Shame and Religion's Role

February 28, 2017
Dave Blundell
4 min
Church & society
Shame and Religion's Role

Guilt is, “I did something bad;" shame is, “I am bad;” a devastating distinction if we don’t know the difference.

I can’t talk about shame without acknowledging the work of Dr. Brene Brown. She has brought a message of hope and healing with her research about shame and I’d more than suggest you read whatever she writes. Anyone who influences anyone should be keenly aware of what shame is and when we do it, even inadvertently.

What kicks me in the gut, as a Christian Leader, is the role that religion plays in shaming people. The very force that should give life, often kills someone's soul.

Someone I know well was removed from their lifelong Christian community after some bad choices. The result was devastating. This person fully admitted guilt and took responsibility. Guilt was a good motivator to change behavior. However, from a spiritually-motivated focus on behaviour, the “consequence” was rejection. The message was, “I am acceptable if I do good…and I am rejected if I do bad.” That’s the difference between I did something bad (guilt) and I am bad (shame).  

Religion has this nasty habit of focusing on behaviour over relationship. It has the propensity to try and change someone’s behaviour with shame. Why do we often hear people say they feel “less than” in the presence of someone religious? “I already feel bad about myself…why would I want to go to church?” “They (the religious) just think they are better than everyone else.” Sadly, we have equated being religious with being well behaved.

I have met far too many people who think they can influence someone's behaviour by making them feel small. We do that by:

  • Making them feel even worse for their mistake
  • Belittling them, often in front of other people
  • Statements like “I told you so!”, or “I could have told you that!”
  • Putting them down or humiliating them
  • Making our displeasure or disappointment another consequence of someone's mistake

From my experience, the vast majority of people know when they have made a mistake. And when they do know, they already feel bad. Why do we think it’s our job to make someone feel worse for something they already feel bad about? Why do we feel it’s our job to point out flaws or base someone's worth on their behaviour?

“Our need to judge others is deeply motivated by our need to evaluate our own abilities, beliefs and values… judging others allows us to appraise and compare our abilities, beliefs and values against the abilities, beliefs and values of others.” - Brene Brown

How did Jesus make people feel when they made a mistake? Did he ever try to make someone feel worse for something they already felt bad about? Did he ever shame someone? He did point to guilt…but never to shame. The woman at the well. The woman caught in adultery. The sick. The hungry. The demon possessed. They all felt more in His presence, not less.

It breaks my heart when I see someone feel they need to shrink when they make a mistake. They believe that their acceptance or worth is earned by perfect behaviour. I’ve seen it in families, offices, churches, teams, friends, and even on baseball fields. I can understand shame coming from the world, but I can’t fathom it coming from those who claim to follow Jesus.