“Shame is a soul eating emotion.” Carl Jung. I am so grateful for the feedback I received on last week’s sermon on confession and was challenged to meditate on the impact of shame on our lives. If you read last week’s treatise, you will remember that confession is a key to releasing us from guilt and shame, but what is shame and how does it impact us?
Our earliest introduction in the bible, in Genesis 2:25, states “Now the man and the wife were both naked, but they felt no shame.” Then in Genesis 3:10, just a few statements further on in the story, the man speaks to God, “I heard you walking in the garden, so I hid. I was afraid because I was naked.” What happened?
In this allegory, we find a transition from ignorance to a very real perception of imagined wrongdoing and the sense of moral failing. The first important lesson from this story is that God is not the accuser here, but the man feels the sense of shame he had not felt before he and the woman had eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. At the risk of being somewhat controversial, the implication is clear that had they not eaten of this fruit, they would have remained in a state of blissful ignorance and would have been incapable of guilt or shame. But they would also have been incapable of making any kind of moral judgement. It is my conjecture that real freedom was being granted to mankind and the presence of evil, personified by the serpent was necessary to release this ability to choose. It would also necessitate the entrance of Jesus who “because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame” (Hebrews12) in order to give us the power, in our turn, to be free from shame. It was bound to happen, and was always intended.
So what is shame? One dictionary defines it as “a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.” So, this again emphasizes the source of the emotion as coming from within; a realization that impacts self-worth and value that causes pain. Another definition links this emotion to the conscious realization of failure. Without conscience and the guidance of perceived moral failure, we would potentially all run amok both in our personal lives and in the lives of others causing untold collateral damage. Quite different from a conviction or even feelings of guilt, shame is, I believe, a crippling and destructive influence that can do untold damage to self-worth and our ability to relate to those around us. As I mentioned last week, confession and sometimes real forgiveness is needed to find freedom from this emotional prison.
“You should be ashamed of yourself”. “Shame on you.” These are phrases we have all heard at some point and they illustrate the last point I want to make on this subject. To my mind, there is no place for shame that is inflicted by others. Shame, as I have already suggested, is crippling emotional baggage, and when inflicted by others, it was suggested by a friend that this is primarily a way of controlling another person. I found myself in agreement. It is one thing to be consumed by our own sense of failure and be held in the grip of shame, but quite another to be made to feel that shame. It is not our responsibility to be the moral arbiters of others, however much we may feel the responsibility to do so. As I pondered this subject this week, I realized I had, in some manner been responsible for doing this as a parent, husband and friend. Even the use of those phrases above convey powerful emotional holds over those to whom they are directed. I am sure I have used them on occasion. May I be forgiven.
I believe it was the purpose of Jesus to enable us to stand naked and risk exposing our true selves to those around us but without shame. I do not believe that it was intended we lived in ignorance and without the ability to make moral choices. For this reason, we all have the capacity to feel guilty for our wrong choices. We have the capacity to be overcome by shame in the light of our failings. We can find freedom and healing from the impact because Jesus threw aside his own immunity and suffered the shame of the cross. For those wounded and controlled by shame dished out by others, I encourage you to reject those judgements and find the grace to forgive. I believe forgiveness properly experienced by both parties involved enables freedom from this form of control. In the meantime, I am grateful for the conscience awareness of when I mess up and I will determine to be more diligent in not putting shame on those around me. (Next week just might turn to the subject of forgiving!)