Shame on Us

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.

Walls

I hear so many things from this tower where I live,
there is no door to let you in, from here I see your world.
There is no lock for you to find, I keep my walls secure.
I do not wish to be alone, that is I mean with you..
I like to keep you at a length, for you I do not touch.
I like my cave that I have made, it serves me when you push.
How can I show my walls to you, when all you do is search?
You try to find a way around, to be my shining knight,
When all it is I want from you is a “thanks a bunch! Goodnight!”

Space by Larissa Johnson

You don’t know me. I take that back, you know me better than most, Gentle Reader. Personally, I’ve rather enjoyed my demons. I’ve embraced them and funneled them into my art. Ironically, it’s easy as an artist to splay our souls for public consumption, to bleed for our readers. But, like with my stories, it’s easy to be vulnerable to anonymous masses: to me, from my keyboard vantage point, you are little more than a collection of electrons. In relationship, face-to-face, it’s harder. You don’t know me, you can’t know me, because I live within walls.

Our walls can take a variety of forms. We construct a life where we re-define what love is to match how we are treated that ultimately end up with us going into ourselves. Exalting our intellect, control emotions, living in/retreating to our imaginations, whatever it takes to cut ourselves off from having to deal with others (and the potential pain they bring). Living with the fear that if we expose ourselves, show people who we really are, they will no longer like or outright abandon us. Pre-emptively, we become convinced that we would rather be alone and unhurt rather than risk others in our lives. Slowly, our lives become about avoiding pain.

Self-protection isn’t all bad. It’s great at shielding us from the very real hurts in life and there are times we need to be shielded from pain. But we get used to and strive to live life on our own strength and terms. Pain avoidance, numbing ourselves from the everyday agonies of life, lays at the root of many addictions. Alcohol, drugs, movies, sex, internet, video games, many are the ways we continue to numb us from the pain of life. Life becomes about self-gratification without the complication of relationship or knowing; keeping us from dealing with life and what’s going on. But no numbing agent is perfect, no wall as solid as it seems, as our anguish may play out in other ways, seeping out of our carefully maintained pressure cookers as anger, depression, moodiness, anxiety, loneliness, or self-hate.

We grow pretty comfortable being safe and unknown. The core of your life is under a microscope with the knob adjusting the focus on it being vulnerability and transparency. Risking letting people in means when they look in your life and all they see is you. Love is a threat to our self-protection. Love reveals the lie, the reality that the scaffolding is the lie and we have to take it down.

Self-protection is easy as it is selfish. It’s easy to stay hidden. People are relationally lazy, so naturally self-focused it’s hard for them to see others in the first place. Self-protection sets the bar low into how well we can love others. There’s a well known verse in the Bible often used to discuss hypocrisy: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Matthrew 7:3-5). What if the overall point of the story is not so much about the hypocrisy, but about loving our brother better? That the point IS to take the speck out of our brother’s eye, but to do that, we have to first remove the plank from our own eye. And what if self-protection, our walls, are a plank in our eye?

Walls are about control. Faith and control don’t exist well together. Control asks “what do I need to do to make this situation work?” Faith asks “God, what you going to do make this work and how do I get involved with that?” We don’t see ourselves as God sees us, but rather, we come to believe a lie about ourselves. That we’re worthless, broken, and twisted in our soul; Villains in God’s story rather than created in his image. We leave out the fact that brokenness can be redeemed. When loved well, we’re taught about God. We can model for our children what God is like. We can just as easily teach things that aren’t true. And we don’t want to pass the lessons of self-protection down to our children.

The thing about walls is that you can’t live behind walls and love as you should. Feel loved like we should. People can’t experience you loving them from inside your walls. You can’t living behind them grow closer to God. But you have to come to that conclusion on your own and decide that you want to risk living life in a broken and fallen world that could hurt you. You have to risk experiencing the pain that comes with that world. And that’s a scary proposition. You have to risk knowing and being known. And the more you experience someone who knows you, especially in your sinfulness, it exposes the lie. And that’s a scary proposition.

Real love risks and offers redemption. Real love can’t operate from a place of fear. Real love can’t operate from behind walls. And loving people well is the point of why we’re here.

Friday Night Date Place – Embracing the Truth

Continuing our conversation from last week, I know it’s not easy to free ourselves from a lifetime of false lessons and beliefs about ourselves. It’s easy to get trapped in a mire of “woe is me,” a self-fulfilling and self-perpetuation spiral of self-hate. I don’t live under any illusion that we can just flick a switch and change.

But you don’t have to be who you are.

The overwhelming majority of folks I talk to know exactly when they are doing this emo dance of self-delusion and pity and simply can’t get out of their own way to stop it. It’s their default setting, a comfortable response to help them cope with the reactions they’ve come to expect from people. It’s the flip side of the chip on the shoulder posturing.

So I can’t say just stop it. I will, however, start by saying … stop it.

You are a precious creation of God. Precious. Accept yourself. No, better stated, accept the truth of yourself. Recognize that you, too, are an eikon, an image-bearer of God; worthy of respect, value, and love. We participate in the Divine Being, meant to partake in the Divine Life and Happiness*. We were created in love, for love, and are to open ourselves to the possibility of love. Embrace that love.

Draw on the love already in your life. I have several people in my life who are “sick” of how I see them. Because they don’t see themselves the way I see them. People of value, who deserve to be esteemed and appreciated. Whom I’m thankful God brought into my life and have made my life all the richer for knowing them. You know what makes them most uncomfortable? The idea that they don’t know if they can live up to how I see them … because they had had it so drummed into their heads that they weren’t beautiful or were somehow unworthy of being loved.

I’m ready to cut someone again.

Sometimes the only way we can really see ourselves is when we are reflected back in the eyes of someone who truly loves us. It gives us courage, strength, and a sense of worth we may never have known that we had. Find it in God, find it in the overflow of His love in your friends and family, and let that love begin to transform your thoughts.

Embracing the love and finding freedom and empowerment in it to love and be loved is a good second step. The next is to demand it. You DO deserve better. It’s okay to have high standards for yourself, to try to live up to them, and in so doing, help others to have higher standards. It’s okay to demand to be treated better.

In the end, part of the transformation is a matter of faith. You see, it takes a lot of faith in yourself to make such a step and make such a transformation. Confidence is little more than faith in yourself and that’s hard to teach. But embracing your value, that much of a step I think we can handle. As a start.

Because you deserve better.

*Special thanks to M. Basil Pennington’s True Self/False Self