Love flows out of our connection with God. Paul says we love because God first loved us. When we feel our faults make us unworthy of connection we are experiencing shame. Sin separates us from God in the sense is that it impairs our comfort with the light, life and love of Jesus. In evangelicalism we have subscribed to the belief that sin separates us from God because a holy God cannot tolerate sin. I frame this a different way. Sin causes a relational disconnection. We flee from any tangible experience with God because he is holy, and in our feelings of shame and worthlessness we cannot tolerate him. I don’t believe God is ever far from us, because there is no where we can go to be apart from him. Paul wrote to the Colossians that “all things are held together in Christ”, and in Athens Paul proclaimed “In him we live and move and have our being.” We are connected with God, but in our sinful state we cannot perceive it.
The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.
(Joh 1:5 NASB)
“Now this is the basis for judging: that the light has come into the world and people loved the darkness rather than the light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil deeds hates the light and does not come to the light, so that their deeds will not be exposed. But the one who practices the truth comes to the light, so that it may be plainly evident that his deeds have been done in God.
(Joh 3:19-21 NET.)
Those that live in shame find vulnerability excruciatingly difficult. So much so they avoid it as much as they can. It throws a big monkey wrench in our relationships because we are too afraid to be real because we fear rejection. What John describes here is the uncomfortable moment when Jesus enters our life and his light shines on us. Some of us are drawn to the light because we have the courage to believe that he loves us despite our faults and reservations. Some of us are repelled by the light fearing that we might be exposed, rejected and condemned. This is just as true in our relationships with each other as it is with God.
In churches full of shame there is very little true connection. There is engagement but only through accepted ways and avenues to ensure that we are not condemned or rejected. For many it is better and safer to pretend and live life by proxy than to let people see who we really are. Sincere communication gets buried under the conventions of what is acceptable and appropriate to say at any given time. What we call community is just game, a more flexible game of religious statements and responses.
Jesus demonstrated God’s love and how much we are worth to him through his death on the cross.
But God, being rich in mercy, because of his great love with which he loved us, even though we were dead in transgressions, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you are saved! –and he raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, to demonstrate in the coming ages the surpassing wealth of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
(Eph 2:4-7 NET.)
God valued us in our sinful state so much that he died to restore us. We were never, ever worthless to God even with all our sickness, brokenness, and sin. We have always been worthy of connection. The problem isn’t that God can’t handle us, but that we can’t handle God and it is because of our shame. Shame makes us feel unworthy of connection and that sense of unworthiness is amplified when the being wishing to connect with us is perfect. What we don’t understand is that it is perfect love that wants to connect with us.
Brene Brown has done a lot of wonderful work on shame, vulnerability and living wholeheartedly. She differentiates shame from guilt. Guilt is “I did something bad” and shame is “I am something bad.” In her research she found that shame correlates strongly with addictions, suicide and depression and guilt inversely correlates with these things. Knowing the truth of our mistakes (guilt) can actually help us grow and heal. However when we feel shame it just compounds our brokenness. Much of how I understand the impact of shame comes from her TED talks and her book Daring Greatly. She is a social science researcher and doesn’t use a lot of Christian or spiritual language so I have dovetailed Christian theology with her findings.
Why does shame impact us so negatively? When we feel worthless we fear vulnerability, we fear connection, we find dysfunctional ways to avoid connection to shore up our sagging self-worth. A lot of what we call sin is just an effort to establish worth through human means. Some of it is relatively benign. We might strive to be the best on the sports team or get high marks at school. We might go into a helping profession so we have an opportunity to help others to help feel better about ourselves. Others might become perfectionists driven by a fear of failure. Some might become obsessed with the acquisition of power and wealth. All these activities are like salves to a wounded broken soul. Unfortunately the comfort and relief they provide diminish over time and we become more invested in becoming more wealthy or more successful.
It gets really dangerous when we convince ourselves that we are more worthy because x, y and z and some people or even most people are less worthy because how they rank on the scale of x, y, and z and therefore don’t deserve the same treatment we deserve. Some slip in to the belief that people deserve to be punished because they are worthless. This is where we get in to the realm of exploitation and abuse. In our desire to shore up our own brokenness we mistreat others. Power and control are often sought by people who are deeply wounded in themselves. If you run into people who have an obsessive need to control others they are either living out of a deep sense of shame or they are a sociopath and have no capacity for empathy and see others as useful means to their personal ends.
The other direction many of us take to deal with shame is numbing. It is like we have a perpetual ache in our arm and we continually take drugs to give us a break from the pain. We might numb through eating, partying, substance abuse, video games, or sex. Even religious exercises like corporate worship can become just another outlet for numbing pain instead of dealing with our brokenness. In some charismatic churches the worship times provide an emotional release from the terrible shame that is heaped upon them by religious obligation and condemnation. In the worst cases it is a terrible cycle. Go to church, feel good while singing, hear another sermon about how you don’t measure up, try harder, fail, feel shame, go back to church to sing and feel better again. I believe so many churches are dead because they simultaneous proclaim life giving truths in a culture full of shame. It is like pressing the gas and the brake at the same time.
I believe the lack of fruit in the church today is connected with the deep levels of shame that exist in the lives of Christians. Our most powerful tool to combat shame is the good news without any extras added on. Our church community can proclaim and reinforce the gospel by loving as Jesus loves. If we treat people like they are worthy of connection in the midst of their sin and shame it unwinds the power that shame has on their life.