Do you ever feel like God is really on your case about something? Well that is how it has been for me this week. Everywhere I go the issue of shame seems to be slapping me in the face.
The dictionary definition of shame is, “a feeling of distress or humiliation caused by consciousness of guilt or folly of oneself or an associate”. And it has caused me to look again at the Genesis account of how sin entered the world. When Adam and Eve, living in perfect harmony and contentment in the Garden of Eden, eat of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of good and evil, their eyes are opened. God comes to seek them out and when confronted with their act of disobedience, Adam responds, “I was afraid because I was naked.” Mike Higton in his book ‘Christian Doctrine’ says, Adam and Eve “…gain shame when they see their nakedness, and fear when they realise that God is in the garden and will see their nakedness.” So what, from a biblical perspective, is shame? He goes on to say, “It has something to do with seeing yourself as you imagine others see you – an internalised version of the external scrutiny you imagine yourself to be under. And so it is indeed a form of knowledge, self knowledge…but it is knowledge without love (p. 266).” The consequence of this new awareness is catastrophic. As a result relationships at every level are forever ruptured and distorted: the relationship with God and human beings; relationships between men and women; the relationship between humanity and the rest of creation.
But how does shame cause this exactly? To attempt an answer, I am indebted to my friend Karlie, who sent me a TED talk by Brene Brown entitled ‘The Power of Vulnerability’. In it she says, “Shame is really easily understood as the fear of disconnection. Is there something about me that if other people know or see means that I won’t be worthy of connection?” Brown went on to discover that what separated those who yearned for connection but never felt they ever really found it and them that she describes as whole-hearted, able to make deep, real and meaningful connections, was that the latter had a sense that they were worthy to be in relationship. They had the courage, in the true sense of the word’s original intent, to tell the story of who they were with their whole heart. “They were willing to let go of who they thought they should be in order to be who they were… The other thing they had in common was they fully embraced vulnerability. They believed that what made them vulnerable, made them beautiful.” Adam and Eve suddenly knew they were vulnerable in their nakedness, but it was ugly and shameful and had to be covered up.
Today we cover our shame not just with clothes but with coping strategies that numb the negative emotions that vulnerability generates – fear, rejection, grief and disappointment. We withdraw and cut ourselves off from the very longed-for relationships where safety and freedom to be ourselves might be experienced. But didn’t Jesus die to remove our shame, heal our dis-ease and restore right relationships? Is this only to be fulfilled at the end of time when He comes in glory to judge the living and the dead and put right the injustices of this present age? I don’t want to wait and I don’t believe I have to! But there is a cost. It requires me overcoming my own shame and counting myself worthy of connection. This takes true courage. To reveal who I am with my whole heart and see it as beautiful. To be honest, right now, I don’t know if I can be that brave. So I join with the psalmist and ask God to, “Turn to me and be gracious to me,…Look upon my affliction and distress and take away all my sins…Guard my life and rescue me; let me not be put to shame, for I take refuge in you. ” (Psalm 25, verses 16-20). In His goodness He replies, “Those who look to Him are radiant; their faces are never covered with shame” (Psalm 34, verse 5). And to this hope, I cling.