Setting Aside Shame

Picture yourself scrolling your social media feed. As you whip past selfies and snapshots, your eye catches several photos of a group of friends from church who all enjoyed a spa day together, without inviting you. Perhaps there was a legitimate reason. Maybe they knew that you worked during the day, or that a day at the spa really isn’t your thing. Still, that almost audible voice begins to whisper in the back of your mind: “They didn’t invite you because you’re not good enough for them.”

That is the voice of shame, and we all hear its whisper at different times and in different ways. In fact, shame is one of the first repercussions experienced after sin entered the world. In Genesis 3:8, after Adam and Eve disobey God, their very first awareness centers on the fact that they are no longer acceptable in God’s eyes, and they needed to hide: “Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked.” Suddenly, the vulnerability that, only moments before, was delightful, suddenly became devastating. They both experienced the sinking sense that there was something wrong in them, something that needed to be masked and hidden. This is the essence of shame.

The Voice of Shame

If guilt says, “I have done something wrong,” shame takes a step further and insists, "I AM something wrong.” Guilt focuses on our behavior, but shame focuses on our being. And sadly, both are a result of sin entering the world. When our relationship with God was ruptured, we lost the security of God’s favor and approval and the result of that was the sense of unworthiness that we know as shame. We experience shame in a myriad of ways. The voice of shame sends us the message that we are not enough, that we are not doing enough, attractive enough, successful enough, wealthy enough, or tough enough. 

So what do we do? Like Adam and Eve, we stitch together fig leaves. We try to cover our sense of unworthiness. Author and speaker Brené Brown says that our response to shame is to hustle for our worthiness. We are the most “in-debt, obese, addicted, and medicated adult cohort in U.S. history.” In other words, we try to numb our pain by turning to food, drugs, or alcohol, or we attempt to counter the effects of shame by proving to everyone around us that we are worth it. We work long hours; we spend more than we can afford to impress others; we use our social media to project a carefully curated image of our life that we want others to see; and we spend billions of dollars on plastic surgery each year. All of this is an effort to silence shame’s whisper.

But these efforts cannot fully deal with our feelings of shame. Already in the Garden of Eden, God gives us a hint that our efforts to conceal our weaknesses will not suffice. Adam and Eve’s fig leaves were unable to conceal their nakedness, and so God graciously provided animal skins for them. Even here, God is foreshadowing for us his intervention would be necessary in order to provide the coverings that we need.

A new narrative

Psychiatrist and author Curt Thompson writes that the antidote to shame is learning to tell ourselves a better narrative. If shame is the narrative that we are not enough, we need to hear the story of what is enough. We need a voice sounding in our hearts and minds with the most truthful and faithful narrative, which is the gospel. What was needed to cover our nakedness and broken relationship with God was nothing less than the death of God’s own son. Christ's death provides the necessary satisfaction for our sin so that we may be clothed, not in inadequate clothing of our own making, but in the perfect life of Jesus. In Colossians 3, the Apostle Paul reminds us that “you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ.” In other words, our identity is no longer tied to our performance or lack thereof. It is, instead, tied to Jesus, so that when God looks at us, he sees us hidden and clothed with Christ–he sees Jesus! The good news of the gospel says that Jesus stepped into our place, and he himself was stripped naked, ridiculed, rejected, humiliated, and shamed. As the writer of Hebrews assures us, Jesus, “for the joy set before him, endured the cross, scorning its shame.” Jesus took our place of shame! Why? For what joy? For the joy of us being restored to him!

The joy that motivated Jesus to endure the ridicule, mistreatment, violence, and shame of the cross was you. He did it because he loved you. And because he loved you and endured this for you, God looks on you now in an entirely different way: He looks on you with favor.

Learning to listen

The sacrifice of Christ for us means that, in the moment when that voice begins to whisper to us about our shame, we need to do at least two things. 

First, we need to recognize this voice for whose voice it is–it is the voice of Satan, the accuser. The Holy Spirit may, at times, convict us of our guilt to help us repent and learn obedience, but the Holy Spirit will never shame us. That voice belongs to our enemy. When we hear that voice, we need to name it for the lie that it is. That means that when we are scrolling through our feed or pulling back from the image that we see in the mirror, we need to learn to slow down our thought process enough in order to single out the voices of shame and name them for what they are.

Second, we need to rehearse that new narrative. We need to answer the voice of shame with the words of approval that we hear in scripture. One of the ways that we can do this is through worship and meditation on scripture. Spending time reading, reflecting, and praying through scripture helps us hear and internalize the gospel's message. A second way that this happens is in community. Finding people we can trust enough to share ourselves with, people who will love us, listen to us, and be gracious with us, can allow us to share our weaknesses with others who can help us hear God's gracious voice.

Do you hear that voice judging you and insisting that you are “not enough”? That voice comes from our enemy, seeking to use shame to destroy you. We have a better voice to listen to! Because of Jesus, the voice of God’s approval that he speaks to Jesus is for us too: “You are my son, my daughter – and in you, I am well pleased.”

About the author — Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra

Rob Toornstra has pastored a church in Salem Oregon for the past ten years. He has been married to Amy for fifteen years, and together, they are enjoying the adventure of raising two girls and one boy. For fun, Rob enjoys cooking, reading, aviation, and geocaching.  He is the author of "Naked and Unashamed: How the Good News of Jesus Transforms Intimacy" (Doulos, 2014).

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