The Problem of Shame
Mark Twain was reported to have said, “Man is the only creature who blushes or needs to.” But in postmodern, post-Christian western culture, where relativism and pluralism reign guilt has fallen on hard times. In the minds of many there is no transcendent ethic i.e. there is no overarching standard of right and wrong that binds the conscience of all cultures and ethnicities equally. Some would even go so far as to say that there is no “truth” with a capital T, only truths (small t). All ethics are based on community constructions of truth that work for that community but they do not possess authority or relevance for other communities. To talk about guilt in this context seems anachronistic and irrelevant. People claim, “I don’t feel guilty” almost brazenly and triumphantly. I once saw a license vanity plate that just about sums up our culture’s thinking regarding guilt which simply said “Screw Guilt.” People may deny guilt and guilt feelings but that does not mean it doesn’t exist. It shows itself most poignantly in the experience of shame. The Gospel has always said the universal crisis in the human race is guilt and shame. The healing of guilt and shame is the glory of the Gospel. We can be released from shame-based identities and live in the acceptance of the One who matters most.
Where do guilt and shame come from? Where did they begin? The Bible describes the birth of guilt and shame in Genesis 2:25-3:7. Adam and Eve were living in the sanctuary of God’s presence, coram deo, and enjoyed an experience of being naked and not ashamed. Their nakedness was not merely physical but was an expression of openness, transparency, authenticity and intimacy. There was no hypocrisy, pretense or mask-wearing. But a dramatic contrast occurs in 3:7 after they sinned. The stench of death is upon them. The serpent’s promise of illumination comes true but undoes them. Their eyes were opened not to their achieved ‘godness’ but to their shame. They knew they were naked and they tried to cover it. For the first time they had a sense of vulnerability, weakness and exposure.
It might be helpful to distinguish between guilt and shame because they are inseparable and intertwined but not identical. Guilt is an objective, legal, forensic term. It is the language of the courtroom. When one is measured by the standard and found lacking one is regarded as guilty. One is either guilty or not guilty. Feeling either is irrelevant. Guilt is objective, legal culpability for transgressing legal boundaries. Adam and Eve at the forbidden fruit and were at that moment guilty of cosmic treason before the Lord of the universe.
On the other hand, shame is the language of experience. Shame is subjective, internal and entails an emotional element. I am in a state of guilt but I feel and experience shame. Shame shows itself in a person’s life in some very unhealthy ways. One can experience many undesirable symptoms: a fear of vulnerability and exposure (a sense of waiting to be found out), feeling like an outsider who is disconnected and lonely, defensiveness, perfectionism, a fear of intimacy or commitments, an impairment of friendships or looking to “rescue” others, getting stuck in dependent or counterdependent relationships, shyness, feelings of inferiority or worthlessness, anger, jealousy or judgmental attitudes toward others, scapegoating, difficulty in accepting forgiveness, feeling distant from God, feeling condemned, thinking in legalistic ways, using compulsive behaviors to block painful feelings, using excuses, rationalization and lies, blaming others, self-centeredness or selfishness, an exaggerated sense of personal flaws or ugliness, a sense of powerlessness and inability to change, hopelessness, depression and even suicidal tendencies. We see these characteristics fleshed out in Adam and Eve as the rest of Chapter Three unfolds.
In dealing with shame our first impulse is to use face-saving techniques. What did Adam and Eve do in response to their nakedness? Even before God appeared and pursued the guilty pair they came up with “Operation Fig Leaves” and tried to hide their exposure in a flimsy attempt to save face by finding the largest leaves they could, the fig, and made loincloths or aprons to cover their nakedness and exposure. Yet even then they had a choice. They could have owned up to their evil and unbelief and sought out God, confessed and uncovered it before Him and plead for mercy. Instead they chose to hide from their nakedness by covering it. Here we have the first evidence of self justification in the Bible, the first church of self salvation. And ever since, the default mode of the guilty, shameful human heart is the same knee-jerk reaction—a futile attempt to justify yourself. Fig leaves represent our own attempts to remedy our condition before the face of God. It is the way of self justification, self salvation, self defense, (and self deception). Fig leaves are acts of religious piety that are done as an attempt on our parts to save face, to tip the scales of God’s favor. How often we use them—I just wasn’t myself, I don’t know why I did that, it’s not my fault, its really (his, her, God’s) fault, anything we can do to shift the blame from ourselves. We try to deny the need for a solution beyond what we are capable of providing, and try to cover our shame with fig leaves, refusing to face the truth of the bad news of our hearts and behavior in the light of God’s word. It leads to a life of pretense and its evil twin hypocrisy.
