Over the past year my mentor and spiritual director Paul suggested that I think about shame. He encouraged me to delve into my history, my family relationships, and my identity. He wondered if I could experience healing by addressing issues of shame in my life. I’ve resisted. “What shame?” “Is this some of that modern psychology?” “I don’t want to explain away my problems with that term!”
On the surface I might look like I have things together. I’m relatively healthy, have a loving family, a nice job, a roof over my head – it all seems pretty cozy and put together. It would appear that I have lots to love myself about. In fact, I’m often told by people that they admire me and appreciate me. Why would I experience shame?
But over the past several months I’ve been broken as a person. I’ve felt like the legs were knocked out from under me. My crutches were stolen. I’ve struggled with depression. I’m aware of my shortcomings and flaws as if under a new and glaring light. And even my possessions, accomplishments, and relationships seem unimportant. It is in this light that I’ve come face-to-face with my shame. I get it.
When I’m alone with my thoughts and I get 100% honest I know deep down that I don’t love myself. I see myself as a poser. I am a farce. In fact, I hate myself. I look at myself as not living up to my own standards and withering under the intense holiness of a perfect God. I only can stand being me when I am busy and noisy and tuning out the voices buried deep within. I am full of self-loathing and shame. Even my efforts at service and ministry are never enough.
What effect does that have on my life and on those around me?
It is devastating.
My mentor Paul asked me another insightful question recently. “Dan, what do you think about when you think honestly about being alone with God.” I paused for a long time to close my eyes and search for unvarnished truth.
“I see a huge wall. There is a wall that separates me from God. And I can’t get over it or around it. And God stays on his side of the wall.”
So there’s that.
I have trouble connecting with God. Not that God is distant or that God built the wall. That wall is my own shame and I make sure it is strong and imposing and tall.
I read scriptures of God’s incredible love for me, that he would pursue me, that he “lavishes” his love on us, that he takes great delight in me and rejoices over me with singing. I read that he is like a passionate father running toward his dirty son with joy and forgiveness to spare.
And on a surface level I know that those scriptures from God are true.
But I also don’t know if they are true. Deep down I’m not convinced. I’m a skeptic. I am a prisoner in my cell of shame.
What other effects does it have?
I have a vicious internal voice of condemnation toward the people around me. Toward my wife and my kids. Toward other Christians. Toward politicians. Toward people on the street. No one measures up.
My swamp of shame bubbles up and spews toxic waste onto the people around me. Usually I mask it behind civil conversations. But often the people that are closest to me in my life (my wife, kids, and a few friends) bear the brunt of the sloshing shame.
The shame of the pains of my life and of all the unresolved and unhealed issues come spilling out and over.
Looking back I see that shame has been a strong theme of my entire life.
I come from a very religious background. We pride ourselves on our appearance, on our accomplishments, on our image. But – you know – it is all done in a humble way. I’m a third generation missionary and so we even pride ourselves on our public image of being “unconcerned with our image”. It is all complex and strategic and exhausting. It is about managing our shame, hiding it, and avoiding revealing issues that would “compromise our witness.”
Being a pastor’s kid and missionary kid I was always gripped by the intense public relations campaigns of acting a certain part and being the good kid. We couldn’t mess up or we would bring shame to the mission, the church, our family, or our parents. But we did mess up. And we did bring shame to our community and to our family.
I spent a number of years at boarding school in Kenya. I was bullied and shamed relentlessly. I often cried myself to sleep and poured out my pains into journals. Many classmates found ways to exploit my weaknesses and publicly humiliate me.
As I grew up I was socially awkward and not that physically coordinated. I ended up being an outsider. I felt deep shame and confusion.
Over time I’ve even opened up about personal struggles in various Christian circles and I’ve been reprimanded that if “you are in Christ” you shouldn’t struggle with gluttony, lust, depression, doubt, anger and other sins. You should be “fixed”. “The old has gone and the new has come.” I’m considered a second-class Christian if I still struggle. I should be ashamed of myself.
