"You should be ashamed of yourself!"
No doubt many of us as kids heard remarks like that from our mom or dad. Maybe we had lied, played with matches, or been stopped for speeding in our mom's car. Whatever the infraction, we all implicitly knew (and rightly so) that we should feel bad about the wrongs we committed.
But too often our understanding of shame dwells at the extremes. Some are captivated by absolution and excuses, finding reasons not to be ashamed of the sinful behavior they are responsible for. On the other side are those who seek to dominate others through shame, using it as part of a harsh and controlling punishment that lacks anything resembling the grace and mercy God exhibits toward us. Neither of these extremes is appropriate; both avoid significant truths about God and humanity that Paul made clear in later chapters of Romans.
Novelist and essayist George MacDonald wrote: "To be humbly ashamed is to be plunged in the cleansing bath of truth."¹ Appropriate shame neither cripples through domination nor remains altogether absent. Shame should bring us to humility, not to humiliation. In its proper function, it serves to remind us that we are not self-sufficient, that because of our weakness in the face of temptations, we need to rely on Someone greater than ourselves to live well.
Too often we experience shame over the wrong issues or in too great a degree. Paul, in Romans 1:16, drew an important boundary around shame. He marked off the things of Christ, leaving shame to the realm of the sinful and disobedient. So it made perfect sense for Paul to say that he was "not ashamed of the gospel." He had no reason to be ashamed of it!
As we walk humbly with Christ and grow in Him, we will become more aware of our imperfections and more appreciative of His grace. Therefore, we should humble ourselves before God that we might be cleansed of our sin and shame, allowing ourselves to walk boldly into the world as God's representatives on earth, speaking truth, encouraging love, and showing kindness to those we encounter, just as Paul did.