I have plenty of things I am ashamed of. I have plenty of things I regret. They just keep stacking up in my closet of remembrances. It seems like each year that goes by, there’s something new I can add to that stack. You’re going to have to forgive my mental noodling which I now foist upon the internet, but I’ve been struggling with the statement my pastor made that “shame has no place in the Christian walk.” It’s so natural to think of shame as a proper response to a situation. When our actions lead to people hurt, trusts betrayed, the acts themselves being destructive, shame seems like the appropriate, entirely proper, human response. Yet, it’s also a counterfeit response.
Shame is “the painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonorable, improper, ridiculous.” Shame is feeling bad for who you are, and is expressed as, “I’m not what I should be… I’m bad!” Shame is the perceived loss of place with others, a loss of being, of who we are. Shame is the experience of being exposed and feeling somehow “ugly”, “bad”, and “deficient” what for is exposed. Shame makes you think of yourself as uniquely damaged and so we create personas which hides our true selves. And because we don’t share it, we think we’re the only ones
We keep how we feel about ourselves a secret. We don’t share our deepest fears, insecurities, confusion because the world is unsafe. We live in a fallen world full of pains and hurts. Sometimes even your church becomes an unsafe place. We don’t want to be seen as pathetic, weak, or vulnerable so we hide it from other people. In not wanting to be hurt, we have no freedom to be truly ourselves. Since the experience of shame it too toxic for us to remain in, we hide. And all of us have favorite ways of self-protection: performing, people pleasing, withdrawing, fighting, isolation, anger, humor, silence … whatever it takes to not be hurt. A lot of people settle for not wanting to be known. Our secret fear in being open with others is the reaction of “I’ve seen who you are and you are wanting”.
Sin, such as the sin of shame, is a like a disease, a communal virus we pass along to one another and leads to sudden rupture in relationships. Even with good intentions, we love each other poorly and hurt one another, so we operate out of fear. This sense of shame infects our spiritual lives and even how we view God. It’s like we come to believe that we have to do something to make God love us, as if His love is conditional. Our gospel message becomes that we don’t measure up and He had to send Christ to die for us because we’re so screwed up. But if we behaved a certain way, He would accept us. Or we feel like we’re not forgiven because we can’t overcome one area of struggle in our life. We may secretly believe that God can’t accept us is we can’t overcome our addiction, as if we have to get right in order to get right with him. We’re left feeling that while God may “love” us, He might not “like” us very much, reducing our spiritual journeys to explorations of and exercises in guilt.
Shame becomes a counterfeit to conviction of guilt. When you instead internalize the shame, it becomes guilt. Guilt focuses on self and never frees us. Usually it leads to a kind of boomerang effect as we adopt a “try harder” mentality. And it wears on us physically. Our face and eyes turned down, slumped over under the weight of letting people down or doing something unacceptable. And we end up wallowing in it as if the act of swimming in shame and guilt is somehow “redemptive”.
Both guilt and shame are different than Godly sorrow and repentance. Dr. Les Parrott in his book, Love’s Unseen Enemy, compares godly sorrow and guilt. Godly sorrow focuses on the other person while guilt focuses on the self. Godly sorrow recognizes pain as part of the healing process while self-absorbed guilt refuses to go through the pain required to heal a relationship. Godly sorrow looks forward to the future while guilt moans about the past. Godly sorrow is motivated by our desire to change and grow while guilt causes us to get bogged down and robs us of the energy to move forward and change. Godly sorrow knows a change in our life is a choice for something better while guilt forces you to make a change to earn favor again. Godly sorrow relies on God’s mercy and thus is free while guilt relies on self. Godly sorrow gives us a positive attitude and results in real and lasting change while guild gives us a negative attitude and can bring change but only temporarily.
I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes God’s love baffles me. As many times that we feel shame, it’s because we’ve foolishly put our trust in something we weren’t meant to. We’ve made an idol out of a relationship, church, self-protection, addiction, ourselves, the approval of others or some other seemingly benign thing. Our shame comes when that idol we put our trust in fails us. So we begin by renouncing that idolatry, though that realization may not come until we have an “end of self” moment. We put our faith where it’s supposed to be and take on our true identity.
We so often hear about God’s divine love and acceptance, how nothing can separate us from His love, but do we believe that? Most times, we really don’t. To think that God knows me in the deepest possible way, loves me unconditionally, celebrates who I am, and wants me to grow into who I am, that’s the kind of love we can hardly fathom.
And He identifies with our humanity. Christ’s example on the cross left him exposed for everyone to see. Naked for people to mock, spit upon, and pour their own self-contempt on Him. Yet Jesus willingly embraced it and came through the other side. His wounded place exposes shame for what it is. Exposed, trusting and with boldness, we’re free and ready to love others in our weakness. To live out of that reality of His example.
I’m still not sure I buy all of that, though I suspect that I should. I’ve bought into the idea of shame for so long, it’s tough letting go and embracing a new identity.