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March 04 2013

DSC_1944-Limage source

My voice came out braver than I felt, startling me.

“I need you to explain what you mean by God-centered shame.”

The entire class turned and looked in my direction. A guy sitting at our table cleared his throat and shifted in his seat.  I didn’t realize the tension in the room until I spoke up. But it was clear: they are the leaders; we are the students. They know more than we do. They speak; we inhale.

I couldn’t ignore my gut any longer – the small voice telling me to speak! – and so I did. I raised my hand, and when my hand was ignored, I interrupted the greeting to ask my question.

The response to my question was mediocre and confusing at best, and so I pushed a little more. “But, I still don’t understand. How can shame exist within His kingdom if Christ went to the cross despising the shame? Shame cannot coexist with grace. It can’t.”

And they told me that it came down to the Greek roots of words, and in 2 Corinthians 7:10, the godly sorrow leading to repentance is really an offshoot of godly shame. We’re faced with our sin, and so ashamed, we’re moved to repent.

People joined in the discussion. I still wasn’t willing to let it go, but my words were starting to trip over themselves because of the almost robotic-like responses of those around me. Phrases like “Well, I think what he means is this…” and “we can definitely feel shame over our sin and it lead to repentance” and “I can totally see how shame, in this context, would be beneficial to our salvation” were said.

And friends, I swear I saw red.

“I still don’t see how they relate.” I said. “Grief is not shame. Sorrow is not shame. When I feel shame, I believe lies. Grief and sorrow are healthy emotions. Shame is not. Shame is negative. Shame speaks lies.”

I felt as if I were a broken record, near tears and shaking. I kept hearing the words of my therapist, reminding me of my worth in Christ, telling me there is no shame in Christ, Elora. None. You’re free from it’s embrace! 

This was more than my love for words and how these people simply weren’t understanding definitions. This was deeper and felt more insidious. It scared me. 

The teacher glanced at his partner, an older man in leadership, and he stepped forward. Looking right at me, he smiled.

“I think it’s important to make the distinction that in Gospel counseling, you would need to take care with how you word this – especially if the person you’re counseling has suffered from something like sexual abuse.” 

And just like that, I was silenced. This wasn’t the safe place I’d grown to love. In a few seconds, it turned into a place where I felt the need to be wary.

You see, it wasn’t that I felt personally attacked by the teacher. I won’t assume he knows my story. But, paired with the crazy-making reaction of those in the class with a reminder that oh yeah – I digest things differently than others, I felt as if my voice didn’t count because I fit into a category they saw as an exception, and therefore unimportant.

After that, my thoughts went something like –

I’m making a big deal out of this, because I suffer from shame.
I can’t see the truth of this, because I suffer from shame.
I won’t be able to read Scripture correctly, or hear the Holy Ghost, because I suffer from shame. 

I ended up leaving the class early, too upset to function and too confused to pay attention.

The other evening, we spoke with a friend who is taking the class now. I raised an eyebrow and took a sip of my water before bombarding her with questions. Apparently, the shame week was this past Sunday and they opened the class with a caveat:

“We need to lay some groundwork before we discuss God-centered shame.”

I choked.

“They opened up the class with an explanation? Before they even talked about it? Kind of like saying we know you’ll have questions so to avoid them, we’ll answer them beforehand.

She nodded, and I could feel my pulse strengthening to the rhythm I know well – This is wrong. These are lies. You need to say something. 

My friend glanced down at her phone, “apparently grief and sorrow come from the same Greek root as shame – at least, that’s what we were told in relation to 2 Corinthians 7:10.” She looked back at me and continued. “But I’ve looked. Those two words mean different things. Every source I find shows different words – not the same one.”

And my stomach twisted at the thought of those in the class who now believe in God-centered shame simply because of a caveat and an explanation of  incorrect linguistics.

There are a few things that concern me in this story.

One: when churches build atmospheres of trust so thick-walled and sure that those in attendance walk around sedated and hungry – taking in everything that’s said as truth. Aside from my husband and friends who took the class with me, there wasn’t anyone else who spoke up about the negative connotation of shame. When I pushed for clarification, the sighs and looks of condemnation were enough to silence even the most outspoken person in the room. Even though I don’t feel as if this situation was an explicit form of spiritual abuse, there’s something very cautionary in handing out explanations of Scripture as if you are the only one in the room privy to such information. The lack of dialogue here concerns me. When I came in with a different perspective and began questioning, those present immediately jumped to defend the leadership. 

