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Basic Christian Life Skills 4: Dealing with Shame – Sermon

Readings: Genesis 3:6-10 and Psalm 139:1-18, 23-24

Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig
leaves together and made coverings for themselves.

In South Africa, for many years, we had a tradition of what we called School Leavers’ retreats. The final day of exams for students finishing school was always on a Friday, a week before the other kids, and then many of them got on a bus that very afternoon to be transported to a retreat centre where they would attend a week-long retreat that was geared for tired young people, on the verge of their lives as adults. As a university student and later, for many years as a minister, I was on the staff of one of these retreats. It never ceased to amaze me to see the transition the students made from children to young adults in only seven days. The students were divided into a number of teams that competed against each other in various fun activities and did Bible study together, with a minister and student guides allotted to every team.

One of my favourite personal projects was always to identify the kids who had low self-esteem and to see to it that they were included in the activities of the group. It always amazed and pleased me to see how these kids flowered and flourished when their gifts were recognized during the group games and when they felt included and appreciated. They were often sensitive and defenceless individuals who had been shamed in various ways. This led to them being reluctant to take any social risks and their becoming outsiders. This reinforced their low self-esteem. In the encouraging social setting that we created at the retreat, this defensive stance fell away and allowed their true selves to appear. I always got the feeling: Now we are being church, the kind of community our Lord Jesus Christ came to initiate. Today we will look at the fourth basic Christian life-skill in our series: Dealing with shame. But, first, let’s be clear about what shame is. Last week’s theme was forgiveness – how to deal with hurts inflicted on us. The flipside of forgiveness is, of course, guilt. If I am the one at fault, I am saddled with guilt. Last week we only looked at the situation from the perspective of the person who was wronged. But we know that there is another perspective; that of the perpetrator. We can be crippled by guilt if it remains unresolved. The solution to guilt is well known among us: You need to confess your sins to God and ask for his forgiveness. You need to resolve the issue with the person you wronged and ask for forgiveness. We all know these things and we know that there is no other effective cure for guilt.

But what about shame? We tend to confuse guilt and shame. They are not the same thing. The difference between the two is this: Guilt is about something I did. When I know that I have done something wrong, I feel remorse. I wish I had not done what I did. Shame, on the other hand, is about who I am. I feel like a failure, I feel rejected and I tell myself I am unworthy of others’ attention or love. Of the two, shame can be the most damaging. It can lead to people doing
extreme and damaging things to prove their worth or, if in extreme cases, even taking their own lives. It is also much more difficult to get rid of shame than it is of guilt. Of course, guilt can morph into shame, when I feel that what I did revealed what a bad person I am. Also, when the thing I feel guilty about doing keeps repeating itself, and becomes a pattern. Shame makes me avoid the person I have wronged, since he or she would now most probably have a low opinion of me. And so, shame isolates me from others. I need to make one other distinction. There are two different types of shame, and you deal with them differently.

The first type of shame is healthy shame. Not all shame is bad. Healthy shame is a stirring of my true self. I sin, or feel like a failure, and then I tell myself, “I am not like that.” This kind of shame is a gift, a blessing. It makes me resist the urge to repeat the wrong things I sometimes do. It encourages me to be the person that God had created me to be and not to simply settle for something less.

If I ignore this kind of shame, I should rightly be called shameless. If I simply defend myself and refuse to acknowledge that I have done anything wrong, I am doomed to repeat the kind of wrongs until they become settled as a pattern and I will never taste the sweet peace of being what God had created me to be. I will become my worst self instead of my best self. Unfortunately there are too many people in our society that become these kind of shameless persons and the do a lot of damage. The only good way to deal with healthy shame is to respond to it by reminding myself who I am, my identity. Yes, I am a sinner, but I am created as the image of God; I am a beloved child of God. And I fully intend to live up to who I am. And then healthy shame becomes a blessing. It spurs me on to grow old with grace, as Grant said two weeks ago. So, Healthy shame.

