Part of the Purifying Ourselves: Moral Formation in the Bible series

Humility-Shame: A Positive Understanding of Shame from the Cross

The topic of shame has gotten much public attention in recent years. We talk about types of shaming—body-shaming, mental-health-shaming, lifestyle-shaming, and much more—all of which are considered bad. One of the most famous denouncers of shame is Brené Brown, whose TED Talks, interviews, and publications have greatly influenced our cultural view of shame. According to Brown, shame is the feeling that “I’m not good enough.” She also says, “Shame is really easily understood as the fear of disconnection: Is there something about me that, if other people know it or see it, that I won’t be worthy of connection?” This connection is having a sense of love and belonging. Those who have a strong sense of love and belonging feel worthy, while those who don’t, often feel shame. Brown thus dismisses shame as “lethal,” “the source of destructive behavior,” and even calls it “an epidemic” in today’s culture.

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There is truth in Brown’s words . . . up to a point. Shame is the feeling of unworthiness, of not feeling good enough. It can also be understood as feeling marginalized or unaccepted within one’s community, or as Brown would say, “disconnection.” However, Brown cannot envision a shame that has any constructive, positive purpose, nor one that can exist alongside acceptance and connection within one’s community.

In contrast, Scripture paints a different picture of shame. Yes, it is still the feeling of unworthiness, but distinctly for positive, constructive purposes. Moreover, it can be firmly situated within a vibrant, loving relationship with God, and by extension, a community. This alternative picture of shame originates in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ himself, as described by the Apostle Paul in Philippians 2:6–11. Further, in Philippians 3:4–11, Paul reflects on his own life and aspires to the same type of shame that Christ experienced on the cross. This shame is inextricably connected to the virtue of humility and a right relationship with God.

So let’s look at both passages in more detail to see how shame is depicted in such a way that Paul would aspire to it.

Christ Takes the Form of a Slave in Philippians 2:6–11

In this first passage, famously known as the Christ Hymn, Paul describes Christ’s incarnation, crucifixion, and exaltation. He strategically uses various culturally significant phrases and terms that would resonate with the Philippian audience. In this passage, we see the concept of humility emerging from Christ’s act on the cross:

Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. (Phil 2:6–8, NRSV)

To the group-oriented Philippians, the contrasting phrases “form of God” and “form of a slave” register connotations of social status, reputation, and honor vs. shame dynamics.1In group-oriented cultures, one’s outward appearance—such as one’s face, clothing, demeanor, or form—is a culturally-embedded metaphor to describe or indicate a person’s status, reputation, or standing within their given community. Paul is asserting that Jesus relinquished the rights and privileges of his divine status, exchanging it for the status of a slave, a status that carried much shame. The two synonymous phrases “being born in human likeness” and “being found in human form” also draw attention to Jesus’ appearance, a.k.a. his status, now as a man.

This is where the concept of Christian humility originated: in the crucifixion of Christ.

Paul continues: “He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” Jesus’ death was by crucifixion: the most publicly humiliating and shameful death of a slave or common criminal. It is worth noting that the Greek verb from which we get “he humbled himself” is tapeinō, which means “to cause someone to lose status” or “to humiliate.” But what is even more shocking? Christ’s humiliation was not inflicted upon him. The reflexive pronoun “himself” draws attention to the reality that he freely and willingly did it to himself. This did not happen to Christ by accident, but by his own design.

For the Philippian audience, Paul’s description of Christ’s status shifts and self-humiliation could be both shocking and strangely comforting to their cultural sensibilities. On the one hand, Christ’s act of relinquishing his divine status for a slave status would seem illogical, shameful, and foolish. On the other, Christ’s actions would have resonated with the marginalized, those on the fringe of the Philippian ekklesia. No stranger to the experience of shame, this audience would identify with Christ here, feeling some sense of solidarity with him.

In the second half of the Christ Hymn, verse 9 begins with a shift in the grammatical subject of the sentence: God: “Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:9–11, NRSV).

Here, God evaluates the shame-inducing actions of Christ on the cross, and surprisingly declares them not only acceptable, but honorable! God exalts Christ for his actions. This is where we can recall the verb in 2:8 that originally meant “to humiliate.” Retrospectively in light of what transpired in 2:9–11, we can now understand that God recognized a noble, virtuous quality in Christ’s shame-filled actions, and we can instead translate the verb “to humble.” This is where the concept of Christian humility originated: in the crucifixion of Christ.

