It happened one day on the school playground when I was in 5th grade. A girl who I thought was my friend suddenly called me a “blockhead.” As all the surrounding kids laughed, she went on shouting that my head was too big for my body. Her tone and the unwanted attention was mortifying. I had no idea why she was saying this or even what exactly she meant by it. But rather than seeing it for what it was, foolish talk of a child, I searched for an explanation in my own childish understanding of myself.
It had been pointed out that I spent a lot of time in the school library, even during recess, reading books. I had been called weird a few times for this activity. The playground incident, however, sealed the verdict that there was something wrong with me, and I needed to change that something. So, I decided to pursue sports. Baseball, basketball and soccer all went poorly. In high school I did well with football, receiving praise. Yet the sad truth was that I didn’t enjoy any sports that much. I just needed to feel I was OK, and being an athlete provided that covering for a short time. I now realize I was dealing with my own brand of shame.
Guilt vs. Shame
For years I viewed guilt and shame as synonyms, interchanging them with no distinction. In recent years, however, I’ve heard several teachers and authors bring important clarity to what these unpleasant words mean. Guilt tells me that I have done something bad. Shame tells me that I am bad. Guilt highlights my wrong behavior. Shame focuses on the faults I feel in my identity. Both can have proper places and times in my life. I have done some bad things, and guilt has reminded me that they need to be dealt with. Some of those bad things have sprung out of bad motivations that are shameful character flaws. And I need to acknowledge that I have issues in my heart that feed the bad behavior.
The good news is that as a follower of Jesus my guilt can be forgiven and cleansed, and my shame can be covered with something that makes my heart new! The problem for Jesus followers is when we let these two conditions linger even after we claim God has taken care of them. I can wallow in feelings of guilt that no longer have any basis. And I can try to hide that deep sense of shame that is rooted in nothing more than a false interpretation of myself.
How Do We Deal with It?
I will summarize the solution for true guilt by quoting 1 John 1:9 NLT: “But if we confess our sins to Him, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness.” We can deal with our guilt through confession and repentance. They’re gifts God has provided that, when used sincerely, give us a cleansing bath on the inside. I’ll give my full thoughts on this in a future post. It’s shame I want to address more thoroughly right now.
Where It All Started
The unfolding story in the first three chapters of Genesis helps us understand the nature of shame and how it became a part of the human condition.
After God created everything and declared it all to be good, we are told in Genesis 2:25 “Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame” (NIV). In the next chapter after they disobeyed God’s clear instructions we learn, “At that moment their eyes were opened, and they suddenly felt shame at their nakedness. So they sewed fig leaves together to cover themselves” (Genesis 3:7, NLT). And when God called to them, Adam said, “I heard you walking in the garden so I hid. I was afraid because I was naked” (Genesis 3:10, NLT).
What Does It Look Like?
The first recorded results of human sin are shame and fear. Adam and Eve were surrounded by the presence of God from the very beginning. For the first part of their lives, their nakedness wasn’t a shameful thing because they were “covered” with God’s glory at creation (Psalms 8:5-6). But once they disobeyed and cut off their connection with God (see my post on Sin), their covering was cut off as well. They were suddenly aware that something was wrong with them. For the first time in their lives, they hid themselves and were afraid for God to see them in their shameful state.
Shame is a huge problem. Today, social scientists are looking at how it affects mental health and human relationships. Therapists Ronald and Patricia Potter-Efron* define shame as the painful belief in one’s defectiveness as a human being. Dr. Brené Brown, social worker and researcher, has written and spoken extensively on the subject and believes that everyone deals with it in one form or another**. And what’s the natural thing to do when you feel there’s something wrong with you? Hide it, of course. We all have unique ways that we disguise our feelings of shame, typically burying them deeper within. Thus Dr. Brown concludes that vulnerability, that is bravely stepping out into those areas where we feel inadequate and insecure, is the antidote to shame’s dominance in our lives.
Adam and Eve were afraid of vulnerability and sought to cover the shame of their nakedness with fig leaves. If you stop and think about it, this solution is laughable. What hope is there to properly dress yourself with little leaves sewn together? Of course it was not adequate. God, Himself, eventually stepped in and clothed them with animal skins (Genesis 3:21). And, of course, these more durable garments were paid for with the lives of blameless creatures. This is the first hint of the biblical concept that something innocent has to die for shame to be properly covered.
We’re Not Meant to Keep It
As I already mentioned, feelings of shame can be legitimate. There are certain behaviors that express an internal defectiveness that need to be corrected. Like guilt, shame can act as a warning system telling us that we need help.
Yet shame can also be illegitimate. It often feeds off your personal interpretations of what you should be, do or look like. This is especially true when you compare yourself to some random standard that you have decided is our measuring stick. Shame is that feeling that you’re not what you ought to be. You’ll never be able to fix your defectiveness, so just camouflage it with something—pleasure, pain, overachievement, underachievement, blame, aggressiveness, education, overly-religious behavior, withdrawal. It can be almost anything. In my early years, it was the image of being an athlete. But the basic motivation for hiding myself was fear. I didn’t want to be seen for who I really was.
How Do I Deal With It?
The Bible addresses our struggle with shame from multiple angles. Similar to Dr. Brown’s proposal, the scriptures tell us that making ourselves vulnerable through humility allows us to receive more of God’s grace (1 Peter 5:5-6). In addition, the Bible speaks of God’s provision of new clothing. In Isaiah 61:10 we’re told that God desires to cover us with the “robe of righteousness.” In Revelation 3:18 we are counseled to clothe ourselves with His white garments. And in the parable of the Prodigal Son, along with shoes and a ring, the father orders a new robe to be placed over his returned son (Luke 15:21-22). This tells us that because our Father has given us these gifts, our defectiveness is no longer what will define us. It’s how our Heavenly Father views us that now shapes our identity and future. No more shame. Can you believe that?
I’ve come to the conclusion that asking forgiveness for shame doesn’t deal with it. Receiving in faith the covering that God has provided through Jesus’ sacrifice does. What defectiveness do you still feel in your life that you have not yet clothed with Jesus? His rightness from this time forward is how God wants to define you. It’s how He sees you. Can you see it and receive it?
*Their book, Letting Go of Shame, is older but a decent introduction to how mental-health professionals might look at it.
**You can get the gist of where Brené Brown is coming from by watching some of her TED Talks on YouTube.