Shame (Noun): a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety.
Worthy (Adjective): having worth or value.
Shame is a feeling that I am quite familiar with. There are many reasons to experience shame, some of them understandable (I won’t say that shame is ever appropriate. At least not for the child of God), some of them not so much.
We understandably feel shame when we fall short of our true callings and responsibilities; loving one another, sharing in each others burdens, acting and speaking and thinking in accordance with the gospel of Jesus, and so on. For the believer, shame is never “appropriate” because as Jon Foreman so well rehearses in his poetry, “He takes our shame. He takes our shame. He takes our shame.” Jesus took all our shame, all our shortcomings, all our guilt on Himself on the cross, and so feelings of shame should no longer be a true and worthy thing for the Christian. For clarification, I do not mean the Christian should never feel the need for repentance of sin – the Christian faces a battle every day with choosing to live as Christ would have them live, and no one gets it right even a lot of the time. Awareness of need of grace and salvation, and repentance of wrong choices is of course an appropriate part of the Christian life. But shame is not. Yet for the believer still struggling to accept grace and love and forgiveness, shame is a common occurrence, and though I submit not an appropriate (or maybe I should say applicable) emotion it is at least understandable.
Then there’s the not so much reasons to experience shame, and I find these ones are the most common experiences. These feelings come when someone else “shames” you. Purposely or unintentionally through word or action brings you to a place where you struggle with buying the lie that you are not enough; that you are a failure; not worth it; too broken. I’ve personally experienced so much of this kind of shame in my life. For years I struggled believing the lies (whether from the devil himself, or from him through other people in my life) that I as a individual was not worth anything.
Let me rabbit trail for a moment: There is a very deep set trend and I might even be bold enough to say down right sin in the conservative Christian, particularly the reformed world, of self-hatred for the sake of humility. It is false, and it is harmful. Phrases such as “die to yourself” and “count yourself as nothing” and other similar biblical sayings are so badly warped and misused (even if out of the best intentions). The doctrine that we are broken and sinful people with “nothing meritorious in us is”, while I believe true and biblical, is so badly misused. (I put the word “meritorious” in bold up above as opposed to the more common phrase “nothing good in us” because it is crucial to distinguish the difference between goodness and merit. We are broken sinful people who do not on our own strength MERIT [obtain, earn] God’s love and grace and salvation. But we most certainly have goodness in us.) Focus is put on our wretchedness to the extent that it causes us to lose the identity that we SHOULD have in the perfect wisdom with which God made us in HIS own image. Yes, we are broken, yes, scripture teaches that we are sinful from conception, no there is nothing we can do to save ourselves, BUT. Do not make the mistake of confusing our BROKENness with WORTHlessness.
Back to the main thought stream here…
I struggled for years and years buying into the idea that I was not worthy – I had no value. I was too sinful, too obnoxious, too fat, too needy, too unhealthy, too selfish, too arrogant, too dumb, too unskilled and flat out useless. You name the reason for feeling shame, I felt it. I didn’t know how to identify it as shame though, until I spent some months in counseling with a Christian therapist. I simply lived in a constant awareness that I hated myself and that if I didn’t even like myself, then who on earth could love me?
There are a couple categories of shame we might feel: Shame from what has happened to us (circumstances and unavoidable brokenness); Shame from what we have done to ourselves or to others; Shame from not feeling adequate. When you live constantly feeling these things it can begin to seep into your very lungs and every breath you take is determined by shame, to the point where the pain of those feelings is the only way you know how to live or to cope.
I learned to overcome my addictive shame through a variety of means. First, was identifying my feelings. My therapist taught me to recognize that my self-hatred came from feelings of shame, and my therapist along with my pastor and my husband taught me to recognize that my feelings of shame were groundless and false.
I can talk about feelings and emotions and psychology until I’m blue in the face, and it can all be valid and true and logical, but as a Christian what matters to me most is how Christ views the concept of shame for one of His own children.