I was shaking in my boots by speaking out in the first place. There was no animosity on my end. At least, not until I felt attacked by the class and silenced by the mentioning of abuse.

Second: the issue of words. They mean things. I keep running into these situations where people are hurt or misunderstood because of a lack of clarity or inability to right a wrong. It’s not hard to issue an apology or shift and edit word choice. We live in an imperfect world with insufficient language. It happens. But choosing the right word is worth it.

When I approached the leadership of the class about the phrase God-centered shame, I asked why they didn’t just use sorrow or grief – like the verse says. They told me the Greek root produces a stronger emotion than just the sorrow or grief we know – something more akin to shame. I responded that I’ve experienced grief before and can attest to it being sufficiently suffocating and paralyzing. “Grief, as I’ve experienced it, serves as an incredibly intense emotion. Why can’t we just say grief? Why do we have to say shame? Those two words, within context, mean two completely different things.” 

They shrugged and said something about “seeing my point” but that within Scripture, it says what it says and so that’s that – we’ll stick to “shame.”

But here’s the thing. Those words don’t mean the same thing – not even in Greek. 

In Greek, αἰσχύνη (shame) is a painful feeling due to the consciousness of having done or experienced something disgraceful.  λυπεω (grief) means to be sad, be distressed, or grieve. Two different words. 

It didn’t take me long to figure out what I already knew (thanks, Sean and Preston).

And so we’re left with two words with two different meanings yet often used interchangeably within our culture.

We need to fix this, Church. We should be the ones spearheading campaigns against shame. Those who struggle should feel safe within our walls – not silenced with a pat on the head because they react differently. This is a dangerous and often abusive method of maintaining power. I love the Church – both locally and universally – but we know better. We can do better.

We should know enough of the Gospel to understand that shame has no place within redemption. We need to be able to look our brothers and sisters in the eye and remind them shame whispers the lie of what our sin has created within us but grief and conviction point us to the truth of who we are in Christ. And at no point and in no way does shame lead us to restoration.


  1. Amen to this. By conflating shame and grief, we’ve also slighted the meaning of grief, and made it less serious, less sorrowful that it actually is. Well done.

  2. Great words Elora. I totally agree the Church has become a place for the prim and proper instead of the broken and down trodden. If you have a story, an ugly story, redemption is often a second thought and you are branded with the shame that should no longer exist.
    Thank you for sharing this….we all need to be reminded of His redemption!

    • The church I attended growing up had a motto – “a place for the broken-hearted” – I never knew how rare this was until recently. Thanks for commenting.

  3. Pamela

    Amen to your words. I was blessed by reading them, and internally, cheering: “You go girl – speak the truth.”

    • I’m breathing in those cheers this morning, Pamela. Thank you.

  4. Great blog post. Thank you for sharing and I AGREE 100%

    • Thanks for reading, Phil.

  5. You hit on so many things close to my heart in this post. The fear of questioning “authority.” The negative peer pressure in the church. The tendency of the church to prefer to shame people rather than encourage healthy expressions and understanding of emotions. So much. Thank you.

    • Questioning those in authority is one of my greatest fears, Dani. We’re kindred souls.

  6. I, too, am a word person, and a survivor. The Church is notoriously uninformed on certain issues, and many leaders prefer to stay that way. I feel the same way about the use of the word “rape”. I cringe when I hear it applied to economics, or even the land (and I was a history major, so I heard it a lot!). Specificity is important. Not everyone has access to understanding Greek language, and we must be careful in spouting out definitions that lead to interpretations. Now I’m babbling, but the short version, is thank you for this and yes it hit a nerve for me as well.

    • You hit on so many incredible points here, Melanie. There are so many well-intentioned speakers who say things before processing and it creates confusion. We’re aren’t perfect – I’ve done the same thing. But clarity is key.

  7. Dear Elora ~

    You have bravely, powerfully given us some deep food for thought this morning. Oh how we need to watch our words. Especially those of us who don the mantle of teaching/counseling/leading in any capacity.

