“Shame is a hemorrhage of the soul.”
Attributed to Jean-Paul Sartre
Shame is a tyrant that keeps us bound. It propels us to hide from those we love and even the Lord. Shame is one of the enemy’s most potent tools and one of the great consequences of the fall in Eden. It’s the insidious result of the dysfunction that marks nearly every relationship from childhood onward.
We can miss how it erodes the core of us because it often happens gradually. It can come through some careless comment from someone who matters. It can come through some mistake or failure. It can come when we need to hear we are loved and instead have silence in that space.
Brene’ Brown defines shame this way:
“Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.
The thing to understand about shame is, it’s not guilt. Shame is a focus on self; guilt is a focus on behavior. Shame is ‘I am bad.’ Guilt is ‘I did something bad.’ … Guilt: ‘I’m sorry. I made a mistake.’ Shame: ‘I’m sorry. I am a mistake.”
Unfortunately for too many of us, no one really makes that clear to us. Some of us have too often heard comments such as: “Shame on you” or “You ought to be ashamed of yourself.”
Sadly, those comments stick to us. One reason they can stick is that the feelings of guilt and shame overlap. We can feel guilty for what we do and also shame because of something we do. Then the erosion begins to move faster and faster.
One of the significant Christian writers about shame is Lewis B. Smedes. His book, Shame and Grace, offers much help to distinguish the issues that come from shame and the corresponding results such as depression, anxiety, and addiction.
“Guilt overflows the banks of action and flood our being with shame. White water from a flowing river becomes a fetid swamp once it settles into the valley. So guilt becomes a stagnant shame after it has flowed from one thing we did over all that we are. The shame equation is this: one wrong act equals a bad person.”
Lewis B. Smedes
Once this equation and “fetid swamp” is in place, many sources can feed it – family members, unhealthy church experiences, school and work relationships, and more. Ultimately, we can begin to shame ourselves as well.
“Guilt can legitimately convict us of sin, but shame cuts straight to the core of our self-worth and leads only to increased hiding, addiction, silence, and self-loathing.” Andrew J. Bauman
Shame’s power grows because it comes with the potent power of fear – fear of being exposed, fear of being rejected, fear of being unlovable or unacceptable.
Since being accepted is one of the basic needs of our lives, the tangled web of fear and shame can leave us hopeless and despairing and terrified to ask anyone for help to unlock the prison we may find ourselves in. There can be realistic reasons that reinforce that terror. We may have tried to approach someone for help in the past or to tell them of our torment and experienced the negative consequences of things not going well. We do not always discern who is wise and safe to share with.
Where is the hope?
“Grace is the beginning of our healing because it offers the one thing we need most: to be accepted without regard to whether we are acceptable. Grace stands for gift; it is the gift of being accepted before we become acceptable.” Lewis B. Smedes
This is the effective antidote to shame if it is graciously given (which means it overlooks our undeserving).
In Smedes’ book he relates the story of Lee’s surrender to Grant at the end of the U.S. Civil War on April 9, 1865. It is an excellent example of what gracious grace looks like and I want to share a portion of how Smedes tells this story:
“In the tidy living room of the home where the vanquished and the victor met, Lee asked Grant what his terms of surrender were to be. Grant told Lee that his men were free to take their horses with them and go back to their little farms and that Lee too was free to go home and create a new life. Lee offered Grant his sword; Grant refused it. Lee heaved a sigh; he came expecting to be humiliated, and he left with dignity and honor. As he watched General Lee mount Traveller and ride back to his troops, Grant took off his hat and saluted his defeated enemy. It was a gracious grace. And it deeply affected the defeated general: as long as he lived, Lee allowed no critical word of Grant to be spoken in his presence.”
Gracious grace is what a loving Father God offers us when we are a mess. He offers it out of a love few of us can imagine.
Once we receive it, can we pass it on?