Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Shame On You: Understanding and healing the damaging effects of shame (Part 2)

            In Part 1 of our lesson on shame we defined shame as being either “Discretion-shame” or “Disgrace-shame.” We saw how discretion-shame has the effect of changing behavior while disgrace-shame has the effect of changing the person. We learned that discretion-shame can be helpful while disgrace-shame is never helpful and almost always destructive. We learned that repeated disgrace-shame can have lifelong consequences especially when it is experienced in the context of abuse. In Part 1 we looked at the various manifestations of shame in peoples’ lives that almost always result in broken and/or dysfunctional relationships. I introduced you to the “Shame Attendant” that so many of us battle with on a daily basis and how our Shame Attendant sabotages our self-image and our relationships.

            If you haven’t had a chance, I encourage you to go back and read Part 1 of our lesson. There is lots of information to take in and some of it may be painful. I know that some of the people who read Part 1 were finally able to see, in words, the turbulence that was going on inside themselves that they just couldn’t understand. I know it was painful for some of you but I know it is also a place where healing can now begin. If you were one of those people, you were probably relieved to know that you are not alone in your pain and grief. In Part 2 of our lesson, I will dig deeper into the long and difficult process of healing. What I want to say right up front is that there is hope and healing available for you even if it is hard and takes a long time. It will require intentionality on your part and the courage to trust God when He says you are not a mistake, or worthless, or defective, or dirty, or useless, or garbage, or damaged beyond repair. Instead, my prayer is that in place of the recording in your head that says, Shame On You, you hear God telling you that you were made in His image and it is because you are acceptable, loved and valuable that He died for you. I want you to hear that God didn’t die for a mistake, or for something that is worthless, or defective, or dirty, or useless, or garbage, or damaged beyond repair—He died for you, His most magnificent creation bearing His image. I can imagine some of you reading this and shaking your heads in disbelief. You see yourself as many different things (most of them ugly) but not as God’s magnificent creation and certainly not someone bearing God’s image. Well you are and if you’ll walk with me through the rest of this lesson, maybe you’ll learn some things you can do to begin to see yourself differently; see yourself the way God sees you—His beloved child bearing His image.

Theological Perspectives On Shame

            As discussed previously, not all shame is bad. Discretion-shame serves positively to moderate behavior in order to motivate people to act within culturally acceptable (not to be confused with biblically acceptable) norms. While discretion-shame attacks a person’s behavior, disgrace-shame serves negatively to attack the person. Discretion-shame changes a person’s behavior. Disgrace-shame changes the person. Discretion-shame leads a person back to wholeness while disgrace-shame makes wholeness impossible. In the face of a culture that appears to be trying to normalize all forms of abhorrent behavior and abolish all shame, the Church has failed to respond with a biblical doctrine of shame. Therefore, knowing the far-reaching and destructive nature of shame with its power to destroy the very purpose for which we have been created; to be in relationship with God and one another, it is important to understand shame from a biblical perspective.

            The word “shame” in its various forms appears thirty-seven times in the Bible—thirty-one times in the Old Testament (Heb. bosheth), and six times in the New Testament (Gk. aischuné). We don’t have to read too far into the Bible before we encounter the concept of shame. In fact, we find a reference to shame in chapter two of Genesis. At the beginning of chapter two we learn that God had created everything except man and woman. By the end of chapter two, God brought His most important creation to life—man and woman; Adam and Eve. Unlike the rest of creation, Adam and Eve were created in the image of God. They enjoyed unencumbered relationship with God and with one another. Eve was the perfect companion to Adam and they enjoyed each other according to God’s design for intimacy between a man and a woman. God placed Adam into the Garden of Eden to care for it and instructed Adam that he could eat from any tree in the Garden except for one particular tree identified as the tree of knowledge of good and evil. By the end of chapter two, Adam and Eve were joined in the perfect union. Verse twenty-five tells us that they were both naked and they felt no “shame” (Heb. yitbosasu). This is the first reference to shame in the Bible. Sin isn’t introduced into the world until the next chapter. Meanwhile, at the end of chapter two, creation existed in perfect harmony with God in accordance with God’s intended purpose. Adam and Eve felt no shame because they hadn’t done anything to be ashamed of. They were in relationship with each other and with God according to their created purpose. All that changes in chapter three of Genesis when Adam and Eve eat from the forbidden tree in the Garden and sin entered the world.

When Adam and Eve sinned, their relationship with each other and with God changed. Sin distorted all of creation to the extent that creation fell short of God’s created purpose. When sin infected Adam and Eve, shame became a reality in their lives and by extension in the lives of humanity when we sin and fall short of God’s created purpose for our lives. By the end of chapter three, Adam and Eve’s shame-free existence in relation to God and one another came to an end and nothing illustrates that better than the fact that they were now ashamed of their nakedness so that God had to make garments to cloth them.