    To discern the lies and call them what they are – that is victory.

  8. Melissa

    Grief and sorrow when expressed allow us to move in strength toward life and God. Shame is a wet blanket that clings and holds us down and makes it nearly impossible to breathe, let alone move forward.

    And what really gets me is that these leaders have so bought the lies that shame is a normal part of life that they are protecting them with words. A culture where it is believed that you don’t discern between sorrow and shame makes a poor environment for restoration.

  9. Julie

    “oh yeah – I digest things differently than others,” Been there, done that… spent years finding it out. You are not alone. There are others out here who see and digest as you do. We are just spread out for better effectiveness. :-)

    • We are just spread out for better effectiveness – I love this! Thanks for reminding me I’m not alone, Julie.

  10. “Thank you” seems inadequate but thank you, just the same.

  11. PREACH

  12. Thanks, this was a great post. Thanks for not being silent.

  13. oh my YES. even that phrase “God-centered shame” is a contradiction at its deepest core. shame cannot be centered in or around God because God is not centered in or around shame.

    i cringe inside at how even more shame was seemingly heaped on you as you tried to engage them on this topic, speaking up to those in authority, using your voice though timid and shaky. i’m so sorry, friend. i love you.

  14. Shame, sorrow, and guilt are all different things and can have different causes. Shame is inversely related to honour, glory, and integrity. Our sense of shame should not be confused with a sense of sin. We feel shame when we are publicly ridiculed as we lose ‘glory’ or ‘honour’ (this is why the NT consistently needs to remind us not to be ashamed of Christ). We feel shame when we make a huge mistake in front of a large crowd. We feel naked and exposed. We feel shame when we perform dishonourable and sinful acts, especially when those acts are sexual ones, in which our own bodies are dishonoured (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:18; Romans 1:24). We feel shame and a loss of integrity when someone violates us, because even though we are within sin in the matter, we have been dishonoured.

    A lack of ability to feel shame is not a good thing. As Christians, we should regard certain acts as shameful, and be ashamed that we once partook of them (Romans 6:21). ‘Shameless’ people can do evil and disgraceful acts without any sense of appropriate dishonour.

    Shame is typically a healthy human response to something being wrong, a sense of painful exposure, of a loss or violation of personal, bodily, or moral integrity, or of a loss of glory or honour. Shame is much like our ability to feel physical pain. It is healthy and good that we feel pain and we should never envy those who can’t. However, chronic shame, like chronic physical pain is a terrible thing. The danger of shame lies less in shame itself than in our inability to deal with it appropriately.

    For instance, the solution to our sexual sins is not to dull our sense of shame and the dishonour appropriate to such acts, but to go to Christ for covering of our sense of exposure, guilt, and loss or lack of integrity. We can speak truthfully about the genuine shamefulness of past sexual sins without being destroyed by this because our bodies have been marked out by Christ for glory and honour in the resurrection and all of our sin has been covered with his blood. The same is true of violations of our bodies or public attacks upon our reputations. The answer to these things is not to deny the appropriateness of the pain/shame in such situations (which is just the operation of a psychological alarm system that something has gone badly wrong), but to find in the honour that Christ gives to his faithful servants and his commitment eternally to glorify the very bodies that have been dishonoured by others the true response to it.

    Christians are not people without shame, but people who have found the answer to all of their shame. There is a very important difference between these things.

    • I think you have confused shame and guilt–guilt is a healthy thing that tells us we have done something contradictory to who we are and who God calls us to be. Guilt is the feeling we (rightfully) get when we have done something bad. Shame is the belief that we ARE bad, in our very being. To commit sin should lead us to feel guilt. Shame is when we then take the fact that we commit sin to mean that we ARE sin, that we ARE a mistake.
      Shame has no place in the relationship with God, because in part it is based in fear…and perfect love casts out fear.
      It’s important to distinguish between guilt and shame–one is productive and the other debilitating, one guides us toward more righteous action and the other focuses us inward on a twisted lie about ourselves and about God.

      • Exactly, Teri. Dr. Brené Brown, shame researcher extraordinaire, says the exact same thing. Her book, “Daring Greatly”, journeys into the depths of shame exposing its sources, its debilitating effects on our souls, and how it is very, very different than guilt or grief.

