This last week I had someone email me referring to a situation that I am heavily involved in – and indeed responsible for – as “a shame in every sense of the word”. I won’t go into the situation itself, mainly for personal reasons but also for sake of confidentiality. But it made me realise something.
I struggle with shame. A lot.
A huge amount of my childhood memories are the kind that bring the rush of blood that comes with the feeling of embarrassment. Often they’re really stupid, little things. Like the time I for no apparent reason refused to ask to be let down from the table at my Aunt’s house and ended up spending ages sat there feeling confused at myself. I look back on it and I think “I have no idea” why I did that. But, well, I was about 6.
Or there’s the time that I repeated a joke from a birthday card to my mum’s friend who was stood chatting to her in Tesco – that I naively didn’t realise was a pun of a very sexual nature. Of course, it dawned on me fairly quickly – but too late to save me from that all too familiar feeling.
The funny thing about those two memories is that while I can to a large extent rationalise the emotions and see myself in a kinder light, I find it hard not to wish I could just go back in time and fix them. I felt this way too about the events of the last week. They’ve left me unable to concentrate, unable to focus well, and generally meant that I’ve felt disappointed in myself and ashamed of my actions.
The upshot of all of this is that my anxiety, which had calmed down hugely, shot through the roof again. And all, ultimately, because of shame.
I think for a long time I’ve confused shame with guilt. My friend Alan, an author and theologian, spoke about this with me in the pub once. There’s quite a subtle difference. Guilt is that feeling you get when you know you’ve done something wrong – or, more accurately, when someone points it out to you. In my particular scenario I had managed to find excuses for why I did what I did. And they were great, until I was called out on them.
But what happened next was that I couldn’t let go of the guilt. I read the email over, and over, and over again. Until it made me hate myself. It was like I wanted to feel guilty, for some reason. But that repeated guilt, that’s shame.
Shame is what happens when we prolong guilt beyond its remit. Guilt is what you feel when you have an affair. Shame is what you feel when you’re reminded of it every day. Jesus had a thing or two to say about that in his encounter with the adulterous woman, and I think it’s a great example of a couple of things:
Firstly, shame is not OK
Shame is not OK. Get that in your head. If you’re anything like me, that’s a hard pill to swallow. I quite like being down on myself and beating myself up when I do wrong. It’s an easy way of channeling the emotions. But it’s not good. It leads us to continually regret something that we cannot change. And it leads to us feeling helpless.
The reality, of course, is quite different – we can acknowledge our guilt and then we can go about making amends.
Secondly, it’s not OK to shame someone else
Of course, our making amends might not be received at all. Certainly that’s what has happened in my case. I have started to work on making thing right (not least because the person concerned is not the only beneficiary of what I was doing), but it certainly feels as though the door has already been shut.
The key part of the Jesus story above, for me, is that she knows she has done wrong. And now she’s being publicly humiliated for it in what her society thinks is some kind of just punishment. But Jesus steps in and levels the playing field. He reminds her accusers that not one of them is free from cock-ups themselves. And they all disappear. Because we all know we’re not perfect, and when we’re confronted with that, we usually soften up a bit.
Once and for all
We know that the Christian narrative is one of the removal of guilt, right? I’m less sure that’s true – I think it’s more a removal of shame. Jesus doesn’t suggest at any point that we can become guilt free. As Paul says, “shall we go on sinning so that grace may abound? by no means!” We’re not presented with a reality where we can just pray for forgiveness and automatically feel no more guilt. If we can manage that, then we didn’t feel guilty enough in the first place.
Guilt is good. Guilt is what makes us recognise we’ve done wrong. It’s shame that Jesus comes to do away with.
We see this consistently in his life, teaching and crucifixion. In Jesus’ life, he has many encounters with those shamed by society – the woman in the story above, the tax collector, the woman with the perfume, to name just 3 examples. In his teaching, he reminds us to forgive others as we would like to be forgiven. And in his crucifixion, he removes the perceived need to make continual sacrifices for all of our constant wrong-doing.
My situation still doesn’t feel great. I find it hard to accept that there’s no need to feel ashamed because I’m constantly hoping for affirmation from the person involved. But I have to move away from that, because no matter how hard I try – they may never change. But I can. We all can. Shame, and its perpetuation, is something I see so much of in my friends and family, yet it is not a welcome part of the Kingdom of God.
I’ve seen far too many Christians, some who are very dear and close to me, perpetuate shame in the name of God, usually in the name of condemning some sort of sin. We forget all to easily that sin condemns itself with its consequences. But we are called to be a people of grace. So let’s lift those consequences a little, shall we?