Shame is An Ugly Word
Have you ever talked yourself into a really uncomfortable place? A place where your weaknesses are laid bare and you can’t talk yourself out of your corner? I’m sure we’ve all had these experiences where our humanity is laid bare, and all we can do is walk humbly and take it. Take whatever shame or punishment comes our way. Take our medicine and sit with it.
I recently had one of these moments on a Facebook discussion on race. Great way to start, right? Who honestly enters a Facebook discussion and expects to leave intact?
This was a really special one though. A close friend of mine was able to manage a discussion about race among a really diverse group of women in a place of kindness, honesty, compassion, and education. She asked an important question: “What questions do you have for other groups that you’ve never really understood? Open forum. Discuss below.” She was opening a door to a conversation that could take a very ugly turn very quickly. Her graceful management moved the discussion along in a loving and compassionate way. Somehow Holy Spirit was also in this moment and we all behaved ourselves! Imagine that.
With all the recent news surrounding race, I’ve felt really overwhelmed with how to help. I’m aware stories and conversations like these have been going on for generations, and it’s something that’s deeply troubled me for years. Recent news coverage is really showing me it’s much worse than I thought. How do I as a Christian person confront generations of hatred and unfairness? How do I as a Christian person respond in an authentic way that might actually have an impact, that might actually change my little space on this planet? How do I as a Christian person enter into suffering that’s been happening long before I was even aware of how bad it could be?
In an earlier conversation, my friend suggested I start where I am. She said that confronting all the little instances of unfairness, hurtful talk, and misunderstanding in my family and my social circle will do more than signing up for any organization or mobilizing any movement. It’s these micro movements that make a real difference. Confront the world in my view and challenge in a loving and strong way the very people I’m closest too. Not an easy task!
I started patting myself on the back. “I do that already! I walk away from conversations. I confront unfairness. I’m not like them! I’m not a part of those people I’m different. I am fair and reasonable and educated!”
When I entered this Facebook discussion, I didn’t realize how much I had been congratulating myself for being enlightened and aware. Pardon the appropriation: I already felt “woke.”
Then I misspoke. I said something that I really didn’t know was hurtful and was a trigger for many people of color. I talked myself into this corner and people called me on it! They said, “You know what? That’s hurtful. Don’t take this lightly. It hurts.” And oh my gosh! I just wanted to hide and never come out again! My internal dialogue was telling me to never speak up again, to keep my mouth shut, to hide and never bring up this conversation again. I wanted to disappear. My face was red, I felt exposed.
I was ashamed of myself.
Now this isn’t a post about race or fairness or relationships between all the conflicting groups in our country. That’s such a big thing that I don’t feel qualified right now to even have something valuable to add to it. God will reveal to me when it’s time to post about that.* But this isn’t a post about that right now.
This is a post about shame. About what shame taught me and what I think shame teaches all of us. About being humbled, cut down to size, and being called on our mistakes and failings.
It doesn’t feel like it, but shame is a gift. Shame is a tool. Shame is a lesson. Shame is a great educator if you’re willing to listen.
If I’m looking at shame and really digging, I see the first place we experienced shame as humans was in the Garden. Humanity really messed up. Our mother Eve and father Adam knew what they did was wrong and what did they do next? They hid. They did what we all do. They covered themselves, hid from their shame, and hid from their closest friend, the God of the Universe. They stopped looking at the beauty and love surrounding them and hid from it. When God went looking for them, they sunk even deeper into the greenery. “Don’t look at us. We don’t deserve you. We’re the worst!”
Instead of apologizing, owning up to their weakness, owning up to their transgression, they tried to pretend everything was fine. And that’s what doomed them. It wasn’t so much the transgression that cast them out as it was their rejection of the Father’s great love and mercy. And so they had to leave the Garden, go out into a world of suffering and pain, and pick up the pieces themselves. I often wonder what would have happened if they had apologized, owned up to it, and asked for forgiveness. Would that have changed the history of the world?
But oh “what happy fall!” Were it not for shame and transgression, we might not have met God face to face in the person of Jesus. We might not have been shown the glory of God in the midst of our trials and tribulations. And we would not have had pain and suffering to offer as a sacrifice to the Living God. For that, I am thankful.
My gratitude doesn’t change the fact that we have had shame imprinted in our DNA since the beginning of time. Our first reaction is to hide, to shrink into the greenery, to try to hide our exposed selves and pretend everything is fine. We’ve all been there. We’ve all lived that. In the midst of this reality, however, God revealed something to me.