    • MartinJ

      Great thoughts Alastair. The issue for me is that shame and unworthiness seem to be so tightly coupled. Does shame feel like shame if it doesn’t include unworthiness? Does the healthy cycle of shame require us to have feelings of unworthiness?

      The truth I’m living into is that when God reaches down into the pit and pulls me out (Psalm 40) he’s not making a mistake. By choosing me and pulling me out, he is making me worthy. No matter how ugly my muck and mire is, He chooses *me*, He wants to save *me*.

      Can we believe in our own God-given worthiness without dulling the unworthiness and shame? I’m not sure how that’s possible.

      This is a great discussion, and one my community group is struggling through right now as well.

      much love to my fellow travelers…

  15. Susan

    Lewis B Smead wrote a wonderful little book called, Shame and Grace: Healing the Shame We Don’t Deserve. In it he draws a distinction between guilt and shame pointing out that we feel guilt for what we do, we feel shame for who we are; and that we feel embarrassed because we look bad, we feel shame because we think we are bad. He writes:

    “The irony of shame is that our feelings of inferiority are a sure sign of our superiority (When I am weak, I am strong). Some psychologists assume that all bad feelings we have about ourselves are unhealthy. I believe they are mistaken. Our shame may be a painful signal that we are failing to be the person we are meant to be, and may therefore be the first hope of healing (redemption).”

    I once held a very negative connotation of the word shame. No longer. Smead taught me that there is healthy shame and unhealthy shame. Unhealthy shame is a shame that has no basis in reality. The shame I felt when my mother told me that no decent man would ever have me because I was not virgin was unhealthy shame. The sorrow that led me to write an honest, thorough Fourth Step was healthy shame.

    I like Eugene Peterson’s The Message interpretation of the passage. “Distress that drives us to God does that. It turns us around. It gets us back in the way of salvation.”

    I wonder, was it shame Isaiah felt when he said, “Woe is me! I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips.” Smead writes, “Even the purest person feels stained when they look into the eyes of Divine Purity.”

    “Shame has no place within redemption.” I agree. And yet, I cannot deny that it was healthy shame that led me to Christ.

    Thank you for speaking out. You are brave to do so under any circumstances but especially so in the face of subtle opposition from your professors, and a lack of validation from your fellow students.

    Do you attend a conservative or liberal school? A person I know found significant differences in the willingness to dialogue between Gordon Conwell and Andover Newton.

  16. i get this.
    in many church circles, people seem to start with the assumption that it is a greater spiritual feat to submit to leadership rather than question it. and there are times for this.
    but, in my experience, it has been the opposite — the times when i trusted what God was making alive on the inside and giving voice to that, even when it contradicted the status quo — that the most growth happened. not always pretty, and certainly not without mess, but so worth it.
    thank you for this story. for heeding the Truth that sets free.

  17. Sara

    In a comment above, Cassie Chang said “By conflating shame and grief, we’ve also slighted the meaning of grief, and made it less serious, less sorrowful that it actually is.” I couldn’t agree more. This insight might be close to the root of why we evangelicals avoid grief and grieving processes like the plague – are we conflating grief with shame? There’s often implicit shame attached to “not getting over it” in someone else’s time frame, or in not putting on a happy face for everyone else’s sake, or in the emotional intensity of our grief. Thanks for this post and for your willingness to ask questions; and for your bravery to ask those that some may not want to hear.

  18. Cheryl Summers

    As I read this, this scripture came to mind immediately:

    “Those who look to Him are radiant, and their faces shall never be ashamed.” Psalm 34:5

    We can grieve the effects of sin – our own and that of others – on our lives, but may it last just long enough for us to look to Him, remember our identity in Christ and embrace being radiant! Hearing the word “shame” makes me imagine one who head is hanging low, barely able to make eye contact with those around her for the fear of judgment and for the embarrassment of who she is. This is incompatible with radiance!

  19. Yes, Elora. Yes. No shame in Christ. I will be sharing this post.

    • Thankful for you, Shaney.

  20. Jenna

    OK, I think we’ve got two other different words to deal with here for the context.

