a quintessential soul-sickness.

And that brings me back to the woman. What happened after the story ended? It’s not hard to imagine. The woman was free. Free from fear, guilt, and shame and all of this directly from God. Wonderful!

Now what about all the people in her community? Do you think they really had a spiritual insight to their own shame? Do you think they embraced and shared grace? I seriously doubt it.

The woman turned from a gracious God to a still condemning community. I doubt anything changed. They still thought of her as an adulteress. I imagine she was marginalized for the remainder of her life by most people who knew her story.

Shame is an easy currency. People throw it around and spend it at others' expense all the time. You likely have been the target. But just because someone throws shame at you doesn’t mean you have to stand still and let it hit you. That sums up the decision the woman had to make. She still lived in the village where people had falsely accused her. Would she listen to the critics who reminded her of her failures? Or would she listen to the God who reminded her of her future? These are questions we must all consider.

It’s an enormously difficult task, an act of sustained will, to block out the voices that shout bad shame. The good news is the Bible so powerfully depicts a God who bears away shame. You may be feeling shame from past chapters of your life, but if you have asked God’s forgiveness then you have it. The bad shame you carry? Let God take that away too. It’s not yours. It comes from broken people who inflict you with pain from their wounds. It’s not yours. Never was.

I was recently reminded of some sound theology from Rascal Flatts. It applies to shame, good and bad. “I’ve been burdened with blame (shame), trapped in the past for too long. I’m movin’ on.” That’s the gospel in action. That's the full effect of grace.


Dr. Terry Ellis

January 26, 2016

  1. I do not have the words to convey how meaningful this message was for my family. Thank you, Terry, for helping us find our answers in His Word.

    Your Mobile folks miss you dearly.

  2. Thank you. This was a thoughtful reminder of the responsibility we all have to heal our wounds through grace, so that we aren't passing bad shame on to those we love.

  3. Wow I have heard something like that somewhere in the recent past! Me and a small group of individuals participated in some inner work last week in Kentucky. The work was instrumental in identifying, sharing and moving old walled-in shame to ultimately be emanicipated from it, and brought closer to the Grace of God. Thank you, God, for your Grace, it is free and unlimited.
    Terri Jo Lavallee