The Power of Shame
In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve are described by a fascinating phrase in the last verse of Genesis 2. The text comments: “the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.” The word “naked” spoke of their physical condition, but the words “not ashamed” are the real surprise and insight of this verse. A surprise, because it is difficult to imagine being unclothed and not feeling some sense that something is missing, that something is wrong. An insight, because “shame” is something that has been a part of the human condition since the tragic events of the very next verses in Genesis 3 and the account of the Adam and Eve’s fall.
Shame is the feeling that there is something wrong with me. The feeling can come from a whole host of directions but the result is always the same. When I feel unworthy or unacceptable because of things I’ve done or things done to me, it can lead to behaviors and choices that distance us from our hearts (the real us) and from relationships (God and others).
The behaviors that flow from shame are that we paralyze, we protect, or we perform. Based on temperament and/or situation, we might do any of the three or a combination. We might paralyze our emotions and shut ourselves down because we just don’t want to feel what we feel. We might protect and be defensive in our approach … shutting others down. Or, we might set out to perform in ways that prove we’re lovable and okay.
Whichever path(s) we choose, shame becomes a cycle or a trap. We can never fully deaden the pain or fully protect ourselves or perform to a level that silences all the critics.
Part of what is fascinating in the Genesis account is that Satan uses some truth about Adam and Eve and twists in some false conclusions. It was true that Adam and Eve were not “like God, knowing good and evil.” Where Satan won the battle was that he intimated that this wasn’t a good thing. Satan “shamed” Even (and consequently Adam) because he was saying that who they were wasn’t good – they were lacking something. The reality is that they were complete as they lived in union with God.
A discussion about shame is important because if we don’t know what it is or how to navigate it, it looms as a powerful, unseen force in our lives. The beautiful truth that begins to rescue us from shame is found in Romans 8:1, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” The idea is that before God, because of Christ, we stand complete. In a very real way, “Whatever is, is okay.” We can look at our sin and the sins done to us and rest.
Certainly, it is a journey (a process) to fully live in that reality but resting in that reality is the nature of the journey. David Vryhof puts it this way, “God has chosen to accept and pardon and welcome us. No matter how miserable our choices have been in the past, no matter how vacillating and unpredictable they are in the present, no matter how misguided they may be in the future, God says we are forgiven.” And, there is no shame in that …