A common dilemma for many of us is that we want to change, we want to move on, but we remain stuck. We believe the past, with all of its poor choices, defines who we are and determines our future. Many of us simply did not know another way to handle our loneliness, insecurities, or other emotional pain. Now we are not really sure change is possible and as a result, we spend our lives wallowing in shame.
What is Shame?
First, it is important to be clear on what shame is. Shame isn’t about doing something wrong. That’s guilt. And if we broke a law, or a moral code, and hurt someone else we SHOULD feel guilty. Owning our guilt and making amends is part of God’s way to nudge us back to the path of peace and freedom. This is one of the twelve steps in the recovery community because they understand that if we don’t repair the damage we’ve done, we are going to wallow in unhealthy ways to numb out and inauthentically and temporarily feel better about ourselves. The chance that we will return to our drug of choice is very high. Shame is different. While guilt should result from doing something wrong, shame is about feeling that something is wrong with me, that I am somehow defective and unworthy.
While some people believe it is healthy to focus on sin, depravity, and our unworthiness, I have to respectfully disagree. Shame rarely inspires and motivates. Rather, it makes us want to hide and NOT own up to what we have done wrong. When he created the world, God said his masterpiece, mankind, was very good. But that was before the Fall, you say! True, but according to many verses in scripture God reached out to us because we are so deeply loved and so valuable to him. Believing our lives have purpose and value, that no sin has to define us and separate us from the love of God motivates and empowers us. Shame disempowers us. It keeps us self-focused, cut off from others and God, and skulking in the shadows. It makes us believe the lie that our past sin defines us.
What Do We Do With Shame?
Well, that depends. We all have our signature moves. Some of our coping strategies look pretty good from a distance. We become workaholics, we over involve ourselves in our children’s lives, we gossip and preoccupy ourselves with the sins of others. Some of us binge eat, others get high or drink too much, or numb out on mindless entertainment. Some become promiscuous, have affairs, or gamble to excess. On a much more subtle level, we protect ourselves from shame by avoidance, being negative, trying to control and fix things. Shame can get us so tangled up that we spend all our time and energy trying to control and suppress it. It is exhausting!
Shame is one of those powerful, overwhelming emotions we don’t want to feel. Shame hurts. When someone says or does something to trigger a sense of inadequacy or worthlessness, our lower brain and limbic system kick into action in a nanosecond. Our fight, flight, or freeze go into high gear, and a flood of reactive emotion bubbles to the surface. Shame can be triggered by a smell, a sound, a look, a tone, a misunderstood text message, or many other things. It causes us to react without thinking or being conscious of the real source of our shame. We just want it to stop. NOW.
For example, let’s say that Bill comes home after a long day at work. When he tries to find his wife to unwind and process his day, she seems distracted and disinterested, frequently checking her phone. He gives up and goes into the den to say hi to his teenage kids. They barely look up to acknowledge him. All of a sudden, out-of-the-blue, Bill becomes enraged. Now he has their FULL attention as he explodes all of his hurt and frustration all over the family. What happened?! In a split second, all the hurt he felt as a young boy who longed for the attention of his own preoccupied and workaholic dad surfaced. That childhood experience triggered shame and anything resembling it now does the same. Does anyone see me? Do I even matter?
What Should We Do With Shame?
“Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead”
“Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him.”
Paul advises us to let go of our old patterns of behavior and “put on” the new behavior that was modeled by Christ. This is a process, and it takes time. Neural pathways that control our unhealthy patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving have been well established. They have been heavily influenced by our experiences and the things we give our time and attention to. If you want a clue as to the things that command your priorities and attention, look at how you spend your day and where you spend your money.
Fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer, and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
Jesus serves as our role model. When he was dying, scripture says he scorned the shame of the cross. He didn’t think shame was worth his time and energy, so he disregarded it. Instead, he focused on God, glory, the purpose of his suffering and THAT was pure joy.
There is so much more that could be said but let me wrap it up with this: Shame is a distraction. God doesn’t need your shame. He wants you to turn from your unhealthy behavior, seek forgiveness, repair whatever you need to repair, then let it go. Romans 8:38 tells us NOTHING, not even our worst sin, can separate us from God’s love. That old sorry shame loop in your head wants to trick you into believing you can add to your redemption or your worthiness by wallowing in self-condemnation. It doesn’t work that way. Let it go and focus all of your energy on the person you want to become, the person God calls you to be.
“There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who don’t walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.”