If we’re going to get to the freedom that lies on the other side of shame, we’re going to have to pass through its suffering. Shame has power in its silence and in its subtlety. Author Curt Thompson writes in his book The Soul of Shame that shame is a shape-shifter. It takes many forms, and we cover it up and live with it so much that we come to barely notice its presence and activity.
When we talk about shame, we can use other words too like embarrassment, indignity, humiliation or disgrace. It’s a feeling we have when we’re exposed or how much we try to make sure we won’t be exposed.
Shame is the feeling and knowledge of the fact (as you see it) that you won’t be enough. There is something wrong with me. I don’t matter.
It’s doesn’t matter how successful you are. It attacks all people, ages, races, both genders. It goes from the bedroom to the kitchen to the boardroom to Wal-Mart. It’s the condescending glance. It’s the post on social media. It’s judgment. It’s condemnation. It’s reinforcing. It’s hiding.
Back 18 months ago, after we had been working on City Pres for just over three years, we had accomplished so much. We’d ordained our elders, gotten through a capital campaign, bought and occupied our beautiful, historic building and see God work over and over again. It was a time of rest and celebration, both of which we did.
Sometime in there I started throwing up. I would never see it coming, and it would come on me and then pass all in the space of about five minutes. I usually had an empty stomach. It happened at home, during a meeting where I’d have to excuse myself, while driving, and I never could sense a pattern. After about a dozen times I told Julie and then also talked about it with one of the doctors in our church. I promised I’d text him when it happened and started doing that. It wasn’t anything debilitating, but it mostly was annoying and embarrassing.
Wait, why was it embarrassing? I think I knew that there wasn’t anything medically wrong. I think I knew that what was happening is that my body was telling me that I was stressed, worried, anxious and out of whack. I didn’t want that to be true. I wanted to be strong enough and happy enough after all that had happened. I wanted to be joyful enough. I wanted to be healthy enough. I wanted to come through with flying colors. And I wasn’t making it. I wanted to keep quiet and keep silent and hide this away, just like everything else.
I was ashamed. I wasn’t enough.
Nothing was nearly as bad as what happened to Israel in 587 BC, or what happens to war-torn countries today. Shame is relative that way, though. It takes a place of it’s own, and in fact the relativity of it all can make it more powerful. Who am I to complain? So I’ll just keep quiet and hide my shame even further.
“This was for the sins of her prophets and the iniquities of her priests, who shed in the midst of her the blood of the righteous.
“They wandered, blind, through the streets; they were so defiled with blood that no one was able to touch their garments.
“’Away! Unclean!’ people cried at them. ‘Away! Away! Do not touch!’ So they became fugitives and wanderers; people said among the nations, ‘They shall stay with us no longer.’
“The Lord himself has scattered them; he will regard them no more; no honor was shown to the priests, no favor to the elders.” (Lamentations 4:13–16)
Since I’m a pastor, I talk with people. I hear their stories, your stories.
One man listened to the cries of his older sister as she was beaten each night because she was wetting the bed, even until she was 13 years old. He said he’d never talk about it, and he rarely has. He wasn’t strong enough to stand up for her, to say something to his parents.
I asked one friend what would happen if he told his wife about his addiction, and he said “That can never happen.” I asked why not, and he said because he knew she’d leave him. He wasn’t good enough to stop.
She wasn’t creative enough to produce the work required. So she binged and purged to cope.
She wasn’t attractive enough to keep anyone’s attention. So she slept with every man she met.
He wasn’t forceful enough to stop the man from abusing him. So he hid and deflected.
She wasn’t a hard enough worker, so she gave up and got fired and self-fulfilled that prophecy.
Curt Thompson tells this story in his book: “’She didn’t get in, and I’m worried about what this will mean for her future.’ This, coming from a mother who had worked diligently to do her part to help her daughter to gain entrance to her top school choice. This might be understandable, except for the fact that her daughter was only three years old.” (p. 19, The Soul of Shame)
He told me that he tries to study but he’s not focused enough. So then he tries to not hate himself for not studying. He doesn’t want to talk about it. It doesn’t seem like it will ever get better, so he feels like he’s doomed.
She’s ashamed of her abortion forty years ago. She wasn’t financially or emotionally stable enough at the time, so she’s locked that away all these years.
