When Shame Swirls

Bwūsh. Sounds like a toilet flushing, doesn’t it? That’s an apt word-picture. It’s the Hebrew word for shame. Feeling or being human sewage.

Shame is a peculiar thing. It entered the world through Adam’s sin as guilt’s twin brother. I’ve heard attempts to parse the difference between guilt and shame. I’ve heard some say, “Ashamed is what you feel; guilty is what you are.” I’m not convinced by that. Guilt is both a legal status and a feeling about that legal status. I can be guilty and feel guilty, be guilty and not feel guilty, or not be guilty and feel guilty. The same goes for being shameful and feeling ashamed as I see it.

Shame is an experience correlated with the condition of nakedness and humiliation. It’s about feeling existentially threatened or exposed in the midst of vulnerability. It’s about feeling a crippling sense of worthlessness. A sense of being human garbage. It’s meant to correlate with behaving like human garbage. And as sinful creatures, it goes hand in hand with exposure to a Holy God.

Not so long ago, a friend recommended a sermon by a guest pastor hoping to encourage me. The topic of the sermon was the grace of shame. After hearing the title, my emotional state bounced between apoplexy and despondency. I may have been more receptive to the notion if a life lived had not already conditioned me against it. And the biggest turnoff to me was the particular pastor and church culture that promoted it.

It’s taken me a while to appreciate the idea of the grace of shame. I also realize it’s playing with fire. It sounds wrong. And it should on its face. If we speak of the grace of shame, we should also speak of the grace of guilt, of suffering, of death, and of sin. And actually, we can do that in the same way.

But let’s be clear. Shame, guilt, suffering, death, and sin are not good things. They’re not good in themselves. They’re bad things. The only way in which these bad things are grace to us is when our loving Heavenly Father turns the bad occasion for our good. Otherwise, they’re no different than the worldly sorrow that produces death.

A sense of shame about that which is shameful which prevents shameful deeds is a harsh mercy. Better the restraint of shame than the practice of shameful things without shame.

Shame is for the shameful who lack the knowledge of it. Shame is for the lawless outside Christ. It would be the saving grace of God for them to experience their shamefulness and turn in repentance to find mercy.

Shame is not for those who are in Christ. Not for those who look to Christ to deliver them from shame, because they know shame. A believer may still do a shameful thing, and the grace of God in that moment will call that believer to repentance through recognition of the shame of that deed.

But if believers are living under a cloud of shame, then something is wrong. And it’s not necessarily something wrong with them. Addressing such shame is as delicate and skilled as addressing doubt, despair, and sorrow. Thickheadedness will not suffice. Telling fellow Christians racked with shame that they could use more in their lives is additional torture. And shaming a brother or sister in Christ with a shame complex is shameful.

If a Christian wishes to encourage a fellow Christian about the grace of shame, he or she must be graceful and gracious. Or grace is no longer grace.

When fellow saints feel trapped in life’s toilet, don’t flush.

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