“What is shame?
-Edward T. Welch in Shame Interrupted.
In western Christianity, there is a tremendous emphasis on dealing with guilt. Guilt is that feeling or understanding that you have done something wrong or trangressed a particular standard. Guilt is associated with something one does, or sometimes something that one does not do. Guilt is a universal emotion that is culturally defined. Culturally defined because the standards that produce guilt are defined and re-enforced by one's community.
However, shame is a much more insidious and opppressive emotion. While guilt may speak "I have messed up"; shame screams "I am a mess". Guilt may impair our actions and outlook, but shame distorts and perverts our identities.
Guilt is often related to shame in that shame may result in our pathological ways of dealing with guilt. I have seen children who make mistakes in my office (spilled a drink, responded incorrectly to a question, etc.) literally be called "Stupid", "dumb", and "retarded". Those descriptions are not describing the action, but the actor. Particularly in childhood, when parental words and actions help us form our identity, these reactions imbed shame deep into our understanding of ourselves.
Its interesting that throughout scripture, God's focus is not only to deal with our guilt but also to release us from our shame. Shame that is brought on from our own actions and attitudes as well as those dumped upon us in our life journey. Look at the following text from the earliest of scripture:
But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?” He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.” And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” .....The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them. (Genesis 3:9-11, 21 NIV)
Notice that Adam's response to the presence of God was not guilt, but shame. He could have responded "I am sorry that I ate the fruit that your forbade." That would have been a response coming from his sense of guilt caused by his disobedience. However, he responds according to his nakedness. Nakedness is a state, not an action. His nakedness was a badge of shame. Interestingly, his understanding of nakedness as a sense of shame was created by his own desire to define what was respectable and what was not (God made him naked and did not feel it was shaming and Eve received him naked and also felt no shame (Gen 2:25).
The fascinating aspect of this story is God's response. While he judges the guilt (Adam, Eve, and the Serpent all receive consequences for their wrong doings), he covers their shame (Gen 3:21). This is a window in which all of the rest of God's interactions, including the sending of his son, with humanity can be viewed.
This brings me back to the original point. The emphasis of Christianity, as expressed by many churches, is not to deal with our shame but merely relieve our guilt. We are concerned about being right, but God is concerned about making us rightous and respectable. This is why so many feel like their faith is sterile and impotent. They know cognitively that their sins have been forgiven and that their actions have been atoned for, but they remain living in their shame.
God sent his son to develop a relationship with us that fundamentally changes our identity. We are no longer defined by our failures, our abuses, or our indescretions, but our relationship with God and His mission.
If you are a follower of Jesus, relinquish the burden of shame that declares you are not good enough, not beautiful, or a failure. Refuse to act out a script written for you by others pain and brokenness. Understand that Jesus calls you metaphorically "His bride" that he presents you "without blemish". This is a description of who we are in his eyes.
I pray today that you will go deeper in your faith and you will not settle for a faith that merely takes away the guilt. Start this year with the understanding that Jesus wants to take away your shame and lead you to a full, abundant life. Delight in the fact that no one who puts their trust in him will "ever be put to shame".
May God bless you,
Pastor M Traylor