When your conscience speaks to you, what voice do you hear? Is it an inner lawyer or an inner grandma?
This is the question of Australian missiologist David Williams. The inner lawyer is interested in right and wrong, good and evil, guilt and innocence. As you weigh your future options or consider your past actions, that inner lawyer will ask questions such as “is it right or is it wrong?”. He (I’m making this lawyer a man, mainly because my imagined inner lawyer looks and sounds exactly like Atticus Finch) is either your defence (“you were right!”), or your prosecutor (“that was wrong!”). Either way, the inner lawyer deals in categories of guilt and innocence. He judges you and your actions according to fixed categories of right and wrong.
The cross, which deals with our guilt, also deals with our shame. This is very good news.
The inner grandma is different. She is not so much interested in guilt and innocence as in honour and shame. “What will people think?!” “You can’t go out in that!” “How could you look them in the face again?” “Shame on you!”.
The inner lawyer deals with evidence. Once the facts are in and the case is made, who cares what other people think. The inner grandma, on the other hand, is very much interested in what other people think. Indeed, that’s how she’s making her decisions. What will the neighbours think? Will this bring honour, or will it result in shame?
The Cross and Shame
The cross, which deals with our guilt, also deals with our shame. This is very good news. If no one’s ever told you about this before, allow me.
Guilt and shame are related but not identical experiences. Guilt is something you may or may not feel. It’s possible to be guilty but not feel guilty, just as it’s possible to feel guilt and not be guilty. A criminal may walk away from the courtroom with the objective status of “guilty”, but may personally feel defiant, numb, or even cheerful. Conversely, a tender-hearted person may experience feelings of guilt for things that were just mistakes or for nothing at all. All our consciences are like faulty alarm systems, sometimes sounding off when there is nothing, other times failing to alert us to a major problem.
Shame tends to be subjective. Shame is felt, and it is felt by our whole person. Guilt says, “I did the wrong thing”. Shame says, “I am the wrong person”. Guilt is able to focus on a specific event or action, shame takes over our sense of who we are.
Guilt is personal. A young boy can kill a frog for fun and then feel terrible about it. No one needs to have seen it or objected to it. But shame is social. Shame is about how others see us. It has to do with our standing before others. To be humiliated or defiled before others is to be shamed. Even when shame is personal, we construct a little community out of ourselves and speak of ourselves in the third person: “I feel ashamed of my Self”. A miserable little party of two: me, and the Self I am now heaping shame on.
The opposite of guilt is innocence; the opposite of shame is honour. And honour, like shame, is something bestowed on us by others.
With the rise of social media, cancel culture, and public shaming, grandma’s back. And she’s not happy.
Since the work of anthropologist Ruth Benedict, western culture has commonly been understood as a guilt-innocence culture, non-western cultures as honour-shame cultures. The truth, of course, is more complex. But as a rough rule of thumb, it holds up well enough—at least since the enlightenment. In the west, we tend to hear the inner lawyer. We are driven by an individual conscience. We seek innocence and avoid guilt. In other cultures people are more likely to be driven by a communal voice, the voice channelled by grandma, calling us to seek honour and avoid shame.
Of course, non-western cultures know guilt, just as western culture knows shame. It’s a matter of degrees. But for whatever reasons, the cross and shame haven’t got the air-time they deserve. The Bible, in general, and the cross, in particular, have a lot to say about shame. We have been underselling a key achievement of the cross. With the rise of social media, cancel culture, and public shaming, grandma’s back. And she’s not happy. We need to know what the cross does to address our shame.
Shame in the Bible
Shame, it should be noted, is acknowledged in Scripture; like guilt, it can be a completely appropriate and useful response. Shame gives the wider community a vote on my actions. To never feel shame is to be a sociopath. The person who is completely impervious to the judgement of the community is not generally someone you’d want running your country, teaching your children, or joining you for your summer holidays. Shame can be a good thing.
Or at least a good thing in a fallen world. In the garden Adam and Eve were naked but felt no shame. They were not embarrassed. Or threatened. They anticipated no rejection or mockery, or judgement from the one to whom they were exposed. Shame is only good in the way that locks on our doors or police on our streets are good. Shame (along with door locks and police officers) was unknown in the garden and will be retired from use in the new creation. It is a feature of the fall.
The Shaming of Jesus
It is a feature of the world that Jesus experienced too. Although he never internalised people’s contempt by becoming ashamed, he was certainly shamed. Deeply. Profoundly.
