The Origin of our Shame can be Elusive
The scriptures tell a long and sad story about shame. What it was like for man to fall, to walk beyond the gaze of God and to enter into a certain darkness. There is proper shame, that sense that awakens in us when we have done something dishonorable or when we see the dishonorable done. But shame as a mechanism can so often get misplaced. For some, mis-placed shame can be a silent yoke about the neck. Maybe we cannot articulate it, we just feel it. It is a pit in the stomach, a dark cloud, some feeling of discomfort in the soul. But the hallmark of mis-placed shame is that it stays. And when shame lingers on, uninvited and unwelcome, it begets suffering. It is in this avenue of suffering that Jesus, the Wounded Healer, can bring deliverance.
In the bible, we see various cultures different from our own. Back then, diseases were a sign of uncleanness and physical deformities were seen as an indication of God’s wrath. This makes Jesus’ actions in the New Testament that much more meaningful because we see him come and upend all those notions. He was constantly about charging every personal interaction he had with divine purpose. The Samaritan woman at the well; bidding the children come in the face of his own disciples objections; giving hearing ears to the deaf and mute man. Jesus did not wave his arms from afar in these moments in a detached sort of way, nor did he merely preach a sermon about accepting our lot and sucking it up. He always entered into the context that was meaningful to the “other.”
Jesus: Suffering Servant, Wonderful Counselor, Wounded Healer
Suffering the weight of misplaced shame is a moment ripened to encounter Christ. Jesus enters into our bondage and he gently lifts our face. He studies us and he communicates with us in a way that we will understand. Maybe that means he tells us a hard truth about our self-deceptions. But maybe it means he does the highly unusual and he gets down in the mud with us, thrashing about with us until we understand what he is trying to say. Maybe it means he puts his finger to our ears, spits and touches our tongue, like he did with the mute man, and then he lets go a long sigh, as if all those suffering sighs of our own have been his all along, too – all this to show how deeply he truly understands what we are all about.
Now I do not mean to say that grief, suffering and shame are all the same thing. They can all be different experiences. But I cannot think of a struggle with shame that does not at once produce grief or suffering. Shame can be indiscriminate — it can afflict the perpetrator and the victim. But shame makes us want to hide, either way. And a life of hiding in our shame is a life of suffering. In the case of Adam and Eve, who admitted, “we were naked and afraid” when God asked them why they hid, we see how they are both perpetrator and victim. They disobeyed God, for which they alone were accountable, but also they were victims of a tempter who meant them harm and he succeeded, though not without his own consequence. Both parties suffered the consequences of their actions and so began the story of the human race. But the Father’s question, “why are you hiding?” is so telling, for they did not hide before. And surely the Creator knew their whereabouts. This was not a question meant to divine their location or wardrobe. This was God asking, “What have you done? Why are you hiding from me? Why are you afraid?”
The Incarnation of Jesus and Suffering Shame
Catholics understand the Faith to be incarnational. Christ came then in ages past, and he comes now, in the present – in the Eucharist. Heaven and earth meet in a spiritual-physical reality. The movements of our bodies are charged with spiritual significance; from the ways we eat for physical sustenance, to the ways we dance to express joy. Our bodies also tell us something about God, in whose image we are made. This includes our emotions. Is it possible that our shame is telling us something about God and our relationship to him? Could it be some sinful habit or behavior for which we desperately need the healing salve of God’s mercy and forgiveness? Or could our shame indicate that we have unintentionally done harm to ourselves or others and we need that Divine Energy to bring wholeness? And there are the undeniable and heart-rending instances in which our shame may in fact be the sad consequence of some evil done to us and we need the tender care of Jesus to heal. But no matter the origin of our shame, we naturally long after the healing touch of a Savior who enters into that shame with us.
Jesus Weeps With Us
I have been thinking about John Chapter 11 and how Jesus was moved in his spirit and how he wept when he understood the toll the death of Lazarus took on those who loved the man. Even though he knew what he would do, he still wept. He would raise Lazarus from the dead and teach his followers the unforgettable lesson of his Father’s power. And yet he still entered into and shared in the suffering and grief and confusion of his own. Even though I may at times suffer for reasons that only God will know, he is still there with me in the pain, suffering with me. And when I think about shame, I at once think about suffering – for the two seem so inexorably connected.
A key to overcoming our shame is to find the God-man doing in our lives what he did in the lives of so many others. We must remember that the bible is not our God – the story did not end there on those pages and it is not the book itself that brings healing. The bible, rather, is a Sacred Instrument, divinely inspired to lead us close to a personal God who draws very near to his own. So we go to these scriptural scenes for an understanding and a reference point. How does Jesus approach me now, in my shame and suffering? The answer is to see how he approached others: with so much tenderness and deep affection. This is precisely why scenes like that in John 11 are so poignant. Does God have the power to heal us of every ailment? Yes. Does he know our situation inside and out? Our depression inside and out? Our shame inside and out? Yes! And he has the power to overcome it all. But still he enters it with us, because he loves us so.