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My Evolving Understanding of Shame
“But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.”
1 Corinthians 1:27
I was blessed and at times blown away by the depth and quality of the daily devotions that our staff wrote this spring. We are excited to introduce a new series of daily devotions that will include both staff and members of our congregation. We are each answering this question: What has God been teaching you in this season?
One of the topics God has drawn my attention to is shame. Shame has been defined as “the painful emotion that arises from an awareness that one has fallen short of some standard, ideal, or goal.” (*see note below). Shame is a common human experience. My understanding has been evolving, and I can summarize it in three phases.
1. Driven by Shame
For much of my life I was driven by shame without realizing it. I swung between two extremes. If I scored highly on a standardized test, ran a fast race, or did something that earned me praise from someone, I was elated. If I performed poorly on a test, had a bad race, or was criticized (often by my own inner critic), I was demoralized. I often (and sometimes still do) swung between those extremes. The way I recovered from shame was to recommit to performing and excelling so I could feel better about myself.
After becoming aware of what was going on, I started to become aware of the “mores of the gospel.” The truth is that I am more sinful and flawed than I ever dared admit, AND I am simultaneously more loved and valued than I ever dared imagine. Praise God that we are saved by grace and are united with Christ by His Spirit.
2. Quieting Shame
The mores of the gospel gave me biblical resources to quiet the Accuser. I learned that on my worst day, Christ does not love me less. And on my best day, Christ doesn’t love me more. I discovered that “there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” My identity is not based on what I do, what I have, or what others say about me. I am God’s beloved. When I rest in this truth, I am free to listen, learn, and love. And I can start to take a more honest look at my brokenness because I know my brokenness doesn’t define me.
3. Redeeming Shame
Now here’s the kicker. I thought that spiritual maturity involved silencing shame. But there had always been an uncomfortable realization that Paul seemed to endorse shame. “I say this to shame you” (1 Corinthians 6:5; 15:34). Apparently, the Apostle Paul, saw a redemptive purpose for shame. And in the text above, Paul says that God shames the wise and strong.
Shame is “the painful emotion that arises from an awareness that one has fallen short of some standard, ideal, or goal.” And as Paul says, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Shame acknowledges that we were created in God’s image but fell. Shame is an echo of what we were created to be and still long to be.
There are so many reasons why we may be feeling shame right now. Shame due to lack of self-discipline while working from home. Shame due falling into old and destructive habits related to food, alcohol, or pornography. Shame that I have not advanced further in my career. Shame due to waking up to a long and violent history of racism in our nation.
When we feel shame, please don’t ignore it, stuff it, or isolate yourself. Acknowledge it. Talk about it with a grace-filled brother or sister in Christ. And together look to the one who stood in solidarity with you, “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). It is only as we acknowledge our shame and confess it that we it can be truly healed. As we are honest about our shame, we will be conformed into the image of Christ individually and corporately.
*note from above: This quote comes from Defending Shame: Its Formative Power in Paul's Letters by Dr. Te-Li Lau, Assoc. Prof. of NT at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. I have not read the book, only a book review. I reference it because the very existence of the book awakened me to the redemptive and formative nature of shame within a biblical context.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me a sinner. That you would carry our sin but our shame to the cross unravels me… then reknits me in you. Give me the supernatural resources to let shame do its work of forming me into your likeness. Allow me to look at the shameful acts that I’ve done and we’ve done until we are resolved to take new action in alignment with your truth. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, amen.
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