If you look at the world through a guilt and innocence framework, it’s possible to miss the emphasis on shame in the crucifixion of Jesus. Consider the event itself. Jesus was spat on (Matt 26:67), his head and face were struck (Matt 26:67), his clothes were stripped off (Matt 27:28); he was verbally mocked and insulted (Matt 27:28–29). None of these actions was in itself physically painful. Being spat on doesn’t hurt. It shames.
Jesus’ associated with contagiously shameful people.
Jesus’ associated with contagiously shameful people: bleeding women, tax collectors, prostitutes, gentiles and the like. These people were a threat to your social standing.
Yet in the case of Jesus, the contagion seemed to go the other way. Rather than them bringing him shame, he brought them honour:
- The bleeding woman is healed and Jesus calls her his daughter (Mark 5:25–29);
- Zaccheus is presented back to the community as a “son of Abraham” (Luke 19:9);
- The prodigal son in the story is welcomed back into the family (Luke 15:21–32).
In the crucifixion, however, the traffic moves in the opposite direction. Jesus, who moved so many from shame to honour, is himself humiliated, embarrassed, degraded, and shamed.
Exchange: Jesus takes our shame and gives us honour
Jesus bore our shame for us. He took our shame and exchanged it for his honour. He who knew no shame became shamed for us so that in him we might become the honoured ones of God.
Theologically, this is necessarily true. As the church fathers never tired of reminding us, that which Jesus did not assume, he could not heal. Jesus came to reverse the curse of the fall. He did so by entering into that curse, by assuming to himself, not just bits here and there, but all of it.
As we read in Hebrews:
… Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. (Hebrews 13:12–13)
Jesus suffered “outside the city gate”. That is, his suffering included exclusion from the esteem of the community. He bore our disgrace to make us holy. But the encouragement is to “go to him outside the camp, bearing this disgrace he bore.”
Jesus suffered “outside the city gate”. He bore our disgrace to make us holy.
When we stand in solidarity with the people of God as they are being shamed; when we allow our social credit to diminish by refusing to disown them, we bear shame for the sake of Christ.
Think of the kid rejected at high school for their brave (even if ham-fisted) stance for Jesus. Or the CEO who loses a board position because of their association with a local church. Or the teacher ostracised in a rural community for politely declining to wear a rainbow badge in pride month. In these situations, we have a choice: stand with our sister or brother, and lose social credits—or distance ourselves from them and be ashamed of Jesus.
Trajectory: Jesus pioneers the path from shame to glory
Finally, when it comes to shame, Jesus blazes the trail for us—the path from shame to honour. And it’s a path he invites us to follow.
The author of Hebrews encourages us to fix our eyes of Jesus, calling him …
… the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (Hebrews 12:2–3)
Jesus was able to endure the cross because of the joy set before him. What was he enduring? Specifically, the shame of the cross. And yet he was able to endure that shame in light of the joy ahead of him. Jesus didn’t enjoy the shame (who does!?). But the glory and honour of the other side of shame kept him going.
In this, Jesus is our pioneer. Knowing that he went through shame to joy helps us to know the destination when we face similar trials. He mapped out the V-shaped path of the cross from shame to honour. The apostle Peter makes a similar point:
If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. (1 Peter 4:12-16)
Suffering as a Christian (which Peter carefully disentangles from suffering for being a jerk) is, in fact an honour, a glory to us, because we bear Christ’s name. And that means we are on the same trajectory as him, awaiting the crown of glory (1 Peter 5:4), trusting that God’s mighty hand will lift us up in due time (1 Peter 5:6).
In our culture, we see the experience of shame as entirely negative—but we see the strategy of shaming as powerful, useful, and (thanks to social media) easily achievable. Shaming is everywhere. Grandma is back. Shame can be useful. It can alert us to things that need to change. But only by the cross can we hear the words of honour on the other side of shame. Only through the death of Jesus can we now stand before God, knowing Jesus is not ashamed of us but honours us before the Father as his brothers and sisters.
This is an excerpt from Rory’s forthcoming book on the cross, Forgiven Forever. See another extract on the question of penal substitution here.
 For a brilliant discussion of the whole topic of shame, including the rise of shaming as a culturally sanctioned practice, see Gregg Ten Elshof’s For Shame: Rediscovering the Virtues of a Maligned Emotion