What can psychology show us about a biblical concept of shame?

Ever since I listened to Timothy Keller on the podcast (https://biologos.org/podcast-episodes/tim-keller-francis-collins-where-is-god-in-a-pandemic), I’ve read and listened to more of his resources. This podcast with Cary Nieuwhof (https://youtu.be/zNve3Hexh28) was particularly interesting, where in it, Tim Keller discusses how people generally respond to the gospel according to how we societally understand our needs. Therefore, framing spiritual conversations and implying that Christ will meet another’s deepest needs has not been constant, and is very dependent on our contemporary wants and needs.

I’m not concerned that this shift in understanding undermines God’s Word, just how we connect with people and understand the gospel for ourselves. I do relate to how the gospel addresses our worth and purpose (12:30 in the video), and not so much that I feel shame and need Jesus to take away my sins (6:20 in the video).

Many of the shifts in how we experience our deep needs involves shame and it seems to be adequately addressed by modern societal trends that don’t require forgiveness from God through Christ’s sacrifice. I really understand wanting to have no need to experience shame if there was nothing to be ashamed of in the first place. And I wouldn’t want to listen to “good news” from someone who is making me feel ashamed.

However, what has the role of shame been in our evolutionary psychological and social development? How might this need to be addressed as we share the gospel with younger generations and implore that an identity in Christ is what makes us whole and that shame can have a vital purpose?

1 Like

Great question. For me it starts with

and how we join up the dots to

whatever that means.

I find shame pathological and nothing resolves that but letting it come and go, questioning it rationally in passing. The trouble is it gets a grip. And yes I call out to God, who yearns back, the only evidence for that being the Jesus story.

We all need to walk naked together like Brené Brown in her awesome TED Talks and works. She can do no wrong. Not an identity that Christ had except exponentially on His last day.

I just listened to Rachel Held Evan’s book, Inspired, this week. and I really liked what she had to say about the cultural context of shame-based culture! Probably not super helpful to your conversation, but a good listen if you want to think about the Bible and ANE culture in relation to this topic!


Good questions to think about. A while back I was in a Sunday school class with a teacher who had been going to school to learn about restorative justice (and eventually taught educators about how to use it in schools), and he talked a lot about shame and how it affects people, with a focus on parenting. He believed that in the story of Adam and Eve, their experience of shame was a new emotion – so in a sense, “the fall” as we see it was the first time that humans experienced shame, and it’s been with us ever since.


Oh yes! And my preacher talked about that exact thing this weekend. and now i have a feeling that maybe I just mixed him up with listening to that book. BAHAHAHAHA


I work cross-culturally and the idea of culture types (shame-honor, guilt-innocence, fear-power) has been very influential. Cultural anthropologists say that all three orientations are basic human traits, but cultures tend to gravitate toward one dynamic over another. Generally America is considered a guilt-innocence culture and our presentations of the the gospel focus on personal guilt for sin and rely on judicial and transactional metaphors (cancelling a debt, Jesus paying the price, personal forgiveness, wiping the slate clean, ripping up the sentence, etc.) There is some sociological evidence that younger generations have shifted to more honor-shame modes. In honor-shame cultures, your standing in the community is more important and things like disgrace and reputation and shunning are more important. A lot of things that happen on social media and with “cancel culture” and virtue signalling are better explained by honor-shame dynamics. (See this Andy Crouch post for example, http://andy-crouch.com/articles/the_return_of_shame)

Lots of Bible scholars have been exploring how these cultural orientations affect reading the Bible (which many people see as produced in an honor-shame context, though the early church was doing missions in guilt-innocence and fear-power contexts too.) and presenting the gospel effectively. Jackson Wu’s Patheos blog has tons of resources on honor-shame readings of the Bible. The book The 3D Gospel by Jayson Georges is also really good.

I was just reading up on moral foundations theory (popularized by Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind) and of his six proposed moral foundations (which he sees as evolutionary adaptations) honor/shame relates to ingroup/loyalty, power/fear relates to authority/respect and innocence/guilt relates to justice/reciprocity. If you are looking for evolutionary psychology based bridges to thinking about these topics…


All excellent. But I am not alone, far from alone, in being trapped by the habit of intrusive pathological shame which I feel must originate in fear-power from parents and teachers.


I would challenge your premise that shame plays a positive and necessary role in the gospel. On the contrary, in the Bible I see only examples of sinful people trying to shame others. Shaming people into joining their little cult may be the way some communities work that identify themselves as Christian, but I think that is an example of bad religion. Repentance YES, but shame no. Jesus’ refrain, "your sins are forgiven, so go and sin no more. It is the future which is important not the past.

