“Shame on you!”
“I’m ashamed of you.”
Sound familiar? Maybe these words take you back to your childhood. Maybe you hear them coming from your own mouth.
You might have noticed that shame is not a popular concept in our culture. I recently watched a video on evangelism. As the pastor spoke with a wide range of students on a college campus, there was a consistent response: the avoidance of shame. “I’m a good person.” “It’s not my place to judge.” The world has made a religion out of avoiding shame. Shame is the ultimate enemy.
The other day my 9-year-old tattled on his little brother. “He’s being stubborn!” The 5-year-old immediately defended himself. “It was an accident!” (Is that even possible? The questions that keep me up at night…)
It’s hard for us – and our kids – to own up to our sinfulness. Nobody wants to feel bad. How can we be gospel-centered parents in an anti-shame culture?
If we took our cue from the world, we could treat shame as the ultimate enemy. We don’t want our kids to feel bad, do we? Why not protect them from that horrible feeling? We could call their sin an accident (like my 5-year-old did), or we could call it a “phase.” We could say it’s just their personality. We could blame ourselves for their sin: “I shouldn’t have made him angry.” “I should have given her more choices.”
But, if we constantly protect our kids from shame, they won’t recognize their sin. If they don’t recognize their sin, they won’t know their need for a Savior. Shame serves a valuable purpose in gospel-centered parenting.
But shame-based parenting is not the answer. Shame-based parenting uses shame as a weapon. It says, “If you don’t do what I say, I will make sure you feel miserable.” It might get the reaction you’re looking for (crying, apologizing, complying), but shame alone doesn’t change the heart. In fact, it can harden our kids’ hearts. Kids will do whatever it takes to avoid that feeling – including hiding, lying, appeasing, and eventually running away from it as fast and as far as they can.
Many people raised in the church can look back on their childhoods and identify shame culture. Shame culture is used to control outward behavior. It is fueled by fear of what others think: What does the church think of me? What do my parents think of me? What do my peers think of me? It teaches us to conform to a standard set by others and to look inward for goodness. It is great at creating Pharisees, but bad at cultivating Christ-followers – and terrible at producing hope.
In his book “God of the Garden,” Andrew Peterson describes shame as a haunted wood: “If he (the little boy) could run fast enough, or hop the train, or disappear into a book, maybe he can find refuge, or at least forget for a little while that he is doomed. I wish I could tell him what I know now: there is a presence in the woods that is older and stronger and kinder than the ghost that harries him…a presence that can transform the dark forest into a garden of wonders.”
What an amazing opportunity – to lead our kids from the darkness of their shame to the glory of the cross. Kids don’t naturally know what to do with their shame. They will wear it like a burden. Jesus said, “Come to Me all who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest…for My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30) It’s easy to point out our kids’ sin because it’s in our faces all the time. But how often do we point them to the only true rest for their souls?
Forced shame will always backfire. We can’t manufacture shame that leads to repentance. We can only show our kids where shame comes from and what to do with it. We can say, “What you did was sin. We all sin. That’s why we need Jesus to forgive us.” We can show them that our sin is real, but there is a real solution. We can take our shame to Christ and exchange it for His glorious robes of righteousness (Isaiah 61:10).
As our kids get older, they will eventually have to look their shame in the face. It is sobering and scary when we realize we are not as good as we thought we were – when we realize that “bad” is on the inside, not just in the world around us. But we can prepare our kids now to answer their shame with the gospel. We can help them say with John Newton, “I am a great sinner and Christ is a great Savior.” Our shame does not have the final say. The answer to our shame has been recorded for all eternity: “It is finished.” (John 19:30)
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