“When I was a little girl, something shameful happened to me that has troubled me all my life. And in all my years, I’ve never heard a sermon on shame. So I want to thank you for your message, because today, your sermon has set me free.”
That’s basically what she told me. We’ll call her Eleanor for the purpose of this post (it’s not her real name).
It was February of 2013. I was invited to preach one Sunday for the missions week at a church in Tempe, Arizona. My assignment was to introduce the subject of honor and shame to this congregation. A copy of The Father’s Love Booklet was given to each person attending so they could follow the amazing and beautiful honor/shame dynamics in the story of the Prodigal Son. I also shared a little of my own story about how a “shadow of shame” had affected my life. It was a good morning. I felt good about what I had, by God’s grace, communicated from God’s Word.
But I was really surprised by Eleanor. She came to me after the service. Her eyes were twinkling with joy. One person who knew her said she had been involved in befriending international students as a big part of her ministry—for years and years. I think Eleanor was around 70 years old. What Eleanor said was stunning and bears repeating: “… in all my years, I’ve never heard a sermon on shame.”
Why don’t pastors preach on shame? Pastor John Forrester says it well:
“We Western pastors have a blind spot. In a word, that blind spot is shame. We don’t learn about shame in seminary. We don’t find it in our theological reading. We don’t recognize it on the pages of Scripture. We don’t see it in our people. Shame is just not part of our pastoral perspective.” –John Forrester
In my learning journey about honor and shame, I’ve discovered four reasons why there is a persistent blind spot about this vital issue:
1. Theological blind spot. The first reason is that—compared to innocence/guilt—the matter of honor/shame has been largely ignored as a matter of theological inquiry. Most seminary students preparing for the pastorate study systematic theology. Take a look at whatever systematic theology book you may have: When one compares the amount of material concerning sin and guilt compared to sin and shame—one discovers that sin and shame is almost completely ignored.
2. New area of study. The second reason is related; it’s a relatively new area of study. In the fields of anthropology, theology and missiology—shame and honor have only recently been understood as significant for understanding and interpreting the Scriptures, or for understanding peoples from the Majority World.
3. Blind spots are common. The third reason is that blind spots are common—they’re a part of the human condition. Christians in every society, every culture have theological blind spots, no matter how mature.
4. Shame is taboo. This reason is more subjective. To study honor and shame implies a personal willingness to explore shame in one’s own life and one’s own church community. All too often, chronic shame is unintentionally promulgated in the church. It can be uncomfortable for Christian leaders to address these things—causing resistance in studying the matter.
Let’s quit ignoring shame as a matter of theological inquiry. The sinful shame-pathologies which permeate our world are calling pastors and all believers to provide authentic answers. Wonderfully, the Bible is full of hope for not just our sin and guilt, but also, our sin and shame!
This post is partially excerpted from the forthcoming book, THE GLOBAL GOSPEL: Achieving Missional Impact in Our Multicultural World. If you would like read or review the pre-published manuscript write to Werner Mischke at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. John A. Forrester: Grace For Shame: The Forgotten Gospel (Toronto: Pastor’s Attic Press, 2010), 9.