At some point in the past year, I became addicted to shame.
I’ve neve been a huge fan of the Jonathan Edwards ideology where I am no more than a spider that God is dangling over the fires of hell. I shake my head at statements like, “God hates you.” Constantly examining my life to make sure that God won’t smite me hasn’t been the way that I’ve approached my faith. I’ve always been more motivated by the carrot than the stick, so give me kindness that leads to repentance any day.
In the past year, that changed.
Not completely. I’m still far more motivated by kindness than by wrath. Nothing about vengeful God appeals to me. No threats of hell and damnation make me want to live a better life. My core beliefs haven’t changed.
But I’m seeing how the Church has compounded my own feelings of shame.
We use so many hurtful words to describe not our actions, but ourselves.
We are sinners. We are wretches. We are unworthy. We are unclean.
All of these are meant to point to the goodness of God. To show that God can take ugly, used up, disgusting things and make them holy. Our weakness shows God’s strength. Our sinfulness points to God’s righteousness.
And all of a sudden, my relationship with God is one built on shame. One where God’s goodness depends on my wretchedness. One where I need to be torn down in order for God to be lifted up.
We rightfully eschew this manipulation when we see it in our interactions with other people. We recognize it as dysfunction when someone requires the destruction of one person for their own edification. Yet we accept it as normal, or even good when we are talking about our relationship with God.
In this, God ceases to be good, but simply becomes a bully. A megalomaniac who can only function when those around are suffering.
If God isn’t good, then forgiveness becomes a pipe dream – something that we can never really attain because at our core, we are bad. We can follow the list of rules, we can set up all of the boundaries, but ultimately, we can never be good, we can never be enough.
Brene Brown says that the difference between shame and guilt is the difference between ‘I am bad’ and ‘I did something bad.’ I fear that in our churches, we say the first far more often.
There is benefit to recognizing our shortcomings. When I see the areas where I have failed, I can make different choices. I can seek forgiveness from those I have wronged. I can behave in a way that is more honoring to myself and to those around me. When I experience guilt, I can acknowledge my wrongdoing and take steps toward peace.
But when I embrace shame, I can never move on. I will always be stymied, reliving my past sins over and over. I will internalize my negative actions and become those things. When I do that, I can never really experience forgiveness. I can never really experience acceptance. I can never really experience love.
I can never really experience God.
And when you accept shame, neither can you.
Rather than the negative labels that we give ourselves, I believe it is time to remember the things that we have been called by God.
We have been called God’s workmanship. We have been called the righteousness of God. We have been called clean. We have been called friend.
We have been told there is no condemnation.
Which sounds like the opposite of shame to me.