Let's Talk About Shame

We go into hiding for various reasons. We’re running from something or someone. For some, it’s a husband's fist. Others an outstanding warrant or tyrannical parents.

Some of us are just trying to stay alive to see another sunrise. We know that if we stay, death by another's hand, or our own, will likely come. Whatever the reason, when we run, we nurture at least a spark of hope that, one day, we’ll be free from what pursues us.

But sometimes when we go into hiding, no matter how deep we burrow, no matter how thorough our anonymity, we cannot shake off our pursuer. He’s always nipping at our heels, his breath hot on the back our neck.

One of the most relentless of these pursuers is shame.

Evil is prolific. It spawns a multitude of offspring. There’s guilt. There’s regret. There's pain. Each has its peculiar effect, its special torture. But there’s nothing uglier, more deep-seated, and more debilitating than shame.

Shame dehumanizes its victims. They feel sub-human, unworthy even of the companionship of others. They read the hieroglyphic of contempt in the faces of those who know the source of their shame. That’s why they go underground; they seek anonymity.

But even alone, there is no relief. They see reflected in the mirror a stain on their soul that seeps outward. @@Shame is like a botched tattoo, inked from within.@@

They gasp for love, someone who'll accept them. But who will? How could anyone's heart be turned toward them? They see nothing lovely in themselves, so they don't see how another could love them. Even God.

The more shame envelopes their lives, the more welcome death becomes. They can fathom no other end to a life of shame than an end to life itself.

For years my constant companion was shame. It almost had a physicality about it. @@If guilt was a weight within, then shame was a stained, stinking shirt I had to wear every day.@@ It was sewn into the very fabric of my existence. It came to define me.

If shame were once my cancer, it is not gone, but at least it's in remission. I wish it were gone for good, that every thread on my own stained, stinking shirt had been cast into the flames. But I’ll be honest; it still hangs deep in my closet. And some days, I find myself wearing it once again. Just not as often.

For some of you, it’s still the only shirt you own and wear.

My own shame came from what I did. For others, it’s a completely different story. They feel shame because of an evil perpetrated against them. Whatever the source, shame has a crippling effect on our humanity. We feel not only unloved but unlovable; not only unclean but uncleanable.

One thing that helped me is that I came out of hiding. You might think shame does its best work when we are around others, when we experience shame in their presence. But it seems to me to be the exact opposite. People alone with their shame are completely at its mercy. The more silent they are about it, the louder it roars within. So we open our lips and let it escape.

I voiced my shame. I forced myself to be in the presence of those who knew the origin of my shame. And, yes, I did read on the faces of some that hieroglyphic of contempt, and still do. God forgive them.

But in the faces of others I saw, to my amazement, compassion and non-judgment and—miracle of miracles—even love. They didn’t see me as I saw myself. They looked at me through the eyes of grace.

More important than coming out of hiding is to see, in our hiding place, the God who sits beside us in our anonymity, in our pain, amidst our shame.

What we see in the face of this God is not a loathing expression. We find the face of a compassionate man who knew all about shame himself. We discover in the face of Jesus an unflinching acceptance of us. He is a friend who doesn’t love us for who we were, or should be. We loves us as the wounded people we are. He loves us into himself.

He takes us in his arms and holds us. He holds us as we give voice to our grief and guilt and shame. He listens as we confess what we have done, or what others have done to us.

In his arms, something changes. An inexplicable transfer occurs. Our shame, it moves to him. Our tears stream from his eyes. He wears that stained, stinking shirt, and we his new, laundered, white garment that smells like paradise itself.

Beside this God, who is also human, we become human again. Better yet, we become children of heaven. All because the man who held us became us. He became the shamed, soiled, hated, forsaken sinner, that we might become the forgiven, washed, loved, embraced sons and daughters of the Father. Jesus brings to us, in the depths of our suffering, what he had accomplished in his life and crucifixion so long ago.

Will we still struggle with shame? I do. I suspect we all will, to an extent. But we shall always have something, or rather, Someone, stronger. We have Jesus the Christ. And of his Gospel we are not ashamed, for it is the power of God for the salvation, and the removal of shame, for all who believe.