Grace and Shame: Two of the World’s Most Powerful Forces

Grace can lift us up like nothing else. Shame crushes us like nothing else.

(photo: Pompeo Batoni, “The Return of the Prodigal Son”, 1773)

As we walk, decade by decade, further and further down the wonderful road of our life in Christ, we learn that some of the simplest truths are the most profound. Profound beyond imagination. There is a great humility and freedom in coming to this realization.

One that I have learned is the incalculable distance and distinction between shame and grace. These are two of the most powerful forces in the world for the human being, and it is the rare person who does not live in some substantial struggle between the two of them. One can lift us up like nothing else. The other crushes us like nothing else. In many important ways, where we live between shame and grace defines most everything we believe about God, ourselves, our place in the world and our standing with the Father. Let me explain.

Shame. It’s the statement over one’s life that we are no good, we’ve blown it beyond repair and there is no hope of coming back. You’ve let everyone down by your failure, and you deserve the full assault of the fallout. It’s the statement that your sins and failures can never be forgiven. You deserve them as a millstone around your neck, dragging you down daily into the depths of despair and self-loathing. You have believed the lie that the balance of the universe demands this disgraceful view of yourself. Satan is the author and perpetrator of it. It was he who cast shame upon the shoulders and souls of first two human beings who fell for his lies. It has been a curse upon nearly all of us to this day. Few artists capture this shame better than the great Italian painter Masaccio.

Shame is utterly debilitating. It devastates, it kills. It is often worse and more self-defining than the worst physical pain. Sadly, it seems like our default setting as human beings.

Grace. This is just as powerful and self-defining, but much more rare. It is a total gift of forgiveness, given solely by the desire of the giver, over and against what we might deserve. It says, “Yes, your mistake and the pain it caused me was not insignificant, but you are more important to me than your transgression. I choose to forgive you, and I desire for you to forgive yourself.” It lets go of the past and puts it behind, bringing joy and hope for what lies ahead. It is the incomprehensible gift of unconditional reconciliation between you and God, you and others and you and yourself.

Few pieces of art capture the nature of grace better than Murillo’s The Return of the Prodigal Son.

These two powers are such commanding forces because they can make and define the person to whom they are directed in unspeakably profound ways. One will crush the person in total devastation. Shame is hopelessness with the accent of poisonous, ever stinging thorns. The other, grace, can lift up a person, letting them know they are so much more and deeply loved than what they deserve. It tells them the giver has given up their right to condemn for the goodness of both of you. Grace is forgiving hope with equally freeing and embracing arms. It is so contrary to human nature that it is often difficult to accept.

  • Shame is a lie. Grace is truth.
  • Shame is death. Grace is life.
  • Shame rejects and sends away. Grace accepts and welcomes.
  • Shame crushes, grace lifts up.   
  • Shame is cheap, grace is given at price beyond value.
  • Shame is forced upon us, grace is freely given and chosen.
  • Shame is natural. Grace is supernatural.
  • One is inherently demonic. The other totally Divine.

What are the ultimate and true sources of shame and grace? God’s Holy Word is very clear and pointed on this question.

You are of your father the devil… He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.

John 8:44

And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “…for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God.”

Revelation 12:10

There is no place where the good news, the opposite of condemnation and shame, is presented more clearly than in Romans 8.

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.

 Romans 8:1-2

No condemnation in Christ! And especially…

For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!”

Romans 8:15

Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies.  Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.

Romans 8:33-34

Jesus told us about the distance and difference between shame and grace in very vivid terms in His story of the Prodigal Son. Read it and put yourself in the place of the younger son. The profligate son finally returned home under the crushing shame of his sin. The father had every right to condemn him. In fact, proper protocol demanded he do so. But he would have none of it. He ran to the son, embraced him with tears and celebrated his return with outlandish grace. That is what God does. It’s His heart toward each of us, regardless of how we’ve sinned against Him. He offers and gives us life.

Which will you chose to rule your life and define who you are? Both are there for the taking and your choice will make all the difference in this world and the next. God and Satan are deeply desiring you will chose their offering.

Which will you choose? It really depends on whose story you choose to believe about who you are.