    1. Condemnation. From the Enemy. None in Christ Jesus. Repels us from healthy confidence to approach the throne. Perhaps your (and my) struggle is rooted in this shame. Enslaving. Caging. Terrible, painful, twisted, suffocating shame. I have it too. I get it.

    2. Conviction. Draws us to Him. The nudge of the Holy Spirit leading us back to Him. Repels us from sin and toward a healthy confidence to approach the throne. Shows us the tragedy of our sin and rebellion contrasted with His good plan and perfect love for us. Freeing. Beauty from ashes. The Refiner’s fire.

    I think when people use “shame” as a good thing they don’t mean shame at all. They mean conviction. Condemning shame is a lie, a product of darkness and a tool of the Enemy. Conviction is a tool of the Spirit, a growth process, a Father’s heart, a Shepherd drawing His sheep back to safety and Home.

    Two VERY different things that are being confused and resulting in what I am willing to call spiritual abuse in some cases (perhaps mine) and ignorant mis-discipleship in others.

    This topic has me shaking because I’m so close to it. But know that right now I’m proclaiming FREEDOM for anyone and everyone and myself who have been taken captive by Church-driven condemning shame. Peace.

    • YES YES YES. Thank you, Jenna. Freedom indeed.

    • Denise

      Wonderfully said thank you. I was told this a few months ago and everything fell into place.

    • Yep! Love this distinction between condemnation and conviction. I also find it helpful as a rule of thumb in distinguishing between conviction and condemnation: conviction is specific, ‘this particualr thing is wrong’, a specific sin, a specific time, the Holy Spirit nudging towards repentance. Condemnation is general, ‘you are worthless’, and is straight from the pit. Preach it!

  21. Again I say to you Eshat Chayil!!!!

    Keep speaking up! Keep questioning! The God I know is big enough to handle it and welcomes it. How else can we grow if not allowed to express what’s in our hearts?

  22. Also, also, also: ““I think it’s important to make the distinction that in Gospel counseling, you would need to take care with how you word this – especially if the person you’re counseling has suffered from something like sexual abuse.”

    1) If it’s worth making the distinction in counseling, is it not worth making the distinction in general? Does language suddenly mean something different when we’re not inside a therapist’s office?

    2) It’s incredibly, incredibly sad that people are still unaware of the statistics on sexual abuse and that the man was unaware of the likelihood that there were SEVERAL victims of abuse sitting in the room at that time.

    • Tamara

      Yes, this! Just what I was going to comment and the line that made me shake with rage when I read it. This man has no place teaching about counseling of any sort if he doesn’t know that likely a third of the women present have been abused, not to even mention the stats for men.

      Elora, you deserve to win the prize of the day for your courage.

  23. rachel s.

    Brene Brown, a shame researcher, is doing really good work around this issue. Like other commenters have said, shame is different than guilt. Guilt is a feeling when we have done something wrong, something that we can and should atone and make amends for. Shame is a feeling that there is something wrong with *me*, with my core self, who God made me to be. That is condemnation, and that IS a feeling we are free from in Christ. Those teachers sound like assholes, frankly. Also, it sounds like you are in counseling school. Been there, sister. There is some tough stuff that comes up in that environment. Thank you for your honesty, and vulnerability. Vulnerability leads to empathy and away from shame. It gives us freedom to do the work God has given and gifted us to do. Peace.

    • I love Brene Brown, Rachel. I got a chance to watch her speak at an educational leadership conference last year and it was amazing. She’s paving the way for incredible dialogue.

    • Elora, thank you for your courage. Oddly, today I read this post as well as Brene Brown’s book, Daring Greatly that Rachel discusses. It is worth mentioning that Brene actually says this “As we work to understand shame, one of the simpler reasons that shame is so difficult to talk about is vocabulary. We often use the terms embarrassment, guilt, humiliation, and shame interchangeably. It might seem overly picky to stress the importance of using the appropriate term to describe an experience or emotion; however, it is much more than semantics… Guilt is just as powerful as shame, but its influence is positive, while shame’s is destructive. In fact, in my research I found that shame corrodes the vary part of us that believes we can change and do better. We live in a world where most people still subscribe to the belief that shame is a good tool for keeping people in line. Not only is this wrong, but it’s dangerous. Shame is highly correlated with addiction, violence, aggression, depression, eating disorders, and bullying… shame is much more likely to be the cause of destructive and hurtful behaviors than it is to be the solution.”

