Two Faced Shame

Thus far in Lent, we have been exploring the human experience of sin. Deacon Tim and I have set forth some thoughts on guilt and conscience. Fr. Steven, in last Sunday’s homily, addressed forgiveness in ways that more adequately reflect the overwhelming love of God and the centrality of relationship with the Father through Christ, rather than a more traditional approach that dwells on fear and negative motivators. While understanding what hangs in the balance as we make our myriad decisions is a great deterrent, it is not an invitation into the enveloping, intimate love God longs to share with us.

I hope this distinction is clear, as I think we can benefit from shedding some of the approach of previous centuries of religious formation. Faith in God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is profoundly good news, not a bunch of behaviors to avoid or a set of prohibitions. Rather, his truths lend meaning to the human experience. When God reveals himself to your heart, you would rather change your ways than offend the love you have found in him.

Another element to the experience of sin we must discuss, and it goes by a name that is somewhat misleading in the modern understanding, is shame. This too must be subjected to the “lens of love” to which Fr. Steven so often refers. The current predominant understanding of shame is highly destructive, but far older Christian understandings lent a much more fruitful meaning to the experience of shame, even to a degree so great as to refer to shame as a virtue.

A couple of weeks ago, Deacon Tim gave a concise, helpful description of how modern people understand and experience shame. He said, “Shame is the belief that there is something wrong with us because of what we have done…shame distorts our view of the mercy of God, making us feel unworthy and unlovable.” He continued to elaborate the all-or-nothing mindset that accompanies this assessment.

Modern culture has formed in us the view that our worth is intimately tied to our actions. This is what leads to so much defensiveness, and in response, the cries for “tolerance” these days in mainstream society. This understanding of shame leads to a kind of embarrassment, not at what I have done, but at merely being who I am or have become through my actions. This is a tremendously negative and destructive point of view to adopt because it is finalistic (we cannot improve), and by extension fatalistic (why continue?). Based on these viewpoints, shame itself ought to be fully rejected, but in our tradition it is not. What good could come of something so powerfully negative?

The problem here is that the point of origin is philosophically faulty. Shame has nothing to do with the worth of a person. We very simply do not have the power to impact our worth one whit, either positively or negatively. Sins and failings do nothing to diminish our value in the sight of God. “…neither death, nor life…will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus the Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39) Our worth lies in the fact that God, the Creator of everything that is, ordained that we should “be.” Our origin is God, by whose infinite virtue we possess immeasurable worth.

A far older and traditional Christian view of shame centers on our ability to recognize our flaws. One who is not able to feel shame cannot recognize his or her shortcomings. Likewise, being ashamed is not a condemnation, but the capacity for modesty and the willingness to take on authentic humility, a right reckoning of our need for God’s mercy, grace and forgiveness.

Our wounds and flaws themselves have value, therefore, and are indispensable because those wounds are the very places the ointment of mercy comes to us. It is in our gravest wounds that the Lord comes into contact most truly with our inmost being. In our weakness is the very way we experience God’s strength.

What, then, could be more virtuous? Few things in this life can profit us more than a right knowledge of our need for God. While clinging to shame as the world defines it is most unhealthy, shame as the experience of our own brokenness is the very door to a redeeming, healing, loving and saving relationship with God, in Jesus the Christ.

David M. Dunst

Director of Music


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