First of all, Jesus made me. THAT is where the foundation of our individual value lies, and THAT is the very first reason why it is false to identify ourselves as having no individual worth. Jesus made me, an individual, exactly as He wanted me, because nothing in this cosmos pleased Him better than to do that. Confidence in that foundation is the first step to beating toxic shame. Second, Jesus saved me, because He loves me and HE finds ME worth saving. If He had seen me as a waste of time, He wouldn’t have given up His glory in heaven to die on a filthy cross… for me. Therefore, if the Creator of heaven and earth and all things in between deems me worthy, then not all the theology and judgement and condescension from others should persuade you to feel inadequate and worthless as a person.
I’m reminded of two different scenarios in which Jesus interacted with someone who felt shame (or was at least in the position to feel shame). The first is a story of unavoidable brokenness due to circumstance, the second a story of failure and shortcoming.
In Luke 18:35-43, the writer tells the story of Jesus healing a blind beggar. We could skim through and just think it’s a cool story about Jesus doing a miracle, but that’s not the point of the narration. First, think about the context here: Jesus is approaching Jericho shortly before His triumphal entry into Jerusalem and He is being followed by crowds of people. In case you’ve never been in a crowd of people – it’s loud. Deafening at times. So here we see not just some man, but the King of all the world, the Savior of the Jews (at least they recognized it at that moment), the Royalty of all Royalties travelling surrounded by swarms of loud excited people who are all hoping to touch His garment, or witness a miracle, etc. A poor, tattered, blind beggar by the side of the road discovers that it is Jesus of Nazareth who is the cause of all the commotion he hears, and cries out “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” Remember; there is commotion: Jesus is surrounded by a loud crowd of people, but the Creator always recognizes the needs of His creatures. Even through all the noise, Jesus hears (perhaps in His all-knowing heart, not His physical ears) and Jesus stops. Here is a man who is broken with shame for his inadequacies. He has nothing, no home, no money, no social status, not even his sight, but does Jesus shame him further by ignoring him, or by saying “how dare you think yourself worthy of my time?” Instead, Jesus stopped. He not only stopped, but He asked the most peculiar question: “What do you want me to do for you?” I’m sorry Jesus, what??? Are you dumb? Can you not see this man is blind? Um Duh, he wants to see. But though Jesus knows truly what this man hopes for, Jesus doesn’t assume. He doesn’t perform a quick miracle to show how powerful He is, instead He asks a question that takes the spotlight off of Himself and puts it on this shameful broken man and extends an invitation: the invitation to be truly, deeply known. He acknowledges our human need inline with how He Himself designed us to be able to share our hearts with someone, and with God Himself. Of course Jesus knew what this man wanted: but He wanted this poor man to have bold confidence in stating his desire and his need, and not feeling shame for asking.
Christ’s first response to this broken and shame filled man was a call to know his own value as an individual; his value that would prompt the glorious Lord Himself to stop in loving compassion and acknowledge his needs. Christ’s second response was to heal this man’s brokenness and shame, lift him out of it, and restore his confidence in his inherent worth in his Creator. Christ never brings shame to His children. Instead He heals shame, and silences the lies of the devil that would make us feel worthless and inadequate.
The second story is found in Matthew 14:22-32 and it is a story of failure. Jesus comes to His disciples who are in the stormy sea in a boat, and seeing a figure walking on water towards them scares them – they assume it is a ghost, spelling doom for them. They fail so many times in this story; first out of fear. They choose not to trust God, but to be afraid, and only when they hear Jesus’ voice saying “Do not fear, it is I” do they let go of their fear. Peter acts in boldness, asking Jesus to let him come to Him, and Peter gets out of the boat and accomplishes the unheard of (for anyone but God) and walks on water towards Jesus. Every moment that He keeps His eyes on Jesus’ face he walks with boldness over stormy threatening water, but then he fails. He takes his eyes from Christ and places them on the surrounding winds and rains and waves and in sudden fear he loses his faith and trust in the power of Christ to protect him, and he begins to sink. Yet in his failure, what does Jesus do? He doesn’t say “shucks for you, you shoulda kept your eyes on me!” or “serves you right” or “shame on you, you should have done better.” Instead Jesus reaches out His arms and grabs Peter and pulls him up, re-centering Peter’s gaze on Himself, and says “why did you doubt?” Jesus shows Peter his foolishness in failing to trust Him, but He does it without shaming him. Jesus’ first reaction to Peter’s failure is to grab on to his arms and pull him up back into communion and trust with Himself. He doesn’t let Peter drown in regret and self-flagellation. The moment when Peter was closest in communion with Christ at that moment was not the moment that he was triumphantly walking on water, it was the moment when he looked into His Savior’s eyes, after sinking in stormy seas of doubt, and instead of shame and condemnation He found redemption and love.