Biblically, shame is a temporary condition because of relational distance from God. People experience shame internally in the form of guilt when they fall short of God’s standard of morality or conduct. People experience shame externally in the form of consequences when they fall short of God’s standard of morality or conduct. Often times, people experience both depending on what they do. For example, a man may experience internal shame for the guilt of committing adultery and then experience shame externally if his wife leaves him as a consequence of that adultery. When people fall short of God’s standard of morality, it is referred to, biblically, as sin. When people sin, they suffer broken relationship and intimacy with God. When people sin, they experience shame.

            Disgrace-shame is an unbiblical concept. It is not reflective of the shame we feel as a result of our own sins. Instead, disgrace-shame often enters our lives as a result of a breach in the secure attachments in our lives, i.e. from somewhere outside ourselves; from abuse and/or trauma; from the sins of others as reflected in the opening story of Jason and Rob. Jason’s disgrace-shame was the result of Rob’s abusive behavior. On the other hand, “[Discretion-shame is a consequence of [our own] sin. Feelings of guilt and shame are subjective acknowledgments of an objective spiritual reality. Guilt is judicial in character; shame is relational. Though related to guilt, shame emphasizes sin’s effect on self-identity. Sinful human beings are traumatized before a holy God, exposed for failure to live up to God’s glorious moral purpose. The first response of Adam and Eve to their sinful condition was to hide from God, and consequently from one another.”[1]

            Biblically, shame is also associated with unbelief. Whether they know it or not, unbelievers are plagued with a sense of shame for their sins that they don’t know what to do with. It is only by trusting in God that the shame associated with sin can be removed. Shame was never intended to be a life-long condition. God uses shame as a motivator to turn people toward Him for the first time or back to Him if they have turned away. Shame was never supposed to define people; only to get them to change their unbiblical behavior. The only shame that defines a person; eternal shame, is the shame experienced by unbelievers at the final judgment. Otherwise, no believer in Jesus Christ who has confessed their sin has anything to be ashamed of; they have received God’s “grace” that removes shame. Any shame that remains is not biblical shame, it is destructive shame used by Satan to defeat and destroy us; it is dis“grace”-shame.

            “The Bible treats shame as a common painful response to sin. But due to the warping effect of sin on the heart and mind, shame is not necessarily a reliable emotion. The Bible is quite clear that humans do not always feel shame when they are guilty, and they are tempted to feel shame when they are not guilty…Satan cannot create a new world, but he can rearrange the price tags. In the case of shame, he overinflates and underinflates the appropriate value of shame based on guilt. Hence, humans attach more shame than they should to certain behaviors (especially those that God has forgiven), while attaching less than they should to other behaviors (especially those that have not been repented of)…The most common manner in which Satan distorts shame with abuse victims is to cause them to feel shame for their abusers’ guilt…A final way Satan distorts the truth regarding shame is to cause us to define ourselves based on others’ low view of us. This shame is the rejection and disgrace others put on us because they find us unacceptable.”[2]

Healing The Effects Of Shame

            It is clear that disgrace-shame; (sometimes referred to as toxic shame), is horribly destructive in so many ways. It is unnatural to the way humanity was created as God’s image bearers. God has provided a way to deal with guilt in our lives. It is true that sin has broken all of us and in many respects, we will always be broken. However, considering God’s mission is to reconcile the severed relationship between Him and people and between people in general, and considering shame is such an enormous obstacle to healthy relationships, there must be a path of healing the destructive effects of shame. Unfortunately, healing the effects of shame isn’t like healing a broken arm. There’s no cast or splint that can be fitted around the wounds of shame. The mind of a shame-filled person has been described as having been rewired or reprogrammed so that a shame-filled person no longer believes they’ve done something bad, they believe they are bad. In essence, a shame-filled person’s mind must be rewired or reprogrammed back to God’s original design or at least as close to that design as sin will allow. That will take time, intentionality, and most of all courage on the part of the shame-filled person. Destructive shame doesn’t develop overnight and it won’t be healed overnight.