      • The self-appointed experts on shame would benefit from reading a true expert on the subject. Dr. Brené Brown knows what she is talking about and has the research data to prove it. “Daring Greatly” was a great read and an eye-opener for me. Highly recommend it.

  24. I can’t quite get my head around the sheer irony of that teacher shaming you into silence with the old ‘this is what us ordinary Christians feel and believe because it’s what the Bible says. But we better hide those words a bit if there’s someone who can’t take it – because of their experience.’

    This makes me see red too. I’m glad you wrote this.

  25. Elora– Amen, Amen, Amen!

  26. “You would need to take care with how you word this…” I hope I never, ever, even by accident, call something true while admitting that it wouldn’t always be right to speak it. Truth is the thing that it is always right to speak. If it isn’t always right to speak, then why is it ever right to speak? I saw red reading this, too, Elora. Thanks for telling this story and helping to unpack this.

  27. THIS: “But, paired with the crazy-making reaction of those in the class with a reminder that oh yeah – I digest things differently than others, I felt as if my voice didn’t count because I fit into a category they saw as an exception, and therefore unimportant.”
    this is why I have struggled so much to ever feel at home in church since my abuse… I want church to be the only place with a level playing field. The one place that no matter what I have seen, or done, or been done to me, that we are all equal, our views, every single individual viewpoint, matters. And is valued. And heard. And respected.
    I am so sorry for you, Elora… and feel kindred spirit with you experiencing almost the exact same thing over and over…

  28. Well-said. Words mean things.

  29. Elora,

    I’m quietly becoming a fan of yours, having read several of your posts recently. It’s evident you think before you speak, that you choose your words carefully and with great esteem for what they communicate.

    THIS is an excellent piece, smart distinctions without provocation, generous to those who have been less to you. Well done :).

  30. Such wise, courageous words! Thank you, thank you for speaking out against shame and lies and “unquestioned answers”, and for holding steady to Love.

  31. Luke

    thank you.

  32. Elora, okay just catching up here after reading the fb thread (& admittedly chuckling at the GIF’s)….and all I have to say is GOOD FOR YOU, through all that scary, pushing through & searching for truth and writing about it & keeping it put b/c it’s your story, your words, your feelings and there’s nothing you’ve done wrong here now or then. I’m sorry though, that this happened to you! May the body learn from it…

  33. “The majority of shame researchers and clinicians agree that the difference between shame and guilt is best understood as the difference between “I am bad” and “I did something bad.”

    Brown, Brené (2012-09-11). Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead (p. 71). Penguin Group. Kindle Edition.

    I would not only have seen red in that class, I would have cried “BS”, stood and left the room.

  34. “I felt as if my voice didn’t count because I fit into a category they saw as an exception, and therefore unimportant.” Elora, I fit into so many categories that are or seem like exceptions (to me and to others) that “feeling left out” seems a central theme of my life. I know I have much work ahead of me to find healing for that–and my tears right now know it too.

    YES, words mean things! What we say, how we say it, how we *translate* it…theologies and lives are based on this stuff. We must treat it with care. And a little humility to recognize we may not be “right” wouldn’t hurt either.

  35. Love this. Thank you for sharing.
    Thank you for speaking up.

  36. Kathleen

    I too am a survivor and understand the demon of shame too well. I was raped by my therapist (a christian). The crazy making words will make us crazy. I thought chruch was safe it is not. Keep writing. I want to hear more of your journey and how your restoring what you did not steal. Shame is almost always the result of something that was DONE to us by someone..not something we have done. That is why we feel it so powrefully, we are victims and have been silenced. I find it odd that the very one God left on earth to carry out the mission of the Gospel…the Body of Christ does so much wounding to the wounded with their words and misinformation on power, abuse and victims and survivors. Keep writing. You are brave and wonderful to write on such a pressing issue.

  37. carrie

    We’re spending a lot of time “translating” the gospel into “more acceptable” words like “shame” and “brokenness” when “guilt” and “sin” really are what it’s about. Thanks for your stubborn insistence on accuracy.


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