Thursday, July 23, 2009

Shame, shame

Genesis 3:8-10

And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden.
9 Then the LORD God called to Adam and said to him, “Where are you?”
10 So he said, “I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; and I hid myself.”

Yesterday I was listening to commentary about this article in the New York Times. The author was being interviewed about how to talk to patients about weight issues when it is clear that she struggles with this issue herself. She mentioned that it isn't simply an issue of people feeling shame about being overweight. She said, "If shame would work, we would be the thinnest nation on earth."

I think about shame a lot. Another pastor I know frequently talks about the loss of shame in our culture as a value and as a shaper of behavior. In recent decades, we have come to view shame as negative, something that doesn't contribute to our well-being and should be shed and pushed aside.

Shame: the painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonorable, improper, ridiculous, etc., done by oneself or another

Guilt: the fact or state of having committed an offense, crime, violation, or wrong, esp. against moral or penal law; culpability

I think we have moved to embrace guilt because it can more easily be dismissed. If you are (eventually) able to reason that your offense was not real or not as great as you imagined- then you can move forward.

Shame is a different feeling. To admit to being ashamed of one's self is to acknowledge one's guilt and the understanding of transgression. Shame is to acknowledge not just the presence of sin in one's life, but the truth and the reality that one can, does and will sin. When we talk about sin as a separation from God and that we are all guilty of it, we can have some distance from the painful chasm that is created by this separation.

When we honestly admit that our sin, our things done and left undone, have moved us from where God desires us to be and from where we are fully able to understand and grow in relationship with God and with one another. Feeling ashamed of our sin can move us forward into the real confession of bearing our souls (to the One who already knows them) and of embracing the cleansing and creating of a new heart.

Is there a way we can re-incorporate shame in a healthy way into our Christian understanding? It would involve a celebration of knowing that we are fearfully and wonderfully made and, simultaneously, knowing that we take advantage of that fact daily, to our detriment.

I don't want to endorse a Puritanical notion of shame and constant mea culpa, but I do think there is a place for shame in our lives and in our spiritual self-understanding and practice.

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