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Shame Interrupted: Finding Words
This is the second of a series of blogs from Ed Welch about shame. The occasion is the publication of Shame Interrupted: How God Lifts the Pain of Worthlessness and Rejection (New Growth Press).
It is hard to make sense of life when you have no words. That which is nameless fails to exist.
When my grandson turned one, airplanes did not exist. Whenever we were outside and there was a plane overhead, he would say “train.” He would not even look up. To him, any loud, unusual noise was a train. He had seen and heard trains before so, that’s what the noise was.
Shame follows a similar pattern. We hear the noise but don’t know what it is or where it is coming from.
It begins with feeling bad. Then we find a few words: low self-worth, failure, jerk, stupid, tainted, outsider and so on.
Okay, now we have some “noises” to identify. Hmm. Let’s see. How about labeling them as “guilt”? Yes, that’s it! It feels like something is wrong with you. So you start confessing. And once you get started there is no stopping you. Most people can find plenty to confess. The problem is, even with all that confession, you still feel bad. So, while you continue your search for that one additional thing to confess, that assortment of words you started with gets swept into some psychic closet until you know what to do with them.
Shame identifies those words. Now they can be brought out and properly addressed.
Guilt and Shame
Start with some distinctions between guilt and shame.
Guilt is fairly straightforward, sort of. You have violated God’s law, appear in the courtroom and you either receive a sentence from the judge or throw in your lot with Jesus, in which case he can stand for you in court, and you receive full pardon.
Other times, you don’t really belong in the courtroom in the first place. That doesn’t mean you are innocent, but the crime in question was not actually a violation of God’s law. Instead, it was a violation of cultural or familial expectations. This is where shame comes in.
Shame has more to do with life in community than a day in court. Punishment is not the problem. Rather, you don’t belong. You feel as if you are somehow on the outside, excommunicated from everyday life. Words like rejected, outcast, contaminated, disgusting, exposed, and worthless may fit. Notice that even if you did have your legal sentence commuted or erased, you would still feel the same way. It feels like a stain that won’t wash out.
Shame is part of the human condition—almost everyone can feel as though they do not belong—but it is usually enhanced by either certain sins we commit or by certain violations that we experience from others.
The sins we commit have to be especially heinous, either in our own minds or in the mind of someone we think important. For example, if you get visibly angry when paint spills on your new carpet, you might have sinned but that sin doesn’t seem especially heinous. As such, it would not be shameful. Here is the key: most witnesses would nod their head and acknowledge they would respond the same way. Some sins, however, do not elicit sympathetic nods. If you were adulterous and your family found out, they would not be nodding. Shameful sins receive stares, not nods. Even if the guilt is confessed, the shame remains. Once you are on the outside, it’s not clear how to get back in. This is one way we experience shame.
The other way comes by the sins other people commit against us. Constant criticism, being attacked with anger (anger both says you are worthless and “get out”), being violated sexually, and rejection from parents, friends or a spouse—these are a few examples. Each one, of course, has immunity from confession because we can’t confess the sins of others. Yet we are left rejected, dirty and exposed. We are left with shame that feels like guilt but it needs a different answer.
This is where to start. We cannot do anything with shame until we see it and find words for it. Once we have the words, we have confidence that God’s communication in Scripture speaks beautifully to this pervasive human experience.
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