This use of shame goes hand in hand with the definition of sin as disobedience which is all very useful to those using religion as a tool of power and manipulation. For them salvation is all about getting the benefit of some human sacrifice powered spell which enables God to forgive. I am not buying into that sort of sickness. God has no problem forgiving sin. Jesus demonstrated that quite conclusively. The real problem is sin itself which is destructive in its own right. Salvation isn’t about forgiving past mistakes, but about getting rid of the sins which are destroying us. Cheap forgiveness doesn’t help with that goal, which is what all the Hebrews 9:22 and Jesus laying down His life for us was all about.

I did just fine in my life without any of that garbage. This manipulative shame crap is not conducive to a healthy mind or society. This is just a means for self-righteous pharisees putting on a show to lord it over those they label as deserving to feel shame with some imaginary hierarchy of sin which somehow makes the sins of others count for more. Repentance is different – instead of obsessing over the past it is about determination for the future. THAT is healthy. Shame is not!

I second @christy’s mention of honor-shame in the Bible and Jackson Wu. Here’s a great one-minute video showing the difference between traditional Western readings of Romans and one sensitive to the honor-shame culture of the Mediterranean world:

Biblical writers assumed their readers understood the implicit social values of honor-shame cultures, such as: patronage, hospitality, purity, ethnicity, family, reciprocity, etc. But modern readers don’t intuitively know the assumed cultural nuances of ancient societies. So we misunderstand (or simply miss) aspects of the Bible because of cultural blindness. This problem is acute for Westerners because their guilt-innocence culture differs significantly from biblical cultures. Modern Western values such as legality, individualism, egalitarianism, and rationalism influence how we read the Bible, but they were not prominent in ancient cultures.


Thank you for your responses! @Christy and @Jay313 , that article and the ANE honor/shame distinction are extremely helpful and pretty much what I’m looking for.

@Klax, I see where shame could be pathological. There are certainly conditions that are more predisposed to experiencing shame (like ADHD). It definitely has it’s grip, but how much, I wonder, is brain chemistry and how much is sociocultural (and probably depends on the individual). Even within one society, there can be different ways of experiencing and dealing with shame. I also really appreciate Brené Brown’s research and her reliance on the data! Not seeing the data, I wonder what the demographics are and what that says about how her clients have dealt with shame. She often refers to her work with those with PTSD, which affects every demographic and they experience extreme emotional distress. Her books have been incredibly helpful.

@mitchellmckain, I’m mostly concerned with how we deal with shame. I certainly agree that manipulative shame is inappropriate and dangerous. Yet we do experience shame and guilt regardless of wishing shame upon others. They can be tools because we can pay attention to them to read what is going on within us and put that in context. Am I experiencing guilt because I am guilty, and according to what law? Am I ashamed of destructive behavior? These can lead me to repentance and healing relationships, or a realization that my personality and experiences and brain chemistry disproportionately affect my emotions and that my cultural expectations are unrealistic.

@Laura, that’s very interesting that shame could have been an affect of the fall. I’d like to find out more of how that relates to what was changed by the fall, such as death and the concept of goodness. Maybe that’s part of the “death” that we now experience. Not so much that a life ends, but it ends with some kind of blemish.


I look forward to your TED talk. I’ve checked out the Haidt book again. The clarity sure is refreshing.

TED talk? Are you going to give a TED Talk, @Christy? And if so, how did I miss that? Let us know about this!

It would be great, wouldn’t it? Especially on this very topic. But I’m afraid I’m being more of an instigator than a good reporter here.

1 Like

Shame on you! Getting my hopes up like that. All the same … I’ll happily instigate along with you.


Ha! No, no plans. Mark is always hinting about my upcoming books and lectures that aren’t really happening, and I keep telling him that anyone who wants to be subjected to my deep thoughts just has to keep hanging around here and collect them as they come dribbling out. I’m sure there already are enoughTED talks on these topics to spare.

Maybe we could put on make up and sneak in on one of her home school classes?

They don’t make that much make up.

1 Like

:laughing: Guess you’re right.

Seriously … it might be cool (@HRankin?) for Biologos to have somebody engage in the full time job of wading through the massive content that has collected here over the years, somehow picking out the best of the best and publishing it. Not sure how copyrights work when stuff is ‘crowd-sourced’ like this (and by mostly anonymous identities besides), but isn’t everything recorded here technically the property of Biologos now?

[Sorry - I realize this is off-topic. Back to regular programming of psychology and shame!]


And you a moderator! Shame! :grin:

1 Like

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

This is a place for gracious dialogue about science and faith. Please read our FAQ/Guidelines before posting.