The shame keeps swirling. I’m not good enough. God hates me. Shame. Shame. Shame.
Then shame marched on into my adult life.
I now take those shameful feelings and dump them on the people around me. My wife isn’t good enough. She does shameful things. My kids aren’t good enough. They do shameful things.
And I’ve discovered a new particular manifestation of shame.
I want to protect my kids from being “shameful” people. I deeply desire that they are socially aware, experienced, and knowledgeable so that they aren’t the outsiders, the shamed ones, the fools. I don’t want them to go through the agonies that I experienced.
I want them to be strong and ready for the punches of life.
All it is doing is perpetuating the shame. Under my crushing expectations I see spirits wither and eyes pool with tears.
It has all been clicking.
I see myself as unloved and unlovable. I am a ball of shame. And I then walk through life spilling that shame onto the people around me.
Thank God I’ve had some little new glimpses of truth. I’ve been waking up to the prison I’ve made for myself. I’m newly aware of how the love of God can speak into and heal my frightened soul.
God is love. He loves the whole world. I am made in the image of God. He doesn’t show partiality because all humans are the work of his hands. He is merciful and gracious, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. He is like a loving shepherd who goes out to find his lost sheep, like a woman searching for a lost coin, like a father running to his wandering son. His nature is to demonstrate love and compassion toward his creation.
For those of us who are redeemed and washed of our sins there is even more of a case to be made to live lives free of shame. While we were still sinners Christ pursued us and died for us. He looks on us with compassion. We do not need to live in imagined cells of shame. We are sons and daughters – adopted into a new family. We have a hope that does not put us to shame! Nothing can snatch us from his hand – and nothing can separate us from the love of God.
I can now breathe deep and take that shame and hurl it to the bottom of the sea. I can see myself as a friend of God. God wants to spend time with me because he likes me. He made me. He actually likes hanging out.
I sometimes watch my kids sleep at night. I am filled with deep connection and joy at just standing in the room next to them as they dream. I smile as I watch them sleep. They don’t need to do anything else or perform in order to receive my love.
God smiles when he sees me sleep. I don’t need to do anything else or perform in order to receive his love. I can just rest and receive.
But what about… what about?
Yeah, there are questions that rise up about God’s laws and commands. How do all of those fit into the picture?
One of the problems today is that some in our society have taken this idea of God’s grace and goodness off to some strange and extreme conclusions. Some claim there is no such thing as “sin”. Some say Jesus wasn’t about judging people. Some claim that you can never disappoint or displease God. Some claim that you should just “be yourself and follow your own heart.” Some want to just absorb the feel-good scriptures while ignoring the commandments and the lists of prohibitions. We’ve evolved. We’re beyond archaic and outdated notions of morality. Relax. It is all about grace.
Those points just can’t be true.
My kids sin. My kids disappoint and displease me. I definitely don’t want my kids to always follow their own hearts. Sometimes humans are downright wicked. They torture, they mock, they murder, they rape, they steal. There are things that are just plain wrong to do.
But if I look at the bigger picture I see that I am God’s child and that my identity is in him. Our relationship should not be framed in terms of my shame. I can learn from him under an easy “yoke” because he is gentle and humble in heart. His mercies are new every morning and I don’t have to carry the weight of crushing expectations and self-loathing. God still has rules, but he doesn’t shame us with them.
The bigger picture with my kids is the same. They are my children and their identity will always be connected to me. We shouldn’t be fostering a home that is run on shame. I can still mentor them, correct them, and guide them – without resorting to shame. We can address issues of guilt and then move on. We don’t have to foster or wallow in the muck of shame.
I’m still learning.
As I sit here today – I’m still holding this cluster of shame and figuring out how to live a life free of it. It is a sticky mess that is very hard to be rid of.
But I don’t want to be a person marked by my overflowing vat of shame.
I am loved.
God loves me.
And I can love myself in light of this truth. There’s no shame in that.