Are there fig leaves you are sewing together in an attempt to gain the acceptance and approval of God? Are you pretending to be adequately clothed in His presence? Are you defensive when convicted by the Holy Spirit? Do you cover up, lie and make excuses for your sin? Are you hiding behind the fig leaves of religion where you work to put God in your debt, not having seen that all your good works are just filthy rags? At the end of the day, all such action is self defeating. We cannot remove our shame by moral exercise. The highest moral achievers in the world are often the most burdened by a feeling of their unworthiness, getting rid of shame through moral achievement (being a good person) is the Achilles heel of graceless religion.
Another solution often tried is convincing ourselves through pep talks that we are already acceptable enough. As Stuart Smalley said, “I’m good enough, smart enough and doggone it people like me”. This is the religion of popular culture as typified by Oprah—self congratulatory hype and self hypnosis. We can recite all of the popular self-esteem slogans like the mantra, “I’m okay, you’re okay”. Unfortunately, your feelings won’t listen. Shame is way to heavy to be ratcheted up by self hypnosis. We need a radical approach that deals with the deeper, hidden issue of shame, the worst of our fears, the fear of rejection, a fear that is the very sting of death. As Lewis Smedes writes in “Shame and Grace”, “Our struggle with shame leaves us with this nagging question. Is there a viable alternative to the shame-induced ideals of secular culture and graceless religion? Is there some kind of a third way, a way of dealing with the disgrace of shame? Here is the good news. There is. It is called grace. Grace is the beginning of our healing because it offers the one thing we need most; to be accepted without regard to whether we are acceptable. Grace stands for gift; it is the gift of being accepted before we become acceptable. The surest cure for the feeling of being an unacceptable person is the discovery that we are accepted by the grace of the One whose acceptance of us matters most. Grace overcomes shame, not by uncovering an overlooked cache of excellence in ourselves, but simply accepting us, the whole of us with no regard to our beauty or ugliness, our virtue or our vices. We are accepted wholesale. Accepted with no possibility of being rejected. Accepted once and accepted forever. Accepted at the ultimate depth of our being. We are given what we have longed for in every nook and nuance of every relationship. We are ready for grace when we are bone tired of our struggle to be worthy and acceptable. After we have tried too long to earn the approval of everyone important to us, we are ready for grace. When we are tired of trying to be the person somebody sometime convinced us we had to be, we are ready for grace. When we have given up all hope of ever being an acceptable human being, we may hear in our hearts the ultimate reassurance: we are accepted, accepted by grace.”
So by grace, we learn that there is good news. After listening to their pitiful attempts to shift the blame from themselves, to cover their own nakedness, God rejects their attempts at self justification. But instead of rejecting them, He provides the appropriate covering for their sin, a covering which looked ahead to the one, true Covering for shame, the blood of Christ. Hebrews 12:2 says, …(Jesus) who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of God”. As He hung naked on the cross he entered into a solidarity and identification with our shame. The greatest pain of the crucifixion was enduring the shame of human depravity in all of its foulness and degradation. But he did this for the joy of having you and me, the joy experienced in heaven over every sinner who repents and returns to the Father’s home, over every lost sheep found, every prodigal who was dead and is alive again. And so the cross is the gateway to joy, His and ours, for Jesus who endured the cross, despising the shame, is now at the right hand of the throne of God. He exchanged His glory and honor for our shame. Hallelujah, what a Savior!