The Government of Shame


My independence didn’t occur overnight.

Nor did it happen when I got my driver’s license, went off to college, or got married.

I was independent well before any of these events. I was earning my own way by fifth grade, often working two jobs, in addition to school. Well before I took my first airplane ride—Dallas Love to Los Angeles International—I knew my way around the kitchen and I knew how to handle the power tools in the garage.

I don’t remember when my Mom first asked—as I was headed out the door to somewhere—“Do you have on clean underwear?”

Eventually this query of hers became Gillham-family humor, but early on, I knew Mom was serious. If something happened to me while I was out, and I ended up at the hospital or the morgue, Mom wanted to know she would not be ashamed that I had on dirty underwear. Later, the joke was that clean underwear were more important than our wellbeing, but that was only later.

Shame is powerful. If appearance and performance are the currencies that earn acceptance and approval, then an unkempt appearance or poor performance are shameful.

Around 370 years before Christ was born, Plato penned a work titled, “Phaedrus.” It’s an imaginary discussion between his mentor, Socrates, and a young man named, Phaedrus. In the discussion, Socrates illustrates the concept of right as being like a magnificent horse that has no need of the whip, “…but is guided by word and admonition only,” and is always obedient because of “…the government of shame.” 


I endured her attempt to shame me with the comfort that I did what was right.


Socrates is saying, through the authorship of Plato, that what is right isn’t done by humankind because it is the right thing to do, but for fear of being shamed and ashamed. Even given its honor and nobility, right is too weak to reliably govern itself. A stronger force is necessary to supply sufficient incentive if right is to prevail, for appearance to be maintained, and performance to be exemplary. No resolution of will power is strong enough. Only the perpetual government of shame can reliably deliver what is right.

If you have read much of my Mom’s writing, you know she battled perfectionism. For much of my life, she lost that battle regularly, requiring perfection of herself and me. When I failed, the shame lasted for days—both in her and in me.

As I got older, I realized that perfection was unreasonable. In fact, when I did something perfectly, it often still didn’t meet the standard. I couldn’t buck Mom, or confront her, or reason with her. Well, I guess I could have, but now we are back to the question of showing up at the morgue with clean underwear.

My eventual plan for survival was to figure out what the right thing was to do, then do my best to perform what was right. While perfection was unreasonable, doing the right thing was reasonable.

Doing the right thing enabled me to manage Mom within my own head. If right wasn’t good enough, and she got wormy over the lack of perfection, I endured her attempt to shame me with the comfort that I did what was right to the best of my ability.

I never told Mother this. I simply nodded when she placed shame upon me, as though I was taking her shame upon myself, then jettisoned it as soon as possible and assuaged my offended soul with the reassurance that I had done what was right.

Navigating my Mom’s (and Dad’s) governance empowered by shame served me okay while I was at home. But, shame ambushed me. While I knew Mom fought this dragon, I didn’t realize I adopted a similar method for managing my own appearance and performance.

In both Mom’s and my economy, acceptance was not granted, it was earned. For Mom, perfect performance and appearance rendered acceptance. For me, doing the right thing, and looking right while doing it, rendered acceptance.

For both of us, other people were easily managed through our intentional appearance and performance. The hard person for Mom to please was herself, because she knew better. For me, the most ruthless person on the planet when I failed to do the right thing was me—in truth, is me.

Mom was a wildly talented, articulate, beautiful, and winsome woman (she’s gone now, but you can read about her here). She could out perform nearly anyone on the planet with one arm tied behind her back. I’m similarly strung together. So, pleasing other people is not hard.

At least not hard compared to pleasing God. He’s second-hardest on the list and exponentially more difficult to keep happy than others are. He’s also more dangerous in that He has hell at His disposal, both literal and figurative.

But on a completely different level from others or God is self-acceptance. Mom fought—she’s now free of her delusional philosophy—to attain self-acceptance. When Mom failed, she got depressed. When I fail, I’m brutal toward me.

The governance of shame is meted out in ruthless self-criticism, condemnation, ranting, raving, self-cursing, and condescension. The government of shame is dismissive, demeaning, discounting, derisive, and abusive. If right appearance and performance produce acceptance, then no mercy can be shown for any compromise.

It doesn’t matter who you read: Plato, Freud, Glasser, Maslow, Fromm, Frankel, Lewis, the Old Testament, or the New Testament—they all agree: If you as a human being are insecure about your unconditional love and acceptance, you are afflicted with a major impediment. All forces within reach of your soul will be brought to bear until unconditional love and acceptance are secured.


