Those who look to him are radiant; their faces are never covered by shame. Psalm 34:5
Ever think about the role that shame has played in your life? No, probably not. It’s not a topic that we like to spend time on. But it is there, trust me, it is there. And it is probably playing a bigger role than you may realize. Shame, and its cousin, fear of shame, are powerful forces often directing what we do or don’t do and the way we do it. It is an important thing to think about because a life driven by shame is never a life driven by love.
In considering this topic I was able to quickly come up with a list of 45 things that cause us to feel shame. My list is by no means exhaustive and I will spare you the entire thing, but here’s a sample -
We feel shame when:
- we fail
- we are rejected
- we don’t fit in. are different
- we can’t do what others can
- we are left alone, not pursued, not chosen
- we can’t make someone happy
- we don’t know the right answer
- we hear “no”
- our body doesn’t look or perform up to expectations
- we are betrayed
- we are abused
- someone is angry or disappointed with us
- we are criticized or judged
- we are laughed at
- we are weak
Now, when these kinds of things happen to us we may be more aware of feeling hurt, angry or fearful, but underneath those feelings there really is shame. And shame is really, really painful to feel so we default to other emotions as we seek to keep the shame at a distance.
It is so important to tune into the shame. Why? Because that shame is attached to something even more deadly that must be exposed. That shame is attached to a lie. That lie has power. Undetected, that lie will control us. Our lives will be driven by lies and shame-management, not truth and certainly not love.
We can see this happening all through out the scriptures. Before the fall of man Genesis tells us that Adam and Eve were naked and felt no shame. But after their disobedience immediately their eyes were opened and they saw that they were naked. Instantly they kicked in to shame-management mode, sewing a few fig leaves together and hiding in the garden. Later, when confronted by God, Adam employed a new shame-management strategy by blame shifting, pointing the finger at his wife. Cain killed Abel. Saul tried to kill David. Hannah became depressed. Rachel became demanding. Leah compared and competed with her sister, David plotted the death of Uriah, Martha put tasks ahead of relationship, Peter lied, Judas committed suicide – all were engaged in shame-management.
So, what is the lie that is attached to the shame that drives this kind of behavior? The lie is deep and goes to the heart of who we are. It is not a lie about what we do or have, but it is a lie about our identity. The lie says we are worthless, a failure, not good enough, too much, unloveable, undesirable. The lie says we have to change that or at least hide it if we are to have any hope of gaining the love and respect that we crave in this life. And, oh yes, the lie says that we need that love and respect from other people. If it doesn’t come, it only proves that we are what the lie says.
These lies breed shame and fear of shame. The more these lies go undetected, the more easily we fall prey to reacting and living out of our lies. Our “shame buttons” grow big and life events like those listed above hit them hard and can spin us into shame-management mode in a heart beat. We end up reacting in ways that we may later regret and only add to our spiraling down into an emotional vortex fueled by lies.
So, what does your shame-management mode look like? Sometimes we just try harder to get it right, win approval and please others while continuing to beat ourselves up for our failures. Sometimes it can look like some form of withdrawal. We go passive, avoid, don’t try, hold back or hide, stay under the radar. We don’t offer what we have for fear of failure. Other times we power-up. Get angry, make others pay. Shame them for shaming us. We compete to win at any cost. We make others fear us.
Clearly, whatever our shame-management strategies look like, they are not consistent with the life we are called to live, the life of love. And any attempt to change the strategy without rooting out the lie will be at best short-lived. To live a life of love we must embrace the truth.
The truth is that if we are “in Christ” we a have a new identity. (2 Cor. 5:17) We are chosen, made holy and dearly loved. (Eph.1:4,5) Our lives have purpose, value and meaning regardless of what we have, look like or can do. (Eph. 2:10) Nothing can separate us from the love of God. Not our failures, not the rejections of men, not our inability to do it all right and make everyone happy. (Romans 8:38-39)
Of course, our Savior, Jesus, can empathize with us when we face those shaming moments. Can you imagine a more shame-filled experience than going to the cross as he did? Betrayed by a friend, abandoned by other friends, lied about, publicly mocked and beaten, stripped naked, humiliated. Yet, Hebrews tells us that Jesus “despised the shame”. What that means is more than he hated it. It means he disregarded it. It had no power over him. He did not go into shame-management mode, but was driven by love to meet our need. He could do this because he knew who he was. He believed the truth and lived it out.
Because Jesus believed the truth and lived it out he made it possible for us to do the same. In this life we are guaranteed that painful moments where we will feel unloved and disrespected will come, but we too can endure those moments, disregarding the shame. It need not have any power over us or how we respond. The lies may come knocking at the door, bringing their company of shame, but we need not let them in. With the aid of the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ Spirit, we can hang onto the truth of our new identity, significance and security in Christ and live out a loving, beautiful and radiant life.