What on earth do we do with our shame? Part 1

Part one of a guest post by Michael Leader, pastor at Beverly Hills Baptist Church.

“You can’t tell anyone” – it’s a common refrain when people confide in you. And I’ve heard it a fair few times as a pastor.

Whether it’s a someone who’s husband gambled away her entire home but didn’t want anyone to know – not even counsellors. Or an affair that rocked a marriage decades ago. Or secret addictions.

Even medical issues. Or troubles with children.

It’s amazing how often these things appear inside “normal” people’s lives. The mask-wearing we do is phenomenal. In fact, one of the best lessons I learned in Pastoral Care class was never act surprised – that you as a pastor will hear all sorts of things that you would never have expected, and that we ought to prepare ourselves not to be surprised by anything.

Because we often hide so much shame.

“He doesn’t want anyone to know,” says one.

“You can’t tell this to anyone,” says another.

Shame is a powerful thing. It cripples us. It hammers at our conscience and our heart. That desperate fear of others finding out.

And in our shame we often turn to destructive things. Anger that turns to violence. Perhaps drugs, promiscuous sex, acting out if you’re a teenager, or even an adult.

But sadly, these things only temporarily make us forget our shame, and usually bring further shame on us as we deal with even more sin and pain and guilt.

And so sometimes we turn our shame towards productive things. We try and fix our sin. Maybe we make a donation to charity. Or bring flowers for your wife after staying out with the boys at the pub too long instead of helping with the kids.

We may try to make amends, to right the wrong. Maybe we even start to get religious. Many a Catholic has tried to alleviate shame in the confession booth. Maybe prayer or going to church is a way to try and make up the shame you may feel. But even these things, while healthier than drugs or booze, don’t ever seem to help the shame go away.

And this is not a new condition. It’s been around for thousands of years. The very first humans felt shame. In fact it was the first negative emotion ever felt by human beings.

As we looked at two weeks ago, John 1 reminds us of that original story, bringing us back to creation but adding a new origin story – of the Word – to help us understand what was going on in John’s present reality. And we saw in John 1 that there was darkness. And that darkness came into the world in Genesis 3, where Adam and Eve, tempted by Satan, took from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and they ate from it.

And it wasn’t as though the fruit was poisonous. It was a physical mechanism that reflected a spiritual reality – their heart sinned, and so they reached out, took, and ate. They put sin inside their perfect bodies, and became corrupted.

And if you remember earlier in the story, in Genesis 2:25, it says that the man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no…shame.

Now that doesn’t mean that nudity is always a thing of shame – indeed Adam and Eve would not have felt shame being naked with each other even after the fall. But the nakedness there is symbolic – they were open, and honest, and true, and had nothing to hide – they were authentic as we saw last week.

In fact, they were very much like children. Little children are the only people who run around naked in the summer without any cares. And they are very authentic – they say whatever comes to their head with without fear of shame – like those embarrassing things your kids say to someone like “you’re fat” or “you look weird” and the parents desperately try and apologise on their behalf. Well, Adam and Eve are like that – naked and open and free. Until they sin.

And then everything changes. And they immediately realise they are naked, and they sew fig leaves together to cover their shame.

Covering up our shame is what we’ve been doing ever since. But when we try to cover our shame it’s as ineffective as fig leaves.

Now I don’t know about you, and I haven’t actually put this to the test, but there is no way – ever – that I am going to leave my house wrapped only in leaves. They just are not trustworthy. You bend over, leaf splits, and you’re running back home quick smart.

Well, that’s like what we do when we try and cover our shame. When we take drugs or alcohol, or use sex or lies and cover-ups to hide our shame… It doesn’t work.

…Continued in Part 2, tomorrow.

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