Shame. We all experience it, and we are all shaped but it.
In Genesis 3, when Adam and Eve anticipate rejection and hide, shame moves in and surrounds their hearts in a vice-like grip. Today, and many thousands of years later, we remain deeply affected by living in a world where shame continues to flourish. It is true that Jesus has made the way for us to be fully human and fully alive, but we are on a journey towards all things being made new. We are not there yet.
“We are too magnificently made for things to happen quickly, like healing…” (William Paul Young)
“Unlike guilt, which is the feeling of doing something wrong, shame is the feeling of being something wrong.” (Marilyn J. Sorensen)
Shame has the habit of showing up again, and again, and again. Its relentless nature seeks to distort our identity and twist the story of who we are.
“…shame…simultaneously bends and twists our narratives into painful story-lines.” (Curt Thompson)
With its dark and insidious nature, shame is not a quiet house guest who makes no demands. Shame fills every place made available to it, and one of the ways it operates is by convincing us to believe that God is ashamed of us.
God is ashamed of us?
Pause for a moment: Listen to the following link, “Dusty Road,” by Michael Ketterer. Perhaps shut your eyes while listening to the words.
Many are familiar with the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15 and I would like to rename it:
“The Very Un-Jewish-Like Father’s Response to His Prodigal Son.”
A Jewish man would never run in public, and most certainly not toward a son returning home shrouded in shame. I don’t imagine the returning son expected a grand welcome. He was emotionally limping home, shame clinging his garments, and he was most likely not expecting even the bare minimum of a greeting.
But what do we see in the story?
We see a father gathering up his robe and sprinting as fast as his aged legs would take him towards his wayward son. Losing-your-breath sort of sprinting is not a picture of great dignity. Most likely sobbing, he throws his arms around the lad and squeezes the air out of his lungs with his massive embrace. Pure joy radiates from the father’s face. He has waited so long for this day, and it has finally arrived! His beloved son has come home!
And here is the Father who constantly looks for us, who runs towards us as we limp home.
He is not ashamed of us.
“God’s love for you has nothing to do with your behaviour. Neither your faithfulness or your unfaithfulness alters Divine love in the slightest degree. Like the father’s love in the parable of the prodigal son, Divine love is absolutely unconditional, unlimited and unimaginably extravagant.” (David Benner)
But here is something else to consider:
“It is You and me, God. You are all I need.”
This is often what we hear. We do need God, but we also need others. God has made us to flourish not only in relationship with Himself, but also with others.
And we cannot address shame alone.
The very nature of shame causes us to isolate, disconnect and hide from those around us. We are terrified of rejection and judgement, and would rather hold ourselves apart in a fragile attempt to maintain some sort of dignity. But this is not true dignity. True dignity is found and kept as we risk vulnerability and connection with others.
We need each other.
“Shame…is the swampland of the soul [and]…if we are going to find our way back to each other, vulnerability is going to be that path.” (Brené Brown)
Vulnerability. What an unpleasant sounding word. The dictionary defines vulnerability as…”susceptible to being wounded or hurt…open to moral attack, criticism, temptation…open to assault, difficult to defend.”
I mean, who wants that?
Perhaps the dictionary definition refers to vulnerability in an unsafe environment. But what does vulnerability look like in a safe environment? It may feel like weakness, but it is not weakness. Even in a safe environment, it takes courage to be vulnerable, but it is the path that leads us home, to God and to each other.
So how do we deal with shame, our shame and the shame of others?
We remind each other who we are.
To leave a place of shame, we need to allow ourselves to be drawn into a healthy and safe relational space. This could be a group of good friends, or a life-giving community where there is vulnerability, transparency, empathy, honesty, safety, and connection.
It is here we can begin to take the risk of telling the truth in a safe, non-judgemental context. It is here that shame can be exposed for what it is.
It is here that shame is disarmed and stripped of its power.
“God intends us to move from immaturity to maturity, from disintegration to integration, from places where shame hides to where it, being brought into the light, can be discarded.” (Curt Thompson)
We all respond to shame in a unique way. Take a few moments to think about how you respond when you experience shame. Do you withdraw, get defensive, angry, deflect, become passive, or some other response?
Journal a few of your thoughts.
If there is something you have been wrestling with – it doesn’t matter how small – take a risk and talk about it with a trusted friend or safe person. Getting the words out is important in the journey of wholehearted living.
Ask your friend/small group of friends if they are happy to listen attentively and not to offer advice. Being heard is enough. You can invite them to ask questions at the end, but that is totally up to you.
Journal your experience. What emotions did you experience as you were considering telling your story? How did you experience telling your story to a trusted person/group?
If you are aware of a friend who has possibly retreated due to shame, go find them. If you are one of their safe people, make yourself available to hear their story if they want to share it. Be fully present with them, and don’t keep checking the time. Don’t give advice or try to fix anything. At the end of your time together, affirm them and let them know you are grateful to have been a witness to their story.
Journal/reflect on your experience of listening with empathy to your friend’s story.