Four Ways To Respond To Public Shame
Written by Paul Maxwell
Private insults shouldn’t bother us, right? Of course, they are rude and revolting, but what’s the opinion of just one person to us? Label them “unsafe” and move on. But public offenses — down-the-grapevine insinuations, online comments, leaked private comments, rumours, gossip, false accusations — they punch us in our heart’s solar plexus: the reputation.
I don’t think there’s anything I protect more rabidly than my reputation. When my reputation is compromised— a hidden sin made public, a confident remark refuted, a witty retort rebuked — I leap to attack the credibility of its critic. I sharply defend myself. When I can’t do that, I focus all of my anxiety and fury on outwitting the source.
The experience of public shame on the Internet is like spilling coke on your shirt at a black-tie event: everyone wants to see it, and it’s devastating for the one who endures it. Perhaps adult life is not so different from middle school.
When there is no recourse to fix the remnants of a perfect picture of oneself, anger is often the first instinct. Rage — from the medieval latin rabia, from which we get the term “rabies” — anger, fury, wrath, foaming at the mouth. But we have become too skilled at hiding our condition. We’re foaming at the soul.
We want to be seen as cool, confident, assured. Never to be questioned. Always to be loved. Until public shame. A comment. A critique. A rejection. A failure. A mistake. And then, internally, huffing. Hysterical. Raving. Rampaging. Violent. Manic. Furious.
There are at least four things that you and I can do — in moments when our bodies start to take over, when our hearts start beating out of our chests — that will allow us to use public shame as an opportunity to drop the dead weight dragging down our souls.
This may feel totally impossible. Those who are shamed have likely already repented, or have even been sinned against. What could there be to repent for?
Surely there is more to our pain than our guilt. Surely there is a seed of righteousness in our anger. That’s definitely possible. But the moment of rage is not the moment to consider the rightness of the anger. It’s the exact opposite. Remember, rage is a disposition toward sin. “One given to anger causes much transgression” (Proverbs 29:22).
The moment of offense is not the moment for the jury. It is the last moment to judge. While counterintuitive, the only thing we need to focus on in a moment of rage is this: turning away from the rage.
Search for a way to repent. We may have to search hard against the self-defending attitude of our own hearts. But it’s not about defending ourselves, because our moment of rage is not about the person who has shamed us. It’s about whether we will allow ourselves to stoop to shameful levels in order to defend shame.
Repentance is the most necessary step in encountering God in our rage, because repentance is one of the hardest things in the world to do — especially when we feel we have good reason to call others to repent.
James examines us, “There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbour?” (James 4:12). Bracket the offense for just a moment. It’s not about the offense. It’s about you. It’s about getting a handle on your soul. If you can’t, you will stumble headlong into shame in ways your accusers or offenders will be happy to exploit.
If repentance is the hardest thing to do while we’re angry, doing some honest soul-searching is the second-hardest. What was really threatened by our shaming? What was really lost? What good thing is no longer available? What streak were we trying to protect? What pristine thing has been soiled that God surely finds so meaningful?
Likely, it’s our social-media image. It’s rooted in fear of the judgment of others. Fear that we won’t compare to the crisp, clean image of others. Anxiety that our “blooper reel” won’t stand up next to the “highlight reel” of others. Fear that we won’t be thought of as godly, disciplined, attractive, intelligent, or witty anymore.
And we look to these things — our profiles, our ability to compare, our reputations — as sources of confidence because we are trying to mitigate our own self-hatred. Really, reputation rage is often hatred of others for unveiling our own self-hatred; for ruining the machinations we’ve set in place to distract us from our own self-loathing. Elie Wiesel rightly comments, “Morbid hatred . . . is always self-hatred.” (Legends of Our Time, 195)
Take this moment, when you no longer can hide behind pretense, to realize that your pretense wasn’t helping you. Your façade only made your life harder. Your commitment to keep a pristine reputation — aesthetic, or performative, or moral, or religious — was the very yoke God liberated you from through the cross. In Christ, “we have become . . . like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things. I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children” (1 Corinthians 4:13–14).
