Let Me Tell You About Shame
People go into hiding for various reasons. Usually they’re not so much looking for something as running from something. A husband’s fist. An outstanding warrant. Tyrannical parents. Maybe they’re searching for a fresh start. Or maybe they’re just attempting to stay alive for another sunrise, knowing that if they stay put, death by another’s hand, or their own, will surely come. Whatever the reason, whatever the hiding spot, they usually nurture at least a tiny spark of hope that freedom from their oppression will come.
For about seven years of my life, I tried to escape from my own oppressor, but he was always nipping at my heels, his breath hot on the back of my neck. I ran, but he was faster. Hid, but he uncovered. Buried myself, but he exhumed me. For the reality is this: sometimes when we go into hiding, no matter how deep we burrow, no matter how thorough our anonymity, we cannot shake off our pursuer, for we take him with us. In my own life, that most relentless, merciless pursuer has been shame.
Sin is prolific, spawning a multitude of offspring. There’s guilt, a burden I’ve shouldered. There’s regret, a morass into which I’ve sunk. Each has its peculiar effect, each its specialized punishment. But, for me, there’s been nothing uglier, more deep-seated, and more debilitating than shame. Shame dehumanizes its victim; he feels and deems himself sub-human, unworthy even of the companionship of others. In every facial feature of those who know the source of his shame, he reads the hieroglyphic of contempt. Thus, he goes underground, seeking anonymity. But even alone, there is no relief. Reflected in the mirror is a filth more visible than his skin, a stain of soul that seeps outward, like a botched tattoo inked from within. But perhaps he can find someone who’ll accept him, wounded and torn though he be? No, for the teeth of self-loathing gnaw away at his assurance of the love of others for him, because, he reasons, how could anyone’s heart be turned kindly toward him? He sees nothing lovely in himself, so he cannot possibly see how another could love him. Maybe if he cannot find love in another person, he may still discover a loving God? Hardly, for sees in the face of the heavens the same frigidity he sees in the face of others, the same contempt, the same loathing, only even more intense, because God is wholly and holy other. The more shame envelopes his life, the more welcome death becomes, for he can fathom no other end to a life of shame than an end to life itself.
For me, shame had almost a physicality about it. It wasn’t just something I felt in my conscience; it was more like an ensemble of stained, stinking ragtag raiment I donned daily. Like Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter, I wore shame, for it was sewn into the very fabric of my existence. Moreover, it wasn’t just something with which I struggled; it came to define my existence. It was the refrain of my life’s song, droning on and on.
As I mentioned, for about seven years of my life, shame was my constant companion. What about now? Has it changed? If so, how and why?
Has it changed? Not long ago, I reconnected with a friend with whom I hadn’t spoken in several years. He had been a member of the congregation where I served as pastor, and a very good friend to me and my family. It was a great conversation, a talk I needed to have, and a friendship I wanted to rekindle. But as we got around to talking about events from my past, those intimately connected with the origin of my shame, I could feel my old foe wrapping his hands around my throat as I spoke. So has it changed? Yes and no. The best way I can describe what’s happened is to say that, if shame were my cancer, it is now in remission. I wish with all my heart that I could tell you it’s gone for good, that I’m shame-free down to the core of my being. I wish I could tell you that every thread on that stained, stinking ragtag raiment has been cast into the flames. But I’ll be honest; it still hangs deep in my closet. And some days, as on the day of that phone call, I find myself wearing it once again.
So how did this, if not perfect, at least improved situation come about? To begin with, I came out of hiding. You might think shame does its best work when a man is around others, when he experiences shame in their presence. But I think it’s the opposite; that a man alone with his shame is completely at its mercy. The more silent he is about it, the louder it roars within. So I opened my lips and let it escape. I told people what I’d done; I gave voice to my shame. I forced myself to be in the presence of those who knew the origin of my shame. And, yes, I did read on the faces of some that hieroglyphic of contempt, but in the faces of others I saw, to my amazement, compassion and non-judgment and—miracle of miracles—even love.
But much more importantly, I quit trying to hide from God. Like David,
When I kept silent about my sin, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night, your hand was heavy upon me; my vitality was drained away as with the fever heat of summer. I acknowledged my sin to you, and my iniquity I did not hide; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD”; and you forgave the guilt of my sin. (Psalm 32:3-5)
God, however, did more than forgive my guilt; he swallowed my shame. Rather than finding in the face of God the loathing expression of a holy deity, I found the face of a compassionate man who knew all about shame. I discovered in the face of Jesus an unflinching acceptance of me, a friend who doesn’t love me for the man I was, or the man I should be, but for the shamed, stained, marred, disfigured, wounded, half-man I am. He took me in his arms and held me, held me as I confessed and wept and poured out my grief and guilt and shame. And in his arms, something changed. An inexplicable transfer occurred. My shame, it moved to him. My tears streamed from his eyes. He was wearing that stained, stinking ragtag raiment, and I his new, laundered, white garments that smelled like paradise itself. I became human again; better yet, a child of heaven. All because the man who held me became me, even as I became him. He became the shamed, soiled, hated, forsaken sinner, that I might become the forgiven, washed, loved, embraced son of the Father. Jesus brought to me, in the depths of my suffering, what he had accomplished in his life and crucifixion so long ago.
Yes, I still have my struggles with shame. Perhaps I always will. But I shall always have something, or rather, Someone, stronger. I have Jesus the Christ. And of his Gospel I am not ashamed, for it is the power of God for the salvation, and the removal of shame, for all who believe.