There are many things that are all around us but we never really see until someone points them out to us. Then we see them everywhere! A switch turns on and all of a sudden we’re conscious to something that just wasn’t on our radar before. That’s how it was with shame for me. I heard the word but I just figured that it was pretty much like guilt but different somehow. I had heard that it was connected with samurai suicides and south Asian honour killings, but I didn’t think it was something that the average Canadian dealt with. I was wrong. It wasn’t until I went to Japan that I was forced to get my head around what shame really is and how it operates. And having my eyes opened to it, I see the dynamics of shame at work all over.
I feel the influence of shame every Tuesday in Hebrew class when we all take turns reading verses from the Hebrew Bible. Our professor says he “wants to hear our beautiful flowing Hebrew” but we know better. It’s a group motivation strategy to help us take our pronunciation seriously. Same thing when we all call out our marks from the weekly quiz. Something in our hearts is hard-wired to seek honour and avoid shame and embarrassment. And so we study harder for those quizzes than we would if we were anonymous. But that’s just the benevolent tip of the shame iceberg.
If you haven’t gotten your head around shame yet I’d highly recommend Heather Davis Nelson’s excellent post on 10 Things you Should Know About Shame: https://www.crossway.org/blog/2016/06/10-things-you-should-know-about-shame/
Whereas guilt is a fairly clear cut response to something specific we’ve done, shame is often a vague attack on our identity and value. And we can not only feel shame over something bad we’ve done as Adam did when he ate the forbidden fruit, but we can also feel shame at our circumstances as Hannah did when she struggled with infertility. Victims of abuse frequently struggle with shame as do those who don’t meet the standards of their group (e.g. the student with terrible Hebrew pronunciation!). Because of that, just asking for forgiveness often doesn’t solve the problem of shame. To remove shame, the identity has to be re-built or at least reaffirmed “in Christ,” i.e. on the basis of how God sees us because of what Jesus did for us. And the acceptance of God in Christ is crucial.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of shame that Nelson mentions is the fact that people who don’t deal with their shame in healthy ways inevitably pass it on to others. People who feel shame, shame the people around them. She gives the example of a mother who feels ashamed of her own body criticizing her daughter’s eating or a husband, who has been shamed by his boss, coming home and repeating the same tactics with his wife and children. Obviously receiving God’s healing for shame is crucial.
One of the reasons that God provides the family of God and urges us to connect with each other in Biblical fellowship is that we can “feel” God’s acceptance in the acceptance of a grace-filled group of people. As Nelson writes, “Shame disappears in community.” It’s my prayer that our life groups will become a place where people experience the grace and acceptance that’s part of God’s antidote for shame. I’d encourage you to be a part of one and find the strength of being known by a group of people who care.
In awe of Him,