Honor through Shame and Humility in Philippians 3:4–11

In this second passage, Paul applies his understanding of Christ’s actions on the cross to his own life and relationship with Christ, resulting in aspiration to the same type of shame that Christ experienced. Paul begins chapter 3 with a few dramatic admonitions regarding the Philippians’ behavior and misunderstandings, then in 3:4 transitions to a reflection on his own status within the community. In 3:5–6, he considers his own “resume,” which carries significant prestige and honor. Paul’s family lineage is illustrious and his accomplishments and privileges are enviable:

. . . even though I, too, have reason for confidence in the flesh. If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. (Phil 3:4–6, NRSV)

But then Paul continues his reflection with the startling statement that he thinks all his privileges are worthless when evaluated in the light of Christ:

Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. (Phil 3:7–9, NRSV)

Paul’s words here recall the words of the Christ Hymn, where Christ’s actions redefined the criteria for prestige and acceptance before God. In 3:8–9, Paul presses this point more emphatically. It is no longer just the privileges that he considers a loss, but now everything in his life is considered a loss. Why? Paul makes it clear. He has made this drastic assessment of his life “because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”

By calling Christ “my Lord,” Paul has made it clear that he is describing not just cognitive knowledge, but also relational knowledge. He is talking about having a personal relationship with Christ. To the group-oriented Philippians, having a personal relationship with a person of high status or honor was highly desirable since it increased one’s own status. Put informally, when you are friends with someone of high honor, that honor rubs off on you too! The rest of 3:8–9 reiterates these same ideas. Paul makes it clear that nothing is more valuable or important than having a personal relationship with Christ.

In 3:10–11, Paul concludes this evaluation of his life by describing what this personal “knowing Christ” entails, listing three things to which he aspires: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Phil 3:10–11, NRSV).

First: “the power of his resurrection.” With the Christ Hymn in mind again, this mention of Christ’s resurrection recalls the exaltation and honor that he received then. Thus, here Paul’s desire to know the power of Christ’s resurrection implies a desire to know that honor as well.

Second: “sharing in his sufferings” would cause the Philippians to recall the crucifixion, along with its associated sense of shame and humiliation. Given the proximity of these two phrases, the audience would simultaneously feel the paradox of honor and the shame. The close causal connection between Christ’s humiliation and God’s exaltation as described in the Christ Hymn—where the exaltation came because of Christ’s humiliation—helps us to understand this verse. One could only experience the resurrection because of the sufferings (which comes first!), alongside the associated honor and shame of each. One could not experience one without the other.

The regularly repeated actions of counting all things as a loss in order to know Christ—to know both his honor and his shame—are all necessary to becoming “in Christ.”

Third: “becoming like him in his death.” The personal relationship with Christ is again in view. Paul aspired to be more like Christ in his death. Whereas Christ’s death was a past event, Paul’s use of the present tense in this phrase implies a present, continual conforming in his daily life. The regularly repeated actions of counting all things as a loss in order to know Christ—to know both his honor and his shame—are all necessary to becoming “in Christ.”2Cf. Phil 1:21: “To me, to live is Christ, to die is gain.”

A ‘Humility-Shame’?

What have we learned from these two passages? First, Christ willingly experienced humiliation and shame first via his incarnation, and second via his crucifixion. These voluntary acts were judged honorable in the eyes of God because of that willingness. Consequently Christ’s shame is now understood to be an act of humility. Second, Paul reflected on his own privileges and status within his own community and reassessed them to be worthless when compared to Christ. Instead, he aspired to undergo similar types of suffering and shame as Christ did to achieve the same type of honor, and ultimately to know Christ in a deeply personal way.

Brown’s understanding of shame as wholly destructive and unable to exist within a loving community is entirely different from the shame that Christ experienced and Paul desired. Christ’s shame is one that can be constructive and intended to lead us toward humility, and can exist within a loving community. This type of shame reminds us that we are, in actuality, unworthy before God: it is only through his goodness and grace that we are saved. This posture of shame reminds us of our dependency on God, and this is what humility is all about. Humility is dependence on God.

Paul saw such “humility-shame” as an antidote to the sins of pride and arrogance for himself and the Philippians, and perhaps it is for us too. This “humility-shame” characterized his new way of living. So as we aspire to live “in Christ” as Paul did, may we understand our feelings of shame before God as his tools of correction: necessary, but loving, reminding us that the goodness we experience comes only from God, and is not of our own doing.

End Notes

1. In group-oriented cultures, one’s outward appearance—such as one’s face, clothing, demeanor, or form—is a culturally-embedded metaphor to describe or indicate a person’s status, reputation, or standing within their given community.

2. Cf. Phil 1:21: “To me, to live is Christ, to die is gain.”

Image created by Rubner Durais

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