Augustine’s devotion to confession significantly influenced how Catholic theology believes God manages mankind.


This is the simple logic behind God telling us that He is love (cf. 1 Jn 4:8). For all of what must be an infinite list of character qualities, God reduces His identifying marker to one thing: love. Period. “While there’s a lot more to know about me, that’s all you need to know,” God is saying. 

What’s powerful about shame is its declaration that unconditional love and acceptance don’t exist. One of the most famous people to diligently read Plato is Augustine, who lived six hundred years later and wrote a book titled, “Confessions.” Bless Augustine’s heart. As a young man, Augustine tried everything there was in the world to try. He committed sins I’ve never heard of. But upon his wicked journey of life, Augustine gave his life to Jesus Christ, and as He always does, Jesus turned debauched Augustine into the man we know as St. Augustine.

The transformation was astounding, as you can read in his book. And, his influence was remarkable. Out of his theological thinking—the man was brilliant—came what we know as Catholicism. Of course, Catholic theology is a compendium of systematic thoughts collected over 2500 years, but Augustine’s devotion to confession significantly influenced how Catholic theology believes God manages mankind.

Backing up a step, Augustine was deeply influenced by Plato. The two were somewhat kindred souls even though separated by six centuries. Both longed to overcome his moral, ethical, and human failings. Both tried to manage his dark side with the power entrusted to a government of shame.

Thomas Cahill describes how Augustine studied Plato, desperately wanting—needing—something more, but failing to find it in Plato’s writings. “Who else even talks of these things,” he wondered. “And then the answer comes to him: Saul of Tarsus, the wiry, bald-headed Jew whose awkward, importunate letters, signed “Paul,” the Christians have been using as scripture” (How the Irish Saved Civilization, p. 56).

Augustine read St. Paul. He studied Plato more deeply. Plato advanced—in all fairness, three centuries before Christ came—that to ascend to God, man must attain to truth and right, and live by wisdom. The incentive to do this is shame. Negatively stated, management of failure is through a government of shame.

But in Paul’s writing, Augustine realized that he would never realize his goal of true living via governance by shame. It was disheartening.

If the government of shame could not fix his addiction to debauchery, as powerful as shame is, and if Paul was correct in saying that only intervention by God could produce change, then what hope was there for true change in a life so fouled up and so distant from God? In his writing, Augustine speaks of a “mighty shower of tears… from the secret bottom of my soul.”

He continues to study St. Paul’s writings. Eventually, Augustine submits himself to God, is saved through the power of Jesus Christ, and is baptized. The change in Augustine is profound.

Paul’s discussion about the battle between flesh and spirit (cf. Gal. 5:16) gives him the hope he has needed. But it seems from reading his “Confessions” that he missed Paul’s message about forgiveness and acceptance in Christ.

While all of us who call upon the name of Christ are saved and transformed, none of us achieve perfect clarity about what this truly means. For Augustine, he clung to Plato’s governance by shame even while calling upon the Holy Spirit to help him overcome the lusts of his flesh.

This theology is still pervasive in Catholic theology today. It is not grace-based, but shame-based, with attending punishments until penance is served. I’m not a Catholic, but I relate.

As powerful as shame is, and as potent as self-condemnation is, these are insufficient to create in us godliness, or gain for us the unconditional love and acceptance that is essential. When Saul of Tarsus, the wiry, bald-headed Jew that Cahill references, was confronted by Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus and was converted, not only was his name changed to Paul, he was changed, transformed, and set upon a fresh course.

Paul was highly educated in all things Jewish and all things Greek. When he gives his sermon in Athens (cf. Acts 17:22ff), he quotes a couple of obscure Greek thinkers. This, along with a linguistic look at Paul’s writing, indicate he knew the work of Plato. Like Augustine who would follow him nearly four-hundred years later, Paul disagreed with Plato. More accurately, based upon the finished work of Jesus Christ, Paul understood that God had provided a means by which the battle between flesh and spirit could be won, thus doing for us through Christ what the government of shame is incapable of achieving.


Unconditional love and acceptance by God are established and guaranteed in Jesus Christ.


It’s an amazing theology that Plato didn’t know—couldn’t know—since Christ had not come yet. It is a theology Augustine couldn’t quite bring fully aboard such that the guilt of his debauchery prior to salvation was washed clean through Christ’s forgiveness.

