Between Guilt and Shame (5 of 6)

Whether it’s that queasy unsettled sense of fear that resides in your subconscious mind that you might somehow be discovered as incapable of being the person, that everyone you know expects you to be, or it’s just in the general way that our culture is able to insinuate judgement of us whenever we lack acceptable levels of compliance to social norms – guilt and shame are busily at work, like emotional gremlins whispering the half-truths of our conflicted minds. This of course makes true vulnerability nearly impossible – because apparently we never know when guilt might show up like a crowbar and start prying open that box of shame we keep hidden away.

To the mind’s eye, there’s not even a flicker of daylight between guilt and shame – conceptually, we can’t help but imagine them as inseparably intertwined. But we do well, to consider them separately if we want to understand them better. Guilt is largely a moral/legal framing of behavior – all the things we do, consider doing, or leave undone, each action screened for malady and defect, each one scrutinized and held to account. But shame is far more complex – more than reductive forensics could ever hope to identify or sort out.

Our default impulse is to believe that it is our guilt that makes us feel shame, when in truth it is invariably our shame causing guilty behavior. Shame is native to the human psyche – it is the lingering taste in our mouth from eating of the bitter fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And now we can’t simply un-know our own shame – it resides in us, ever reminding us of the nakedness of our vulnerability . . . a knowing of ourselves set apart from God. In this way, every guilty thought points us back to our shame — the shame that’s innate to the distance we feel between us and God.

You know full well the naked truth of who you actually are, beneath the camouflage of your pretense and postured self-presentation . . . and you know God does too. And it is from this locked away truth deep within you where your shame allows guilt to constantly hold court with every expectation of finding a guilty verdict. And this is precisely how your shame becomes weaponized against you. We find it at the epicenter of every co-dependent relationship, and it is also infused into the manipulative language of religious, political, and consumerist communication . . . for this is how they prey on our ultimate weakness.

But guilt no longer has power over us when our shame has been freely and humbly confessed – because this is the nakedness of innocence (Genesis 2:25). We stand before God, not with the feeble garments of our own vain explanations, stitched together with the lies we tell ourselves – rather, we stand naked an unashamed in the mercies of God . . . where a robe and a ring await our arrival (Luke 15:22), and we celebrate being clothed in salvation within the robes of righteousness (Isaiah 61:10).

A long journey of faith is a testimony to the faithfulness of God.
This is a song I wrote many years ago, and recently recorded at my daughter’s house.

The Shaming of the True

There are two very well-known sayings when it comes to lying – ironically, each one tells a particular truth about lying, each revealing something insightful about the human condition. Mark Twain, an American humorist said “A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on.” And Joseph Goebbels, the infamous NAZI propagandist said “Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth.” So judging from these two quotes, it would seem clear that we are all pretty susceptible to believing socially accepted lies – especially, the type of lies that affirm what we already want to believe.

But the lies that we are the likeliest to accept, are the ones we tell ourselves — and if you think this doesn’t apply to you . . . we may have just identified one of those lies. Truth requires an unimpeachable point of reference, and too often we assume that we are that reference point . . . and that if we were lying to ourselves, we would certainly experience some measure of shame commensurate with such dishonesty. But this assumes that the lies we tell ourselves aren’t shameless in the way they skew our self-perception.

You may have been raised by a parent who was overly critical, scrutinizing every detail and flaw of your life, without a single word of approval or affirmation for what you did right This was a lie told about you – that you likely grew up telling yourself. And this is just one of many examples, of how lies use shame to silence the truth. But there is also a shaming of the true that occurs on a cultural scale, where a group-think ethos attempts to control the cultural narrative – demanding compliance and marginalizing dissent . . . and as it is with all lies — the method of shame employed doesn’t have to be true.

imagesHere’s a truth – all human life is sacred . . . but there are many lies perpetrated intent on marginalizing, oppressing, and exterminating various sub-groups of humans. Racism is the lie that says certain groups of people are less human. Misogyny is the lie that says women are less significant than men. Abortion is the lie that says humans in utero don’t have an innate right to exist. Those defending each one of these lies will offer you compellingly emotional explanations for why each sub-group is the exception to the rule, that all human life is sacred . . . in an attempt to shame you into conformity with their lie. But, in fact, each one of these lies is its own deconstruction of the whole truth that all human life is sacred.

But for the father of lies (Satan), false accusation is the shaming weapon of choice. Because where a false accusation is made, doubt is created – even if there isn’t an ounce of actual evidence supporting the claim. In this way, the damage is done, regardless of the truth. In John 3:19-21 we are told that the light comes into the world by way of sacrificial love. But all that lingers in the dark, hates the light – for the light of truth exposes every lie (20). But whatever is true, lives in the light, and thereby belongs to God (21). So the real test for what is true and what is lie, can only be conducted in the light of God’s love – so come stand shamelessly in the light of that love . . . and allow the lies you tell yourself to fall away.

When in doubt — hold it up to the light.

Naked and Screaming

We all come into this life fragile and innocent, naked and screaming. Instantaneously, we become aware of our overwhelming need – our need to be feed, to be held, to be protected . . . to be loved. And these are the needs that remain with us for the rest of our days – because our existence is inescapably contingent . . . and no measure of self-sufficiency can change this. To be innately filled with such a consuming need, is to be exposed and vulnerable, which invariably leads us onto one of two paths – humble acceptance or fearful shame.

It could be reasonably argued that naked and screaming is a defining aspect of our fallen nature – regardless of our age. Because our impulse response to being vulnerable is to act out of shame, to seek control, demanding the capitulation and deference of others . . . hoping to distract them and ourselves from the shame that is ever at work in us. But very often we foolishly assume that if our actions were driven by shame that we would certainly know it. But what if our instinct to cover the nakedness of being exposed was more reflexive than cognitive . . . do you still think you would know then?

But before I continue, let’s make an important distinction here between a cultural framing of shame, and the psychological outworking of shame. We might view those who choose to live a life of openly self-destructive behavior as having no shame – otherwise they would take care to hide their conspicuously consuming behavior . . . because that’s what we would do. We are tempted to assume that because they no longer maintain the social pretense of covering their shame, that they aren’t experiencing shame . . . but nothing could be further from the truth.

imagesInstead of screaming “Look away! . . . or you’ll never be able to accept me”—they’re screaming “Look at me! . . . and see what my fear of not being acceptable has done to me”. The innate vulnerability and need that is common to us all becomes harder to detect in these cases – because of the broken and distorted extremes they’ve gone to in addressing the disquiet and fear they experience . . . it is a need that has become for them a devouring abyss.

But like I said, fearful shame is only one of two paths. The humble acceptance path of our vulnerability becomes a solemn confession – it is not simply to confess our need, but to confess that every human attempt to address need will always be flawed. We can neither be fixed by someone else (human), or fix ourselves. It’s a humble confession that God’s grace is required – that underneath every need we have, is our need for him. Not only does this allow us to unflinchingly know ourselves as he knows us – but it also allows us to be grateful conduits of God’s grace in the world.

So when you experience people screaming (metaphorically) at you to accept them on their own broken terms of hiding shame, we can choose instead to accept them on the terms that sets us all free from shame, an acceptance that brings shame into the light so it can no longer have power. So that finally their deepest longings and needs can find a corresponding satisfaction that can only be found in God.

It is shame that steals everything from us . . .