The Cure for Shame

Sammy Rhodes
"Shame. Boatloads of shame. Day after day. More of the same. Blame. Please lift it off. Please take it off. Please make it stop." Those words are not just the lyrics to a famous Avett Brothers' song, they are also words under which a lot of us live. To live in this world is to experience shame. Boatloads of shame. 

Shame is a word that's hard to describe. We've all experienced it on some level. It's the feeling you get when you suddenly realize you're underdressed for a party. When you show up late to a meeting thinking you're right on time. Or when your card gets declined buying coffee at Starbucks for your financial advisor. That last one hits a little too close to home. 

Then there's the shame that never gets spoken. The kind that involves things done in secret. Compulsive behaviors. Hidden struggles. The shame of being abused, of being taken advantage of in a way that takes a little of the light out of our humanity, and our hope. 

Maybe the best way to describe shame is to think of it as the residue of sin, both our own, and that of others against us. One author describes shame as "the subjective experience of our objective guilt." Both the guilt of what we've done (and left undone), as well as the guilt of what others have done (or left undone) to us. In this way, shame is like an onion. There are so many layers that when you begin to cut it open, it's hard to tell where some begin and others end. 

Shame is what Peter felt when he made eye contact with Jesus just after denying that he even knew him. It's what David felt as he realized his own blindness before Nathan. It's what Isaiah felt in the temple when he felt overwhelmingly unclean. We're no strangers to it either. 

R.A. Dickey is one of the best knuckleball pitchers to play the game in the last 20 years. After playing college baseball at Tennessee, he went on to play in the majors, most recently with the Mets and Blue Jays. He won the Cy Young Award in 2012. 

That year he also began opening up about being sexually abused when he was younger. He had locked away what happened for years, tried to carry the weight of what had happened to him alone, hiding it from everyone, especially those close to him. The heaviness of the shame he was carrying almost crushed him. One day he decided he couldn't take it anymore, so he swam out into the ocean to drown himself. As he was drowning a boat happened to come up on him, and rescued him. That's when he began sharing about the abuse. 

He opened up about it in an interview with NPR: "It had been locked away for 23 years and had wreaked havoc on my life and the relationships I had in my life, not only with my friends, who really weren't even my friends. I didn't trust wife didn't know the darkest things about me. I had kind of conned her into marrying me almost. It's a tough admission. I loved her dearly so I projected who I wanted to be, but I would never let her inside, because I always feared if someone knew the real me, they would run the other way."

Dickey is describing the powerful effect that shame can have on our lives. We feel that even those closest to us couldn't possibly handle the truth of what we've done, and what's been done to us. The two are so closely connected that maybe it's better to say what we've done with what's been done to us. The ways we've been sinned against always affects the ways we sin. Shame thrives on both. 

Think about Adam and Eve in the garden. They did the one thing God had commanded them not to do, and ate of the one tree amongst all the other trees that were full of good fruit. Everything up until this point had been good, good, good. Suddenly they realized that something was wrong with them. They were naked. 

Instead of taking their shame to God, they covered themselves and hid. We've been doing the same thing ever since, desperately trying to cover our shame, to hide it from one another. That's why researcher and writer Brené Brown likes to say that, "Shame only needs three things to grow exponentially in our lives: secrecy, silence and judgment." Sadly the church often follows society in offering shame-ladened people all three. 

We all have different strategies for dealing with shame. Some of us cover it with approval. We genuinely believe if enough people like us, we will feel loved. The problem is that even if we succeed in getting the whole world to like us, it cannot touch our shame because we've kept those same people who like us back from really knowing us therefore rendering them incapable of offering the kind of love we really need.

Some of us seek to cover it with work. If we can put enough hours in, climb enough ladders, leave enough of a legacy behind, then maybe, just maybe it will lighten the load of our shame. The problem is that work becomes a way to escape dealing with ourselves and our wounds, a way of hiding from the very parts of ourselves with which we need the Lord to graciously deal.