People don’t care about your reputation as much as you think. Your world is not over. God’s work in your life is not over. You didn’t ruin everything. That person didn’t ruin everything.
The gospel of Christ speaks everlasting words over you. “Forgiven” (1 John 2:12). “Mine” (John 17:19). “Beloved” (Jude 17). You don’t have to put on the cape and cowl. You’re not the hero of your own soul. God has restored the reputations of many publicly shamed saints before, and will do so for all in the last day (Revelation 6:11).
David Powlison tells us, “You need to ventilate your anger at God. He’s a mature lover, and mature love can absorb the honest anger of the beloved” (Anger, 13). That’s not to encourage anger at God — which is always a sin — but to encourage honesty about your sinful anger. Don’t add the sin of hypocrisy to the sin of anger against God.
In your anger, stop talking to yourself. Start saying all the true, angry things you feel, but say them to God:
“Why didn’t you protect me?”
“Why am I this way?”
“When will I grow?”
“What will I do now that everyone knows how terrible I am?”
“How can I show my face when everyone believes these lies?”
“I’m so tired of explaining the real story.”
“Please just make this season pass.”
Having our reputation smashed into little bits before our eyes is never easy. Having it smashed by others is even harder. There are so many complex emotions that our bodies and minds were not built to contain on our own. If we try to fix our shame ourselves, we will only expedite the pace of our internal emotional hurricane.
If you feel like the “God factor” just requires all your painful emotions to be bulldozed into joy, find your home with the accused. “In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me. Deliver me, O Lord, from lying lips, from a deceitful tongue” (Psalm 120:1–2). Maybe those “lying lips” are your own (Ephesians 4:25, 31). Maybe they belong to a slanderer (1 Peter 3:16).
God is omni-competent. “Whoever slanders his neighbour secretly I will destroy. Whoever has a haughty look and an arrogant heart I will not endure” (Psalm 101:5). Hand it all over to him in prayer.
It turns out that all the time we’ve spent fantasizing about being admired ends up undercutting us when we fail.
We’re grieved over the shattered self-concepts we were never meant to have. James is not done speaking about the Judge: “Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door” (James 5:9). Quite honestly, when we have found a way internally and authentically to recognize that “there is only one lawgiver and judge” (James 4:12), our barriers dissolve. Maybe we don’t trust the one who betrayed us. Maybe we don’t trust ourselves as much anymore.
Maybe we also find a little less importance in what others think of us. Maybe we start sniffing out a new path in the forest — one in which we are not expected (and do not expect ourselves) to be so perfect that the smallest flaw is elevated to the experience of “public shame” and moves us to rage. Maybe we start repenting over and over again in small situations so that when anger takes us by the neck, we have a kung-fu instinct of humility against it. Maybe that humility allows us to even laugh at the futility of trying to maintain a perfect reputation.
Humility like that will save us from the bear traps of shame our perfectionistic culture lays everywhere we look.
Paul Maxwell is a Ph.D. student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and philosophy professor at Moody Bible Institute.
I need your grace to see myself as you see me. My worth in your eyes is not built upon my work, but Christ’s. He is my vindication, therefore it doesn’t matter what anyone else says. He is my reputation, therefore it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. All others will, in the end, leave me or forsake me…but Christ never will. The approval of man is but a mist that appears for a while and then vanishes (James 4:14). The acceptance and love of Christ are deeply rooted – I was loved before the foundation of the earth (Eph 1:4-5) – and growing into eternity itself. The love of man is fleeting and unstable. The love of Christ is unchanging and unshakeable (Rom 8:38-39).
Help me, Father, to be satisfied in the depths of my heart by the deep, deep love of Christ. Help me to seek approval in him alone. Free me from the desire to find joy and fullness in the approval of others.
In Jesus Name, Amen.
Prayer by James R Sharp