Shame speaks to us on a daily basis: “I’m not good enough.” “I’m not holy enough.” “I’ll never be smart (pretty, skinny, etc.) enough.” “I am a failure,” shame tells us. “Why am I such a loser?” shame asks. Through fear and often frustration through discouragement, shame is one of many subtle and effective tactics that the devil uses to dissuade us from its opposite virtue: obscure faith. When we listen to shame, we believe that we are essentially, inherently, defective. We see sin without grace. We believe in our nothingness without acknowledging God’s greatness.
Shame speaks to who we are, rather than what we do. Guilt, on the other hand (which is often misconstrued for shame), is the barometer of a well-informed conscience. Rather than falsely telling us, “You are bad,” guilt says, “You did something wrong.” There is a vast difference between the two messages, however closely related they are semantically. Guilt can be a healthy means by which we amend our lives. It is a necessary prerequisite for repentance, because it does not tell us that we are horrible people for making mistakes or sinning. On the contrary, guilt tells us that God made us in His image and we must return to Him wholeheartedly by changing our habits, choices, and behaviors.
A guilty conscience often leads us to Confession, whereas shame leads us to despair through self-isolation. God calls us out of the abyss of shame and into the light of community. We are not called to battle our vices and demons alone, yet shame would erroneously have us believe that, no matter what we do, we will always be “horrible, a disgrace, bad,” etc. Only through the vulnerability that obscure faith offers us can we move past the fallacy that we are worthless or bad. Vulnerability, then, is not a form of shameful weakness. It is quite the opposite; it is courageous and valiant.
When we live in shame, rather than occasional guilt, we feel unworthy of God’s love and perhaps the esteem of others, too. We are hopeless and completely, utterly lost. We lost our ability to be vulnerable, which means we lose the ability to love. Instead of daring to enter the battlefield of life with our visible scars, rather than admitting our weaknesses and accepting correction with humility, we instead hide ourselves from the world and convince ourselves and everyone else that we’re either “just fine” or “totally useless” in this life.
Isn’t this the prevailing message of today? None of us can escape the toxicity and negativity that surrounds us in our culture. Everything screams the message of death, from bizarre television shows about vampires and zombies to books within the same genre. On social media, we are ripped to shreds within seconds from someone who is venting out of anger or bitterness, perhaps because they are disgruntled about our political climate or they cannot make sense of the suffering they endure.
I see this on a daily basis, and my heart senses the urgency of two things: acknowledging the problem and responding with vulnerability, which is love. You see, we can continue to believe the devil’s lies about ourselves and, like most other people, succumb to despair. We can saunter throughout our days, pretending that all is well while concealing our negative emotions and internalizing them in a lonely downward spiral. Or we can opt for what is difficult, but courageous: to allow others to see us as we are, knowing that we are far from perfect. That risk is far more frightening, because we don’t want to be rejected or ignored. And that is the risk we take in being vulnerable – not necessarily to the world, but at least to the trusted few with whom we surround ourselves.
Vulnerability is about living a life of generosity, of love in God’s service. It is not weak to express sadness or grief. It is not a sign of failure if we share with another person our fears or sense of despondency. It is rather a sign of bravery to be willing to experience possible ridicule and disengagement by naming shame for what it is: a lie. When we choose to be vulnerable, we open our hearts to the possibility of pain, yes, but we also open our hearts to the possibility of greatness rather than mediocrity.
Shame would have us remain in a place of stagnancy, wouldn’t it? Whereas love beckons us to exit our safe cocoons, shame would rather we stay hidden. If we want to become courageous people of faith, we must turn to what St. John of the Cross called obscure faith in order to overcome the shadows of shame.
Vulnerability through love without conditions is what leads us to obscure faith. This is the most authentic and pure form of the theological virtue, because, though it is unclear, it remains certain – in a God who provides for every detail of our lives, in a God who will fulfill the work He has begun in us, in a God whose mercy is always available to us. Obscure faith does not rely upon emotions, whether affirming or shameful. Instead, it relies solely upon knowing who God is and believing in His love for us.
In a world saturated with shame, cynicism, and despair, our faith, though obscure, always offers us light. It is the light of faith that illuminates our everyday lives and moves us from a place of halfhearted to wholehearted living. The next time you hear the whisper that you are a total loss to the world, name and rebuke it. Then turn to the Lord in obscure faith, whether or not you feel any sort of consolation, and His grace will fortify you for the journey ahead.