But there is also unhealthy shame. Unhealthy shame is shame that loses touch with my true self. I am convinced by others that I am of no account, that I am unlovable, unacceptable, even if it is totally at odds with who I really am. Unhealthy shame is a curse and does untold damage. It should be dealt with severely.

So, how do we deal with shame? Our tendency is to deal with it in unhealthy ways: Like Adam and Eve, we sew together fig leaves to hide our shame. Adam and Eve started out with guilt, having transgressed the law that God had laid down. They gave in to a desire to become like God and ate from the forbidden tree. And then came shame. They could not face each other. They felt like failures and knew that the other person knew that. And so, they do what most of us do with shame: they hide it. But fig leaves are not really effective. (That is the point being made here.) When God appears on the scene they seem to know that the fig leaves don’t work, and so they hide. But God call out to them and brings them out of hiding.

This, unfortunately is what shame does to us. It separates us from each other; it separates us from God. All our efforts to hide our shame turn out to be very fragile. We might succeed to hide it for a while, but we can’t hide it from ourselves. And so, our shame does its damage, usually in either of two directions:

It makes us hesitant. We become so afraid of making social blunders or mistakes that could add to our conviction that we are failures that we risk very little – in our social life and elsewhere. Unhealthy shame does not energize us to live from our true selves, because we wrongly do not believe that we could ever do that. Equally damaging is the opposite – to overcompensate for our shame by desperate attempts to prove our worthiness to ourselves and to others, while suppressing feelings of shame. We inflate our egos and deny anything that seems like failure. If we do succeed, we become shameless (in the negative sense). We become so obsessed with ourselves and our real and imagined successes that we lose touch with healthy shame. We lose our moral compass pay a terrible price even if we are outwardly very successful.

Fortunately, the Bible offers us a healthy way of dealing with shame. Psalm 139 provides an alternative to desperate attempts to hide and block out our shame. The Psalm starts with a statement that would seem to make anyone suffering shame cringe: “You have searched me, LORD, and you know me.” When we hear these words, we might feel like hiding, like Adam and Eve. If God knows everything about me, he would know my darkest secrets, my deepest shame.
But the poet positively revels in the knowledge that God knows every little thing about him. And after 5 verses of this, he gets to verse 6: “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.” How can anyone have so much confidence in God’s presence? Is this a blameless person; someone with no skeletons in the cupboard? Hardly, as we will soon see. After six more verses in which the poet sings of the wonderful reality of God’s presence wherever he turns, we come to the crux. From verse 13 on we get this stunned, amazed confession: “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made…” Is that not an amazing thing to be able to say? And he continues on this line for a few verses more. “I am fearfully and wonderfully made…” This is not arrogance. This is honouring God for his work. The poet is not a self-made man, but a child of God claiming his true God-given identity.

So, does this mean that he is a flawless person, not inclined towards sin? If you believe that, you have not read the psalm to its conclusion. After a passionate outburst against those who mess up the world and oppose God’s rule, we get this humble plea in the last two verses: “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” If I am convinced that I too am “fearfully and wonderfully” made by God, I can approach him with this petition: Show me where I need to change course, Lord – to change course towards who I really am. Uncover the things I might prefer to hide. For I know that I am your creation – warts and all; flaws and all! – and I trust you to lead me towards my true destiny. I have sometimes heard the opinion that urging the confessing our sins is a practice that induces shame. This is only true if we don’t do this from the place where we claim our true identity. If we are secure in the knowledge that we were created by God to the image of God, that we have been adopted as true children of God, we can be transparent and fearless about our sins and flaws. This opens us up to God’s grace. It opens us up to growth.

We hear this as a church, as a community of faith. Unhealthy shame is induced in us by others, but God uses the community of faith as a community of healing when we treat one another as fearfully and wonderfully made. This is why, at the school leavers’ retreats I felt that we were being church in the real sense of the word: We were creating a setting where people with shame could discover that they were truly created by God, truly God’s beloved children. May this, increasingly, be the story of SALU. May our community life provide reminders of the indisputable fact that every one of us is fearfully and wonderfully made by God.