Shame on Shame
The search for common ground has become a ritual. We empty the contents of our pockets, spreading them out on the table, seeing what each of us has to offer. We pool our resources, count them out, group them together. A few dreams of the same size, a couple look-alike hopes, family stories with similar endings.
Nearly always, in one corner of the table, sits a wobbly pile of the one thing we all have in common—shame. Shame, a five-letter word with all the power and indecency of something with four letters.
We slut-shame, body-shame, shame parents, shame the childless. We bear shame over our poor habits, poor performance, our inability to keep the rules and our inability to care less about them.
Shame, shifty and double-dealing, snares us coming and going. We endure shame over the state of our mental health, yet shame pricks me when I dial up my counselor on Skype. It lodges in my throat every morning as I stretch my arm to an upper shelf, retrieving the bottle of light-blue, generic-brand Zoloft which prevents my body from becoming overwhelming, flushing me with anxiety.
The church might not experience shame to a greater degree than the rest of the world, but its experience takes on a unique quality. Of all people, we see what we will become. We gaze upon the person of Christ and the promise of future sinless lives and—without constant, tender gospel care—the gap between God and man, between our broken and glorified selves, the chasm separating our reality and the ideal, cripples us.
Where two or three are gathered in his name, odds are someone struggles with shame. Shame when we recall our sexual histories, shame over our prayerlessness. Remorse at our lack of growth. Disgrace when we consider the husbands and wives we want to be—and the sanctified skin we have yet to grow into. Shame at the damage we’ve done, shame over all we’ve left undone.
Churches should be shelters from shame. Often, they are the most shameful—that is, the most shame-filled, shame-saturated—places in town.
In some churches, shame is worn into the grains of the pews like furniture polish. In others, shame paid for the new carpet and the pastor’s Christmas bonus. But in churches that reflect God’s design, the kinds of churches I want to build and inhabit, shame enters but never exits.
When shame plants its dark rain cloud directly over my head, I hold out one hope. I find my confidence printed first in the Psalms, then follow it across Scripture and into Paul’s letters, written to churches unsteady and prone to despair. The idea they share, sounded out and sung to the rafters: hope in Christ never puts us to shame.
My frailty makes no room for this. Everything and everyone else I know potentially will put me to shame. Not Jesus. He always keeps his promises. He never double-crosses or makes us look foolish for giving up control.
If we are in Christ, we also rest assured Jesus is not ashamed of us. He doesn’t turn his face away, roll his eyes, make excuses for us or act like we’ve never met.
A new ache sits in my chest. It isn’t the old, familiar throb of shame, but something more ecstatic. The feeling my heart might burst from joy. Jesus shames shame, knocking it from its gaudy throne, giving it no quarter in the life of his children.
Even so, victory is hard to claim. Shame creeps in yet again, as we wonder why we can’t fully embrace the release and relief. Here, the church becomes indispensable.
What if the church wasn’t the most shame-filled site in town, but the most shame-free? A place where, to borrow from Bonhoeffer, the Christ in our brothers’ and sisters’ voices rang louder than the shame pounding in our heads.
Imagine churches playing a game of rock-paper-scissors with new rules. Shame cuts deep, but conviction and godly sorrow break its blades. And grace covers them all.
When we come to the rock which never puts us to shame, hope takes its proper place and gets to work. Christ never puts me to shame at the cross or the empty tomb, so I can trust him not to shame me in my marriage, my parenting, my body, in my past, present or future.
He replaces our shabby fig-leaf coverings, their stitches showing, fraying, with the garments of sons and daughters. Then he calls us to compliment each other’s clothing.
The circle I see when I close my eyes is beautiful. Christians experiencing a moment’s freedom from shame, coming alongside their hurting brothers and sisters, reminding them where their hope resides, knowing they will need the favor returned sooner or later.
When I think about how it could be, I hear the gospel in stereo. Saints squirming within the grasp of shame, singing something not unlike the Avett Brothers hymn:
"Shame, boatloads of shame
Day after day, more of the same
Blame, please lift it off
Please take it off, please make it stop."
Surrounding them, a choir of brothers and sisters who, at least on that Sunday, experience victory, singing truth over, around and through the lives of their spiritual family:
"And everyone they have a heart
And when they break and fall apart
And need somebody's helping hand
I used to say just let 'em fall
It wouldn't bother me at all
I couldn't help them, now I can."
Not shame upon shame, but shame on shame. No longer shameful, but shameless—in the purest sense of the word. The sound, and the difference, changes everything.