Shame causes us to hide. Guilt causes us to change.
In the Garden, we were found guilty of our crimes. We put ourselves up to God, we were prideful, we chose the wrong path. God didn’t set the Tree there to tease us. He didn’t set the Tree there to help us achieve greatness, perfection, and righteousness on our own. No effort on our part, no facing temptation and choosing the right path, no right behavior was going to bring us closer to the perfection of God. He set the Tree there to show us the way to happiness through vulnerability and surrender.
If we allow God to choose our path, we can experience the Garden forever. Had we accepted our guilt in the light of that, we might have been able to change. We might have been able to change ourselves and history forever. That didn’t happen though. We fell and we fell hard.
I think God puts these things in our path to teach us to rely on Him, to ask for His mercy and grace, to trust Him above our own right behavior. We have the gift of guilt to get us to change. Somehow though we twist that into shame. We take guilt, a natural consequence that drive us into the heart of God, and we put on the ugliest of fig leaves: shame.
Let’s not forget that God brings beauty from ashes though. He uses even the ugliest of words to teach us about humility, to grow compassion in our hearts, to help us love better, act rightly, and seek Him more closely.
What was happening in that tiny moment on that tiny corner of the internet? I was having a physical symptom of a very real disease: my fallen nature, my pride, my false belief in my own righteousness and bigness in the world. Shame wanted to silence me. Shame wanted me to hide. Shame wanted me to stop seeking after righteousness and justice. But God used that shame to teach me, little me, about compassion and kindness.
What I was experiencing in that moment was a lesson on my fellowship with all of humanity, regardless of race, creed, origin, or ability. I was guilty of hurting others, of being unfair, of simply not knowing because I spoke first and listened second. I was cut down to size because I had thought I was above reproach. I was cut down to size because I was patting myself on the back. I was cut down to size because I needed to learn a lesson about other people’s suffering. I needed to feel, if even for a minute, what it was like to be “other.” I was those hurtful people! I was a part of world that hurts and creates suffering. I was the very people I had judged.
What was my shame telling me? “You’re a failure. You’re not good enough. You’re a terrible person. You’re a racist. You’re unworthy of anyone’s love and attention.” What did shame want me to do? “Hide. Slink away. Don’t get involved. Don’t speak up. Don’t work for change.” What should I do when confronted with that? What should we all do? Do the opposite! Feel the guilt, apologize, and go forward. Throw off the curse of shame, take up the mantle of guilt, ask for mercy, and move on in truth. Accept the mercy and forgiveness God shows us through the love and kindness of others. Take my medicine, the medicine of compassion, walk in it, and come out on the other side changed. Affected. Vowing to fight another day.
God sets the Goliath of shame before us to help get us to His promised place. He wants us to slay the tiny Goliaths, the tiny places where we can have victory over our weaknesses, so that we can go on to slay the larger Goliaths of the world: hatred, violence, injustice. There’s no shame in our faults and failings and mistakes in the secret place (even sometimes in the public space), when we look foolish, because it causes us to cling more closely to grace. It causes us to choose love over hate, kindness over disrespect, right actions over injustice, peace over violence.
Let’s walk in freedom together. Let’s walk into a place of honesty. Let’s be vulnerable. Let’s lay our hearts bare before others. Let’s not be so afraid of doing something wrong that we do nothing at all. Let’s accept the kindness and compassion of others to make our part of the world into a Garden. Let’s work toward bringing heaven to earth because that’s what our loving Father asks of all of us. He misses us. He wants to be close to us. He wants to walk with us as with a friend. I want to come out of the greenery and find Him there. Will you join me?
*If you’re looking for places to start to mend the fences in our country, I was hugely inspired by the following:
This article showed me how the compassion and kindness of strangers changed the heart of a white nationalist. Profoundly inspiring.
Really pointed advice for people like me who want to help from blogger and activist Luvvie Ajayi. (Contains adult language)
One school attempts to hack racism through some pretty interesting methods. Their example offers one way to combat hatred institutionally.
This is a fantastic podcast by Michael Gungor, of the band Gungor and the podcast “The Liturgists.” In this episode, he features his close friend, worship leader, and activist, William Matthews. William Matthews has been inspiring and thought-provoking in my own life.
Marie Forleo interviews Brene Brown on her youtube channel, MarieTV. They discuss how to encourage constructive conversations about difficult topics and how to step out in courage.