One of these days, I’ll know for certain, but for now I’m left to project my speculation upon Brother Augustine. I’m guessing that if backed into an intellectual and theological corner, he would say God had forgiven him all his sins and sinfulness in the finished work of Jesus Christ, but the intensity of his continuing struggle rendered his practical battling of flesh against spirit a conflict governed by shame. Thus, his confessions as key to acceptance with God. His book is appropriately titled.

For Paul, unconditional love and acceptance by God are established and guaranteed in Jesus Christ. Nothing that we do can diminish these, nothing we do can enhance these. Our greatest need, our most-essential need following food and shelter, is met by God in Christ (cf. Phil. 4:19). That the battle between flesh and spirit continues to rage in this earthly life is another subject and has no bearing on whether or not we are unconditionally loved and accepted by God through the finished work of Jesus Christ.

Plato sensed this. Augustine sought this. Paul knew this. He wrote it down, for goodness sake. He struggled to bring what he knew to render consistent victory in his battle against the flesh (cf. Rom. 7), but he knew that God indeed intervened fully in Jesus Christ. He intervened fully in that His intervention leaves no role nor need for shame.

Whether Augustine knew this or not, I’m doubtful. His “Confessions” would indicate this was a theological truth he struggled to implement, perhaps even to believe. Paul believed most certainly, but as he writes in Romans 7, he too struggled to implement.

Mom knew what Paul knew. She wrote books about victory over the flesh. She told stories about knowing she was loved and accepted by God. She smiled when my brothers and I joked about having on clean underwear as we headed out the door, but I don’t recall her ever outright denying that it was no longer important to her sense of standing as a mom who did a good job—should she be evaluated by an ER doc or the mortician. What I do know is that she battled her despondency in real terms and actual days. She knew what Paul knew, but like him, she could also have penned Romans 7.

And, I know what Paul wrote and what my Older Brother accomplished on my behalf in terms of acceptance and love. I too have written books on the subject. I’ve lectured on this all over the world. I write about it still in the articles I pen. Dad and I even devoted ourselves to creating diagrams that illustrate what transpires when unconditional love and acceptance are bequeathed to us at salvation.

But. (You knew that “but” was coming, didn’t you?)

But, like Brother Augustine and Socrates in Plato’s Phaedrus, governance through shame is mighty tempting. In fact, if I fail to do what is right—especially if I should have known better—it almost like I default to a government of shame, never pausing to consider the grace that is mine as a child of God.

That’s the bad report from me to you. That’s my confession, to use Augustine’s language.

The good news is that after I’ve gone on a self-indicting, self-cursing, self-condemning rant and all the world around me goes quiet under the weight of shame, I realize I’ve adopted a governance model that is insufficient for what my soul truly needs.

For shame to work most powerfully, it must marinate. But in Christ there is grace for the moment, even a shameful moment. No matter how profoundly my wrong decisions lead me off into the swamp, my heavenly Father has already intervened with all I need to live a godly life. There is nothing for shame to contribute. Secondly, no matter the morass I wander into, there is nothing that can separate me from the love and acceptance of Father God. There is no need to call upon shame to find my way back to God. He is already present.  

Still, when I fail—and I do with discouraging frequency—I know what to do. I back up to the point in my memory where I switched from grace—the acceptance and love that are mine in Christ—and adopted the government of shame to see me through. Once identified, at that mental point where I made the wrong choice, I say, “Father, it’s at that point I adopted my enemy’s lie and embraced the belief that shame could deliver to me the most important things in life. I apologize to you, and I apologize to me.

“I see where I went wrong. Would you please guide me in learning from this mistake, this sin, so that when this temptation occurs again, I will see more clearly in spite of the fog that shrouds the battle between flesh and spirit? I realize I have failed to perform right and I deeply desire for my performance and appearance to match what is true of me.

“Speaking of which, thank you that nothing I do, or fail to do, will ever alter the acceptance and love I have in you.”

Then, wherever I am, in whatever state, disposition, or outlook, I envision locking arms with my heavenly Father, my Older Brother, and the Holy Spirit to guide me toward my true heart’s desire.

And just in case you are wondering, the answer is, yes. Mom’s worries over my underwear were persistent enough, long enough, with enough repletion that clean undies are my priority as well. In fact, I have twelve pairs: January, February, March….