            When we talk about toxic shame, many memories are elicited unconsciously. These shame memories are often enmeshed in collages of imagery. When shame has become internalized, these images are often triggered and send the shame-based person into shame spirals. These spirals seem to operate independently of us. They seem to have a life of their own.
            Shame spirals are also triggered by internal self-talk. Such inner talk is based on old beliefs we have about ourselves and the world. These beliefs were fostered by our shame-based caretakers. Auditory shame spirals result from interjected parental voices which were originally the actual voices of our shaming caretakers. They play like stereo recordings in our head…Therapists estimate there are 25,000 hours of these recordings.[3]

            Thankfully, there is hope that a shame-filled person can pursue numerous paths back to relational wholeness and health. Some are based on more secular protocols while others are strikingly faith-based with some that feature the best of both elements. John Bradshaw, author and professional counselor specializing in the areas of addiction, recovery, codependency, and spirituality, is a staunch proponent of using the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program along with all its associated spiritual elements as a model for healing victims of shame. However, he also utilizes more secular therapies like inner child therapy, integrating the parts of the person that shame has left disconnected, healing memory therapy, and therapies aimed at changing a shame victim’s self-image. Lewis Smedes, author, ethicist, and theologian, sees healing for victims of shame through the lens of God’s grace. Although the two authors use different language to describe their approach to healing, and there certainly are some significant differences to their respective approaches, there are, nevertheless, at least two common threads that weave their way through the varied paths of healing; self-disclosure/authenticity and self-acceptance/self-love.

At some point, the shame-filled person must stop hiding and begin trusting someone with the truth of who they think they are and allow the truth of who they really are to be spoken into their lives. “The best way to come out of hiding is to find a non-shaming intimate social network. The operative work here is intimate. We have to get on a core level because shame is core level stuff. Toxic shame masks our deepest secrets about ourselves; it embodies our belief that we are essentially defective. We feel so awful, we dare not look at it ourselves, much less tell anyone. The only way we can find out that we were wrong about ourselves is to risk exposing ourselves to some else’s scrutiny. When we trust someone else and experience their love and acceptance, we begin to change our beliefs about ourselves. We learn that we are not bad; we learn that we are loveable and acceptable.”[4] “If you wonder where God’s grace can be found, find yourself a critical friend. A friend who wants you to be as good a person as you can be, a friend who dares to confront your flaws and failures, and then accepts the whole of you in grace.”[5]

            The other common approach to healing is self-acceptance/self-love. The victim of shame believes they are defective, broken, unlovable, worthless and unacceptable. They project onto others how those people, including God, feel about them based on the way they feel about themselves. Therefore, until shame-filled people reach the point of self-acceptance/self-love, there will always remain an obstacle to intimate relationship with God and with people.

Toxic shame’s greatest enemy is the statement I love myself. To say “I love myself” can become your most powerful tool in healing the shame that binds you. To truly love yourself will transform your life…Most of us have some negative feelings about ourselves. If you’re shame based and you’ve done nothing to heal your shame, you will probably feel intense feelings of rejection. The rejection of self is the core of toxic shame. To counteract these negative feelings about yourself, make a decision to accept yourself unconditionally. You do this by an act of choice…In order to heal the shame that binds you, you have to begin with self-acceptance and self-love. Love creates union. When we make the decision to love ourselves unconditionally, we accept ourselves unconditionally. This total self-acceptance creates at-one-ment [“Atonement” means reconciliation. In a non-theological sense, we are reconciled to ourselves]. We are at one with ourselves…Choosing to love ourselves is possible, even if we have negative feelings about ourselves.[6]

            The experience of being accepted is the beginning of healing for the feeling of being unacceptable. Being accepted is the single most compelling need of our lives; no human being can be a friend of herself while at the edges of her consciousness she feels a persistent fear that she may not be accepted by others. Not accepted by what others? By anyone important to us who may size us up and find us wanting. Our parents, our colleagues and bosses, our friends, especially ourselves, and finally our Maker and Redeemer.
            Our struggle with shame, then, leaves us with this critical question: are we stuck with our merciless illusion that we need to be acceptable before we can feel accepted. Is there an alternative to the shame-producing ideals of secular culture, graceless religion, and unaccepting parents?
            There is. It is called grace. 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…The surest cure for the feeling of being an unacceptable person is the discovery that we are accepted by the grace of One whose acceptance of us matters most…Grace overcomes shame, not by uncovering an overlooked cache of excellence in ourselves but simply by accepting us, the whole of us, with no regard to our beauty or our ugliness, our virtue or our vices. We are acceptable wholesale. Accepted with no possibility of being rejected. Accepted once and forever. Accepted at the ultimate depth of our being. We are given what we have longed for in every nook and nuance of every relationship.[7]

            Healing begins and continues when the shame-filled person has the courage to be authentic with someone they can trust to speak truth into their lives, show unconditional love, and offer the grace of acceptance until the victim of shame can learn to love themselves and accept themselves as something other than damaged goods—a person of value created in the image of God.