Still there are others who cover their shame with addictions of all shapes and sizes. Sexual addiction seduces us with the false belief that giving in to our lust will somehow make us feel whole. Substance abuse promises us that if we can just alter our moods to feel good enough, then we will have what we need to face the difficulties of life. Both strategies rob our intimacy with the Lord and one another. 

We not only seek to cover our shame with different strategies, all of which end up deepening our shame, we also seek to hide it from one another. In the garden God said it was not good for man to be alone. Shame is the Satan's strategy to make us feel alone. Shame alienates us from one another.

There's a scene in David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest where he's telling the story of the progression of telephones from audio to video within the culture of the imagined future community of the book. A strange self-awareness develops as the people go from listening to one another, to seeing one another, especially seeing their own face reflected in the video calls.[1]  Namely they don't like the way they look. So they begin creating masks for themselves.

David Foster Wallace writes: 
In a gradually unsubtlizing progression, within a couple more sales-quarters, most consumers were now using masks so undeniably better looking on videophones than their real faces were in person, transmitting to one another such horrendously skewed and enhanced masked images of themselves that enormous psychosocial stress began to result, large numbers...suddenly reluctant to leave home and interface personally with people who they feared would seeing them in person suffer...the same illusion shattering aesthetic disappointment that women who always wear makeup give people the first time they ever see them without makeup.

His anticipation of the ways we would use social media to hide from one another is prophetically remarkable. Why is it that we're drawn to share only the beautiful, successful parts of our lives online? Because we don't trust that anyone can handle the reality of our lives, with all its struggles and imperfections. 

What should we do with our shame? The hint lies in Genesis 3, where the Lord, instead of shaming Adam and Eve, covers their shame. Instead of mocking their nakedness, he makes garments out of animal skins. It's the first hint in all of Scripture that the answer to our shame will come through a sacrifice of grace. One of the first places that anticipates the work of our Lord Jesus Christ. 

Jesus himself was no stranger to shame. As he went to the cross, he was shamed by his disciples, who through desertion and denial wanted absolutely nothing to do with him. He was shamed by the religious leaders, covered not only with their injustice, but with their spit. He was shamed by the Roman soldiers, who stripped him, and physically abused him. He was also shamed by those who passed by him on the road and insulted him as he hung upon the cross.

The cross itself is the ultimate symbol of shame, a gruesome death reserved for the worst kind of men. At the cross Jesus experienced the deepest kind of shame, the shame of being rejected by God the Father as unclean. Though this was always the plan, it broke the heart of the Father even as it "pleased the Lord to crush him, and put him to grief" (Isaiah 53:10). 

That's why the author of Hebrews wrote about Jesus that "for the joy set before him, he endured the cross, despising its shame." In what sense did he despise its shame? Jesus endured shame that he might take away our own. He didn't come to shame us out of our sins. He came to take the shame of our sins away that we might no longer stand condemned. 

That's why we sing, "Man of Sorrows," what a name, For the Son of God who came,  Ruined sinners to reclaim!. Hallelujah! what a Savior! Bearing shame and scoffing rude, In my place condemned He stood; Sealed my pardon with His blood; Hallelujah! what a Savior!"

Maybe you feel your shame is too much for Jesus. That he's too pure to handle the kind of shame you've been carrying around for so long. Sinclair Ferguson puts it well: "In your shame, how could someone like you come to Jesus? Because he has come to your shame, to bring you to his joy." [2]

Sammy Rhodes (@sammyrhodes) is a campus minister with Reformed University Fellowship at the University of South Carolina. He blogs at Embracing Awkward


1. The anticipation of the future here is remarkable given the development of FaceTime and that  David Foster Wallace was writing this in 1996, nearly 15 years before Apple began developing this technology

2. Sinclair Ferguson, Sermon: 'The Shame of Jesus'