He’s ashamed of where he lives because it’s not nice enough or cool enough, so he never tells anyone where his house is.
She’s ashamed she dated that type of person. She wasn’t wise or self-respecting enough. So what type of person is she?
He’s afraid for anyone to know about his social anxiety disorder. He’s not normal enough, so he doesn’t spend time with people.
She brought home her exam to tell her mom about her 95 on her test. Her mom asked her what happened to the other five points, and she knew she’d never be able to achieve enough.
He doesn’t want to tell anyone about his first marriage. If he does speak of it, he’ll tell you it was his fault, and he didn’t love enough.
Not honest enough. Not fast enough. Not rich enough. Not smart enough. Not thin enough. Not healthy enough. Not socially aware enough. Not savvy enough. Not silver-tongued enough. Not funny enough. Not fortuitous enough. Not a good enough parent or spouse or friend or worker or Christian. Not loved enough. Not appreciated enough. Not cherished enough.
Too fat. Too skinny. Too nearsighted. Too bow-legged. Too short. Too tall. Too many freckles. Too much hair on my back or my lip. Or not enough hair.
So there is mommy shaming, pet shaming and bald shaming and people of Wal-Mart shaming.
These are powerful thoughts, beliefs, images and stories we all live with each and every day. We know them to be true, and we live them out.
We judge ourselves and others. Thompson tells his patients, “Shamed people shame people.” And we are certainly ashamed and shaming.
How do you fit into this narrative? Are you shaming others?
Think about what we see on the internet each and every day. How we pounce on any opinion expressed. How we gang up on people. Is this displaying patience or kindness? Is there any love?
What would happen if you let out that you’re voting for X person?
What would happen if you tweeted that you love Nickelback?
What would happen if you facebooked that you thought Mulan 2 was the greatest movie?
What would happen if you shared an unpopular opinion in your church?
What would happen if you admitted that you struggled, that you failed, that you had regrets, and that you were still ashamed?
What would happen if you heard someone else talk about those things?
Would we turn up our noses? Would we keep the shaming going? Would we say we want people to feel freedom in Christ, but really what we want is to be around people who don’t talk about these things? It seems way too messy, too fragile. We’re afraid.
We feel unclean. We feel like we’re supposed to get away. We sit and wonder if anyone will ever care about us, love us or accept us if we were to truly say how we’re doing. So we exclude ourselves. We go silent. We withdraw. We sit quietly, hating ourselves and judging others. We try to climb out of this hole, but it’s an abyss. We may cover it with theology or hard work, but we can’t get out.
So if that’s true, how in the world can we be safe? If everything is laid bare, if we’re truly that ultimately vulnerable, how in the world can we be anything but ashamed?
Jesus shows us. God With Us went toward and not away from the broken. Read again the gospels for yourself. Watch how he’s drawn toward those who are truly lamenting. Look in Luke 7 how his ears perk up when he hears the wailing laments of a widow who cries out as she buries her son. He has compassion on her, and he loves her. Her weeping is not in vain, because Jesus hears it. He stops it for a time because he is the resurrection and the life.
Look at how Jesus handles outcasts and the unclean. He walks among them. They don’t have to get their acts together to be with him. He goes to be with them. He touches the lepers. He embraces the prostitutes. They weep with him, and he does with them. He’s walking among the dead and bringing them to life. He’s giving them himself. He’s pouring out himself. He’s not shuttling them off to the side or telling them they’re too broken or too sad or too sinful or too diseased. They’re riddled with shame, but they’re coming to Jesus and he heals them. He sets them free. He gives them life and joy He sets them into the family again, into society again.
That’s good news, isn’t it?
We can be known and loved by God. We can raise our laments. We can grieve our situations. We don’t have to be religious stoics, who are also called Pharisees, or the Righteous Ones. We don’t have to hate ourselves, even if we hate our sin. We don’t have to hate others, even if we hate their sins. We don’t have to put up barrier after barrier, judgment after judgment. We don’t have to stone others—not even on the internet—if we notice someone doing or saying something wrong.
Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 8:2–3, “If anyone imagines he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.” Knowing God is knowing God’s love. His forgiveness. His embrace. His joy. His delight. This is Genesis 2 language. We’re vulnerable, known and loved. We’re opened up to God’s love in Christ. That’s a very vulnerable place. It’s not only cognitive assent, though it does include that. It’s also physical and emotional.