I’ll share one more illustration. My relationship with my husband. When I first started dating David some years ago, I was only just recovering emotionally and spiritually from my life-long addictive shame. I was in therapy weekly, and being mentored by another Christian woman at my church, and being deeply shepherded by my pastor. The fairy tale beauty of the timing in which I met my husband is a story for another time, but it was at the perfect moment. I had come to mentally understand that my shame and self-loathing were groundless and false, but now I needed to emotionally experience that I truly was a valuable person. And God brought me the perfect man to teach me that.
There are two hall of fame moments in my memory that contribute towards the definition of the love I share with my husband, and that taught me my own value and worth.
The first was the night that we told each other we were interested in possibly pursuing a relationship. We were sitting on the Mississippi river late one night getting drenched in a huge thunderstorm, watching the lightning over the river (no joke- it was the most story-book romantic setting possible) and sharing our life stories with each other. I had just finished telling him about some of the deepest scars I had emotionally, and I knew I had taken a risk in telling this to a man I didn’t know was going to stick around. I said to him “David, I’ve just told you some really personal things about myself, things I don’t normally share with people. I’m trusting you with a lot of damage I’ve experienced. What are you going to do with it?” His response? “First, off I’m not going to love who you are and then just leave you. And second, the damaged parts of you are still parts of you: so they are precious to me.” My husband (not even yet my boyfriend at the time) said this to me and suddenly I knew for the first time in my life what it tangibly felt like to be known in my brokenness and not be shamed for it. In that moment, my husband identified me as valuable.
The second moment was some months later, when we had been “official” in our relationship for a few months already. We were sitting on my living room couch one night in deep conversation and I shared with him what I considered to have been my chief struggle and sin in life. As I spoke I couldn’t meet his eyes. I stared at my fidgeting hands and felt like absolute dirt admitting and exposing what I felt to be my deepest shame. When I had finished my speech, after a few moments of silence I managed to look up and through tears I saw his face; his face in that moment has been and might just always be the best picture of Christ’s face I can possibly imagine. He took me and my shame in his arms and broke the bonds of my shame by showing me how valuable and lovable I truly am, and suddenly that shame no longer had a place in my identity.
So here’s what I’m leading up to: Shame (for the Christian who has accepted Christ’s sacrifice) should never, must never stake a claim in one’s identity. Our inadequacies have been fulfilled, our failures have been redeemed, our guilt has been removed, and never should we feel shame as part of our identities because of what’s been done to us through the devil and the fall, or because of what we’ve done because of the devil and the fall. We must no longer accept shame as part of our definitions.
Instead, we must see ourselves as Christ sees us: as inherently valuable beings, made in His image, with dignity, worth, honor, and completeness. Self worth is a rejected concept in much of conservative reformed Christianity, but they have missed out on some of the deepest beauty of the redemption story by not embracing the God given worth that we do indeed have.
Lastly, we must show others their worth; we must show them that shame does not define them either, and the way to do that is through a beautiful word that describes Christ’s reaction to our shame to perfection, and it’s the word that embodies what I saw in my husband’s face that night I confessed my shame to him: that is, COMPASSION. We must have and show compassion to all, and never treat them as worthless or dirty or shameful.
He takes our shame. We are valuable.