Shame is a hard thing, isn’t it?
Shame attacks you when you’re at your weakest and clings to insecurities, lies, and doubts in your mind. It seems like shame gives megaphones and ammunition to those voices in your head that try to drag you down. It’s like letting loose a kamikaze in your soul that is heaping up dry kindling and smacking stones together to ignite a spark to put it all up in flames. It sends you spiraling back into an abysmal abyss and then relies on its shadowy appearance of power to keep you there. It’s scary and, frankly, it sucks.
Let’s take a few moments to wrestle with shame. I think this wrestling is a necessary component to living freely and healthily in life – and consequently is important to the Christian life. I say so, because shame likes to feed us lies about who we are in God’s eyes and veil us from the truth about God’s character. If we find ourselves blindly believing those lies about God fed to us by shame, we end up living into an untrue version of ourselves and serving an idol or misconception rather than the one true God.
So let’s dive right in.
WHAT IS SHAME?
The quick answer is this: Shame is a type of brokenness. Shame is, however, notably different than any of our emotional or physical brokenness. Emotional and physical wounds are issued outside of our control and leave callouses and voids in our heart. Arguably, these two types of brokenness are more readily identifiable than shame because they’re linked to tangible events, whereas shame is often (but not always) separate from the physical realm. Shame is deeply cognitive and deeply spiritual in nature, making it elusive and tricky to pin down. As our physical and emotional wounds are connected to a physical event that happened to us; shame is connected to our emotional and physical wounds. This means the callouses and voids left by emotional and physical brokenness lead us toward shame. This also means that without identifying our emotional and physical brokenness, we are likely living blind to our shame.
Let me give you an example of how this works through some hypothetical scenarios. Your parent, sibling, or friend may have inflicted an emotional wound on you in some way: saying a hurtful thing about your body image; introducing you to pornography; being absent from your developmental years; et cetera. These things left damage in your emotional world and ultimately have shaped the way you interact with people, yourself, and with God. They’ve left voids or callouses on your heart which are acted out in various ways. Maybe you lash out and emotionally damage others; maybe you numb the pain by indulging in any number of substances; maybe you distance yourself emotionally from other friends and family. Any of these things are evidence of your soul seeking to heal itself. Our soul is trying to numb its pain and bandage itself.
Shame then sees this as a vulnerability – a chink in our armor. It sneaks in and tells us we should be ashamed of what we’ve done because whatever it was didn’t fill our voids or remove our callouses. It tells us that because we couldn’t fix our souls, we are worthless. It tells us that because we couldn’t get better, we must not be worth being made better.
See how shame is separate, but entirely tied to our emotional and physical brokenness? Shame targets us when our own attempts to overcome our brokenness fail us. It points out our deepest insecurities and pains and tells us we will never amount to anything more than them. It tells us, in fact, that we are irreparable, unlovable, and hopeless. This wounds us again and again and again. We try to numb it again and again and again. We try to fix it again and again and again. We are fed shame’s lies again and again and again. Shame is cyclically and exponentially growing as we allow ourselves to believe its lies.
SHAME AND GRACE
Shame is the equivalent of being removed from grace (or, more easily put, disgrace). As darkness is unknowable without the reality of light, shame is unknowable without the reality of grace. With no knowledge of light we can have no knowledge of darkness. Similarly, with no knowledge of grace, we can have no true knowledge of our shame. Therefore, in order to understand shame well we must first understand grace well. Otherwise, we cannot identify what it is we have been removed from.
Grace is this: the unconditional love of God made manifest in Christ’s sacrifice for our sins on the cross. Therefore, shame is the absence of God made manifest in Christ’s sacrifice for our sins on the cross. Practically, however, this is terribly difficult to wrap our heads around – but I will try my best to explain.
When the unconditional love of God is present in our lives, we are living into the true image of the Lord and the true image of ourselves. We are rightfully seeing God for who He is as good, creator, almighty, just, merciful, and loving. Consequently, we are able to view ourselves as His beloved children: saved, redeemed, freed from sin, and made righteous in His sight. These things bear with them a reality of hope and the fruits of the spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, kindness, and self-control,” (Galatians 5:22-23).
However, this means the opposite is true when the we are living in shame. Let’s flip it all on its head. When the unconditional love of God is absent from our lives, we are living into a false image of the Lord and a false image of ourselves. We don’t see Him as good, creator, almighty, just, merciful, or loving and consequently we are unable to view ourselves as His beloved children: unsaved, irredeemable, enslaved to sin, and guilty in His sight. These beliefs bear with them a hopeless reality and the works of our flesh:
“sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these,” (Galatians 5:19-21)
Living in light of the words of grace, we recognize the free gift God has given to us: to be in relationship with Him for all eternity though we don’t deserve it and could do nothing to earn it ourselves. Living in light of the words of shame, we refuse this free gift of God and instead transform ourselves into gods in order to fulfill the desires of our own flesh.
WHY CAN’T I JUST DO WHAT I WANT?
You might be thinking, “the second option sounds pretty enticing to me, Sam” and you’d be right. It probably is very enticing to most of us. But here’s why we can’t simply seek the desires of our own flesh: our flesh is severely, entirely broken. Romans 5:12 says, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” Our flesh is sinful and doesn’t know what right from wrong. It definitely is not aware of what it needs, instead it only seeks what it desires to numb its broken longings. Essentially, our flesh feels the weight of its brokenness, but it doesn’t know how to fix it. It seeks every way it can to numb and patch and bandage, but inevitably it remains broken in its own efforts. Christ looks at men stuck in their sin and says they appear “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd,” (Matthew 9:36). God is the only one who can fulfill the longings of our hearts, can heal the brokenness of our flesh, can redeem the sinner from the eternal grave. This is why Christ calls himself the “good shepherd” who not only directs his sheep toward safety and sustenance, but “lays down his life for his sheep” (John 10:11).