A Fellow Traveler

            I know that some of you may be angry with me because you think that I can’t possibly understand the pain behind your shame, and you’re partly right. I don’t know all the details of the shame that has been so destructive in your life. However, I am, nevertheless, a fellow traveler. I can speak from personal experience that the 25,000 hours of shame recordings referenced above is probably accurate if not conservative, at least in my case. If you haven’t already surmised, the story of Jason at the beginning of Part 1 of our lesson, is my story. I didn’t select the name Jason by accident. In a somewhat morbid application, I picked the name Jason from the horror film Friday the 13th. In part, because my childhood was much like a horror film but primarily because Jason wears a mask. Most of my life has been spent wearing a mask; hiding for fear that someone will discover that I am “defective.” I didn’t pick Rob as my father’s name by accident either. It wasn’t his real name but it represents what he did to me over many years—he “Rob”-bed me of my self-image as a person of value and put in its place someone whose life is filled with self-hatred and toxic, disgrace-shame.

            “Dis”-grace-shame, as I’ve described it, is the perfect title for the shame in my life because it has been the process of “grace” that has brought much healing to my life. I have integrated much of Lewis Smedes’ healing strategy into my life. I have invited people into my life who speak God’s truth about me as a means of recording over the 25,000+ hours of shame-based dialogue that my own shame attendant tries to use against me (not surprisingly using the voice of my father). I am convinced that it takes a thousand hours of grace-filled words to write over one hour of disgrace-shame words. Consequently, healing is slow and painful and often feels like I am moving one step forward and two steps back.

            The Christian community has had a difficult time with the practice of psychotherapy. Many Christians believe that with enough faith in God, mental and emotional wounds can be healed and that at the root of our nagging problems of shame is unforgiveness toward those who have wounded us. Let me just briefly address both professional therapy and forgiveness. With respect to the value of professional therapy, let me just say that sin has affected all aspects of humanity—physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. People have absolutely no problem seeking medical attention for even the slightest physical ailment. They seek spiritual guidance for their spiritual struggles. However, for some reason, seeking help for mental and emotional struggles is discouraged. This doesn’t make sense to me. I contend that some of you need to find someone that can offer you professional help with your emotional struggles. While I am an advocate of professional therapy, I hope you will first consider therapy from a professional who is a professing Christian and approaches therapy from a biblical worldview. With respect to your problems being rooted solely in a spirit of unforgiveness, let me say that forgiveness is an important element in the healing process but only one element and, depending on the damage that has been inflicted, a relatively small element. Forgiveness doesn’t erase the recordings in your head or silence your shame attendant. Healing and wholeness takes time and hard work long after forgiveness has taken place.

            At the beginning of this lesson I said the process of healing would take intentionality on your part and the courage to trust that what God says about you in His Word is true. It also takes involvement in a community of grace-filled believers who can be trusted with your brokenness and are able to love you unconditionally. Additionally, it takes the courage to be authentic with at least one person in your life who has permission to speak truth into your life about the lies you tell yourself and who God says you really are.

            I say that I am a fellow traveler because my old prayer journals are filled with the words, “loser,” “broken,” “defective,” “worthless,” “garbage,” and “disgraceful” to describe myself. However, fifteen years ago, I began to develop a comprehensive Rule of Life (regular spiritual disciplines like fasting, prayer, Bible reading, silence and solitude, etc.) as a spiritual growth practice and what I found was that God used the various disciplines of my Rule to try and convince me of His love and grace. In the fifteen years since I first became serious about intentionally implementing a formal Rule of Life, I have learned much about God’s acceptance, unconditional love, and abundant grace. In the times of practicing silence and solitude He has spoken words of love and acceptance to my heart. In times of Bible reading He has shown me the lives of so many biblical characters who failed Him yet were still loved and accepted by Him. During times of intercessory prayer, I have heard my words on behalf of others repeated back to me. I have found communities of believers that became my family. They loved me, accepted me, and extended grace to me as a family should. By God’s grace I am learning how to be in authentic, intimate relationship with people. I pray that you too will begin to travel the path toward healing and wholeness where you are no longer defined by the words “Shame On You,” and instead you are redefined when God says, “you are My child—acceptable, beloved and valuable because you are my most magnificent creation bearing My image!”

(Audio version; Music-"Into The Deep" by: Citipoint Live and "How Beautiful" by: Mosaic MSC--Music coordination by: Meagan Seredinski)

[1] Walter A. Elwell, ed., Baker Theological Dictionary of the Bible, (Grand Rapids, MI: BakerBooks, 1996), 734.
[2] Tracy, Mending the Soul, 84-86.
[3] John Bradshaw, Healing The Shame That Binds You, (Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Inc., 1988), 168.
[4] Ibid., 120
[5] Lewis B. Smedes, Shame and Grace: Healing the Shame We Don’t Deserve, (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1993), 126.
[6] Bradshaw, Healing The Shame That Binds You, 157-159.
[7] Smedes, Shame and Grace, 108-109.