Shame & Repentance

Shame is a powerful motivator. Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton learned this the hard way a few weeks ago when he was disrespectful towards and dismissive of a female reporter’s question, simply because she is a woman in the masculine world of pro football. After 24 hours of dominating the news cycle, and being denounced by anyone within shouting distance of a microphone (not to mention losing numerous fans and a lucrative endorsement deal), Cam apologized for his words and for the offense they caused, but it is worth noting, he did not take responsibility for the attitude behind them. He claimed it wasn’t what he meant, and that it didn’t reflect his true feelings. He had been shamed into submission, shamed into regret, shamed into apologizing, but not shamed into repenting. This is because shame in itself is powerful, but it is also superficial. Shame is a sad, paltry substitute for repentance.

Where do we first find shame in Scripture? Exactly where one would expect to: at the Fall in Genesis 3. Adam and Eve, having disobeyed God for sad and idolatrous reasons, realize that they are naked, are rightly ashamed and hasten to cover themselves. This has always struck me as odd: why, with them being the only people around (and husband and wife, no less), would they feel the need to cover their nakedness, even with laughably inadequate fig leaves? I recently saw this puzzle from a new perspective when I read a book by Cornelius Plantinga entitled Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, that argued that the shame and impulse to cover their nakedness came from a newfound fear of vulnerability and exposure, and such vulnerability is most pointedly illustrated by nakedness.

Adam and Eve (and perhaps even Cam Newton) felt the emotional agony of shame, and did what came natural to them and to us: they sought to address what they now perceived to be the problem, nakedness. This is the only thing shame in and of itself can do: it can drive us to change our behavior or situation to make everything better again. The only solution to shame is behavior modification. Shame invites us to change what we are doing to restore peace, inner peace, outer peace, and even upward peace. But changing what we are doing does not change who we are. Adam and Eve were not merely naked; they were also exposed, as idolaters and sinners. Covering their nakedness did not solve their real problem, which was too big for them to bear.

If shame produces emotional pain and some behavior modification, how is repentance itself different from shame? The key is the orientation of the heart. Shame is oriented towards self: self-preservation, self-soothing, self-improvement. Repentance is oriented towards God. Repentance is turning not from one behavior to another but from worshiping self to worshiping God. Life change is a product of worshiping God, from beholding the face of Christ in obedient worship (II Cor. 3:18). Shame lets you know that you are ill, but repentance lets you know that your behavior is but a symptom of that inner illness, which is idolatry. Worshiping God is the cure for this disease, and all its attendant symptoms.

How, then, can we know we have moved from shame into repentance? Is it changed behavior, a different attitude, a kinder, gentler you? Nothing so superficial as our public face can give us such confidence. No, it is all about worship; not about what we do, but why we do it. Social acceptance and inner peace are precious things, but they are not ultimate things, and repentance, in its biblical sense, only deals with ultimate things because it is an interaction with the Ultimate Being, God Himself. Don’t be distracted by the external, whether good or bad, but simply worship God by grace through faith in His Son, Jesus Christ, and allow repentance to bear its fruit. Only then will shalom, or true peace with God and man, be ours.


Zac McNeal is GRC’s Youth Ministry Assistant.  He and his wife, Joy, have been members since 2016.