How Do You Respond to People Who Feel Shame?

Topics: Counseling
Published: July 29, 2010

Over the last several years I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to minister to people struggling with shame. As I’ve witnessed its power to crush the spirit, inflict suffering, and cultivate despair I’ve been driven to scripture seeking the Lord’s help to know how to love the victims of shame wisely.

Of course, I’ve naturally been drawn to passages where Jesus addresses it directly, and I’d like to share a few observations about one of those passages that can help us appreciate the experience of shame and how Jesus responds. In Mark 5:21-34 Jairus, a synagogue ruler, pleaded with Jesus to come to his home to heal his dying young daughter. Jesus agreed and went with Jairus in the company of a great crowd. But in the midst of the crowd was a woman who had suffered from an incurable issue of blood for twelve years. She had spent all of her money seeking medical help but nothing worked; in fact, it only grew worse. So she approached Jesus from behind and touched his cloak because she believed that simply touching his clothes would heal her, and it did.

If you want a case study in shame pay attention to this woman. Notice her behaviors and attitudes. How do we know she was ashamed? First, consider her condition. Illness itself in Israelite culture was considered a form of “uncleanness” and sometimes considered a sign of judgment on sin. To live with a continual flow of blood would have meant that she was continually unclean (Lev.15:25-27) and at risk of making anyone with whom she had contact unclean as well. She was probably shunned most of the time for this reason, an untouchable. We can understand why she would feel the need to sneak up on Jesus from behind.

But why not simply cry out, “Jesus, heal me!” Many had and gotten Jesus’ attention and been healed. Who can say for sure? Perhaps shame had done more of its insidious work in her life than in others and she simply didn’t dare believe that Jesus would take notice and help. Maybe she wasn’t desperate enough. Maybe the anticipated rebuke of those around her or the fear of being ignored was just too much. But perhaps she also knew that this crowd was on the way to Jairus’ house. Who is she to think she could stop the parade? After all, Jairus is a synagogue leader. Surely her concerns aren’t as important as his. And his daughter is dying. She’s lived in this condition for years. So rather than risk exposure, rebuke, rejection, and more shame she decides to risk a touch. Just a touch.

Sound familiar? Do you know people who desperately want and need help but at the very same moment feel so unclean, so utterly defiled, so different from everyone else that most of their efforts go into hiding and covering up their problems? They can’t believe anyone could possibly love them. For them, to be truly known is synonymous with rejection. Like the suffering woman they occasionally risk sneaking up on you and hoping for just a touch of compassion and help, but the risk for them is enormous. Know anyone who considers their very existence an interruption to the lives of others? Know someone who punctuates most of their sentences with “I’m sorry.”? They know they need help but to ask anything of another is to be an infuriating interruption in someone’s life.

Now consider Jesus’ response. He stops the procession. He demands to know who touched him. What is the woman to do? She senses that she can’t hide so she falls at his feet “trembling with fear and told him the whole truth”. What will he do?

Rebuke her for her fear? “Why don’t you just ask for what you need!?”

Ask her to search for the reasons that God has so afflicted her? “Surely there is some reason this has happened to you. Any unconfessed sin you would like to share with the crowd?”

Call her out for her sneaky approach? “You’re trusting in yourself and your own sneakiness! Repent now or there will be no healing for you!”

No. He says, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.” [italics mine] Can you imagine the shock, the relief that this woman felt? She hadn’t just been healed of a disease, but of shame. Jesus simple actions said,

“You are not an interruption.”
“I’m not afraid to connect with you.”
“I care about you.”

And rather than picking over her actions and locating possible sins, he observes that for this woman, her actions are a testimony of faith.

I suppose the woman could have remained silent, sneaked away, and relished the healing she received. But I think that ultimately she would have been terribly harmed. Sure, the external source of her shame would have been removed, but what of her heart? Her efforts at covering herself would have been validated. She would have as much faith in herself as in Jesus. And what would her faith have been like? She would have great faith in Jesus power, but would she believe in his compassion and love?

There are many things we can learn from this passage but a few take-aways for me are:

  • I want to combat shame by pointing people to the love of Christ, but just as importantly I want to embody that love. My actions and attitudes communicate. Jesus’ words were important but his actions were too.
  • I don’t want to be so eager to identify sin in others that I miss the more immediate need of compassion and love. Locating sin and speculating about poor motives really is a lot easier than being patient, kind, and compassionate. I want to give others what they need in the moment, not what is easy for me.
  • I don’t want the people in my life to feel like an interruption. May God have mercy on me, because I think sometimes they do.
  • I don’t want people with problems to think I’m running from them, but sometimes in my fear I do.
  • I can be honest about my limitations of time and wisdom without letting them think they are too needy to be helped or cared for. To do that I need to confess my own pride and self-reliance.

If you want to know how to love the shamed more wisely, the first step is to look around for those “sneaking up on you” just hoping to steal a touch and give it to them. Notice them. Make time for them. Invite them to give voice to their suffering. Embody and point them to the love of Christ.


Winston Smith is a counselor and faculty member at CCEF.