"But you, O LORD, are a shield about me,
my glory, and the lifter of my head."
Shame is a very uncomfortable emotion and is experienced in relationships. It begins in childhood when we realize we're "less than" others. Little boys feel it when they realize they aren't as strong as Dad. Little girls experience it when they realize they can't read as well as Mom. It's also apparent when we observe a parent in a store, dragging a little one behind. We can read shame in the child's face as she believes she's defective because she can't keep up.
After The Fall, Adam and Eve's emotional response to sin was shame. To hide their shame they covered the parts of themselves that were different. But, the coverings couldn't cover the shame running deep within. So, when they heard the Lord coming, they tried hiding, but the hiding couldn't conceal the wrong done or the shame felt. So, they blamed--Eve blamed the serpent, Adam blamed Eve, and Adam cast a bit of blame in God's direction, as well. But, the covering, the hiding, and the blaming couldn't alleviate their shame. So, shame was passed down to their children, who passed it down to their children, who passed it down to their children, all the way down to you and to me.
I admit that shame is something I've been intimately acquainted with. My first memory of it was developmental shame. On a family trip, Mom started singing beautifully. I was around age four and started singing with her and did okay as I sang melody with her. Then she asked me to sing the melody so she could harmonize. But when she sang harmony I couldn't hear the melody in my head and couldn't harmonize with her. Though she tried to ease my discomfort, I heard her words through a veil of shame and sat there with face beet-red, believing I wasn't as good as her.
Another source of shame was inflicted upon me when I was abused. I was too young to understand what had happened the first time, but old enough to understand something shameful had occurred. The shame grew with a few more abusive encounters and grew again when I was old enough to realize what had happened. I carried the shame of being chose by those abusers--shame that was really theirs to bear.
Shame also surfaced when I disobeyed my parents and was punished because I interpreted punishment and love as mutually exclusive and believed, when punished, I was too bad to be loved.
Shame also surfaced with the realization that I had the power to inflict pain with words, with silences, with actions, and with inaction.
Then shame sank all the way to the core when we were in an accident in which there was a fatality. I believed I should have been able to stop the accident. We weren't to talk about it, so I stuffed the shame and developed an eating disorder. I focused on calorie-counting, obsessive exercise, and numbers on the scale to avoid feeling shame caused by the accident and by a maturing body that was drawing unwanted attention.
The eating disorder brought its own shame, but the shame of not being a size 1 and less than 95 pounds, as bad as it felt, was better than experiencing the shame of sin, of abuse, of the accident, of being inadequate, and of feeling defective. As shame grew, I avoided its pain with anger that anger ran hot. It was turned inward so both my real and my imagined failures were met with self-contempt.
Shame runs all the way to the core, because we are bent to do wrong. It runs to the core because we hide our trues selves behind masks that we're too terrified to remove and we know the selves we present are false. Shame runs to the core because we've been deeply wounded by others, leaving us believing we aren't worth loving, we aren't good enough to be accepted, or we aren't valuable enough to be cared for. It runs to the core because of broken relationships we can't mend, move past, or in which we haven't be able to give or receive forgiveness. It runs deep because at the end of the day we know just how poorly we fulfill the command to love as Jesus loves.
I've known many others like me, who numbed shame with self-hatred, believing and living as invisible individuals, not worth the space they take up, the food they eat, or the compliments they receive. I've also known others who numbed shame by having contempt for others. These are dear souls whose judgments are harsh, whose words cut deep, or who cast doubt on the character of others with words softly, but slyly spoken.
I wouldn't be surprised if under the hateful actions of bullies, rapists, mass shooters, runs a core of shame so deep it's strangling the good in them. They avoid shame by verbal assaulting, physically assaulting, raping, or murdering any who might see their shame. Shame drives the hatred that is spewed at individuals and people groups like families, genders, races, religions, or whole cultures.
We can experience communal shame that is felt when someone in our community sins. For example, when church leaders fall, we all feel the shame. When a family member fails, the whole family feels the impact. This thing called shame can be governed by culture whose morals codes are different. In our culture, we experience shame more as individuals. But in other cultures shame is felt when family honor is broken by things like poor grades, not giving birth to a man child, or by being raped. Diane shared stories of women who were killed by family members because they were victims of rape, which brought disgrace to their families and the only way out of the shame was killing the victim.
Shame is a thief. It robs us of dignity, of relationships, of being fully known, and of being accepted. When God asked Adam and Eve where they were after they sinned, it was because He wanted to see them and set them free from the shame they were experiencing. But in shame they feared exposure. Like them, we hide our shamed selves. We hide from the exposure of guilt, dishonor, humiliation, and inadequacy. We hide behind arrogance, education, economic status, power, self-contempt, others-contempt, alcohol, drugs, eating disorders, rage, good behavior, bad behavior, and ultimately suicide. Hiding can never resolve shame, it only deepen it because isolation allows shame-filled thoughts to fill our minds--thoughts like "I am too big," "I am too ugly," "I am too stupid," "I and too defective," as well as thoughts like "I am a loser," "I don't have a spiritual gift," or "I don't fit in anywhere." As Diane pointed out, it causes us to measure our uniqueness from how defective we believe we are rather than from the gifts, abilities, and intelligence we have. Shame runs deeper than emotions because, in shame, we lose sight of who we were created to be as image bearers of the great I AM. She pointed out that shame has been handed down generation after generation and so people curse, use drugs, sell themselves, inflict pain, and we murder. And all of this is because shame was the loss of glory we all experienced in The Fall.
Diane also pointed out that our responses to shame are the same responses we have towards trauma. First, we respond by fighting. We do this by attacking our selves through starvation or other self-destructive behaviors. We do this by attacking others, especially those that might expose us or our weaknesses. Second we respond by fleeing. We do this by isolating or being over zealous in religious activity and a frenzy of work. Third, we respond by freezing. We do this by dissociating so no one will see us and so no one can make us own our shame. We also do this by remaining silent or passive. Regardless of our response the goal is always to make sure the real us won't be seen.
Yet there is so much more to the story!
We were created in God's image to bear His glory, not to live as disgraced, blemished, reprehensible, and inadequate beings. We're to remember God Himself covered Adam and Eve with animal skins, pointing to the Savior who shed His blood for sin and shame. It's God who is our glory and the one who takes our head and lifts it up so we can view His beautiful face.
He is a Savior deeply acquainted with shame. He was a born to an unwed mother and came from shameful region called Nazareth. He rubbed shoulders with the poor, the tax collectors, the women, the prostitutes, the lepers, the maimed, the blind, the deaf, the demon possessed, and even the half-bred Samaritans, all of whom were considered people of shame. He was accused of being Beelzebub, crazy, and a liar. He was rejected and sold for the price of a slave. Arrested by religious leaders, He was crowd-mocked, face-slapped, spittle-drenched, beard-plucked, clothing-stripped, and cross-hung. In death He bore the full weight of our sin and our shame. Yet, He did not hang His face, He despised shame and looked it squarely in the face until His redemptive work was done.
We were called in Hebrews to fix our eyes upon Him. As we behold Him, we are fully seen by Him and our shame is transformed into glory as our position as Image bearers is restored. When we grasp that, we are free of shame. We are free to love and free to go to the shamed and identify with them as Jesus did us. We are free to lift their faces so they, too, can behold His face and have their shame transformed to glory.
The questions we must face is, "Where is our gaze? Is it on ourselves as we bury our shame or is it on Him who can set us free?"