WHY MUST I LIVE IN GRACE?
The critical blow of the enemy is its understanding of the nature of our flesh. The enemy uses shame to trap us in a deadly cycle. It knows our flesh tries to fix itself on its own. It recognizes this and uses shame to attack us in the wake of our efforts to numb and patch and bandage. Shame then solidifies lies that we are not good enough, that we are unworthy, that we are broken beyond repair, that we are unlovable, that we are abandoned, that we are forgotten, that we are unredeemable, that we are worthless.
The blindside of shame, however, is that grace also understands the nature of our flesh and grace frees us from shame’s deadly cycle. When we find our flesh attempting to fix itself, grace squashes shame and feeds us truth that we are made good enough, made worthy, repaired, loved, secure, remembered, redeemed, and full of worth.
Grace enables us to enter into the true presence of God. The same God that is called Wonderful Counselor and Beautiful Healer. The same God that knows your name and the true calling on your life. The same God that knit you together in our mother’s womb and knows every pain you’ve ever walked through. The same God that knows your flesh’s deepest longings for healing and comfort AND has the means and willingness to fulfill those longings.
This means that in order to fulfill those longings and stop them from heaping up mounds of shame in our lives, we must lean into grace. That is why dozens of times in the New Testament brothers and sisters are referred to as being “in Christ.” This is why John writes that Christ is “full of grace and truth” and “from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (John 1:14, 16). Romans 6:6 says, “We know that our old self was crucified with [Christ] in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.” We are freed from sin’s grasp on our lives – our brokenness and shame – when we submit ourselves into Jesus Christ’s substitutionary death and triumphant resurrection.
GRACE AND TRUTH
Notice above that Christ is full of grace and truth. We can see the intimate relationship between grace and truth here, insinuating we cannot have one without the other. So grace, necessarily holds what is ultimately true about us. When we are in Christ and experiencing the fullness of grace, we are also experiencing what is fully true about us. This is what grace says is true about us: we are given justification, joy, good hope, righteousness, eternal life, sober judgement, prophecy, servant-heartedness, teaching, exhortation, generosity, zeal in leadership, cheerfulness, thanksgiving, sufficiency, forgiveness, redemption, salvation, eternal comfort, strength, inheritance, help in time of need, unhindered prayer, restoration, confirmation, establishment, and – get this – more grace (check out this link for bible verses).
Just like shame is cyclical, grace is also cyclical. While shame feeds us lies about what God says about us, leading us to more shame; grace feeds us truth about what God says about us, leading us to more grace. Grace and the rewards of grace are given to us as we embrace it more and more. This means that as we lean into grace more, our ability and desire to lean into grace increases exponentially.
BUT I DON’T SEE CHRIST’S FREEDOM YET!
Many of you may be reading the previous section in anger and frustration. You’ve been following Christ for years and seen little to no improvement in some area of your life. Maybe you continue to sin in one area of your life. Maybe you continue to be affected by past wounds and brokenness. Maybe you continue to experience shame for your sin. Maybe you’re asking God, “How can this be happening if Christ freed me from sin? Freed me from shame?”
I believe Christ does not leave us behind in our frustration and doubts. He understands we still live in a fallen world. He knows we still live around others that are full of sin. He sees we still carry the effects of a sinful world in all of our psychology, our genetics, our culture, our society, our relationships, et cetera. He is aware we still live in a world where most people are enslaved to sin and trying to fulfill their own broken longings and passions.
Christ knows these things and He responds by telling us to “Be still and know that I am God.” When we find that stillness in the midst of our struggles he whispers to us that sin and shame are liars. His Spirit reminds us and builds a confidence within us that what God says about us is true. This is a power that allows us to not only choose against sin, but to gradually lose our desire to sin altogether. This Holy Spirit reveals to us that sin and shame are entirely deceitful and God is entirely true.
Christ doesn’t say it’s an instantaneous fix, but what He gives us is an eternal fix. He assures us of two things. First, that we are 100% free from sin and shame in eternity, starting the moment we receive Him as our Lord and Savior. Second, increasingly throughout this lifetime we’ll catch small tastes of that eternal promise in the gradual freedom from sin and shame given to us by His Holy Spirit. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 3:17-18, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”
So, believer, there will always be areas of our life that seem like we’re trapped, even enslaved to a particular brokenness or sin pattern. There will be times we cry out multiple times to the Lord like Paul did about the thorn in his flesh (2 Corinthians 12:7). There will be times where it seems like the icy grip of shame will never let go. Yet, it’s in times like these God’s Spirit is so necessary. He gives us comfort that we are still redeemed and received by Him eternally. He tells us the power and glory of Christ is magnified in our weakness. He reminds us there is still hope in what appears to be a hopeless situation. He reveals to us grace and truth about who God is and who we are when we most desperately need it. He frees us, slowly and surely, from that cold grasp of shame and beckons us to come with him – further up and further in.
You’re worth more than your shame tells you – because God says so.
“These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I will come to you.’ If you loved me, you would have rejoiced, because I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you before it takes place, so that when it does take place you may believe. I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has no claim on me, but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father. Rise, let us go from here,” (John 14:25-31).
Want to learn more about how to identify and tackle your wounds? I wrote about it! Here is the link: Healing Wounds.
Want to learn more about being still and hearing the true voice of God? I wrote about that too! Here is the link: Being Still.