First, I find that very few of the more orthodox preachers I revere seem to spend a lot of time talking about human shame. It is a bit frustrating. I look to them because they generally divide the Word well. What I often find in their sermons and writings is talk about what is typically called "legitimate shame." Legitimate shame simply means that it is shame based on exposure of one's depravity. Essentially, if one had to define it, shame has to do with exposure of one's ugliness and deficiency (perceived or real) before the eyes of others. Legitimate shame has to do with the exposure of one's sin. When God shines the light on our sin, perhaps through the gentle rebuke of a friend, we should feel the sting of shame. We should feel "found out." This kind of shame is intended to bring about and involve godly sorrow and conviction, leading us to return to God. Legitimate shame, while painful, is good.
But in our rebellion, we generally don't like this kind of shame. We fight against it. Recall the story of Adam and Eve. When they rebelled against God, they immediately felt shame. They felt exposed. They ran and hid. God went looking for Adam and found him. Adam had the opportunity to come out of hiding and return to God for restoration. What did he do instead? He arrogantly blame-shifted and accused his Maker. "It was the woman YOU gave me..." We buck against the painful-but-healing sting of legitimate shame. We want to push blame onto someone else, minimize our part, and even point our finger at God.
The kind of shame that many of us are silently familiar with and suffering under, however, is what is generally called "illegitimate shame." The name doesn't suggest that suffering under this kind of shame is somehow to be ignored as trivial or "all in your head." The name simply means that this kind of shame does not reflect what God intends. God does not intend for us to feel shame in this sense. It is the product of evil and sin. This kind of shame is insidious because it is not designed to bring life but only death. It is designed to expose some "defect" in the victim and distance them from the rest of humanity (or at least from the "acceptable" part of humanity). It is designed to kill and produce more death and sin, and it does. How does illegitimate shame work?
As Dan Allender wrote in his book, The Wounded Heart,
"Legitimate shame exposes depravity, and illegitimate shame shines a light on some aspect of dignity."
What is dignity? Dignity refers to the basic image of God stamped on us by virtue of being God's special creation. There is a glory there. It is the glory and dignity present in the unborn child that makes us see the sanctity of life and stand against abortion. It is the dignity that remains in the quadraplegic or mentally retarded person who can't function as most other human beings. Part of that dignity involves the ability for relationship. We were made for relationship with God and others -to be loved and to love. With that come a host of desires that are very good (though they often become marred by sin). Such desires include the basic desire to be known and accepted.
Allender continues to point out how illegitimate shame relates to human dignity through the abuse of others -whether physical, emotional, sexual, or whatever. Rather than it being "good shame" which exposes sin for the sake of us returning to God, illegitimate shame generally focuses on dignity and involves the abusive actions of another. For example, every time we were told we were stupid for failing, the attack is not on some aspect of sin that we need to repent of but on some aspect of our dignity. The message is not designed to suggest that we are sinners. It is designed to demean us and tell us, "You are just wrong, flawed, inadequate, dirty, and defective." It is not "there is something morally evil in you"; it is "there is something defective in you." The shame produces a soul-destroying terror "that if our dark soul is discovered, we will never be enjoyed nor desired, not pursued by anyone."
The cruel irony in the connection between abuse and illegitimate shame is that reality gets twisted. First, the one who should feel shame is the abuser, for his or her sin againt God and God's image-bearer. Yet the one who is suffering in shame is the victim. The betrayed person sits exposed, demeaned, and wounded deeply by the actions of the other person. Their dignity is marred and mocked and belittled. The intense shame felt by the abused unleashes a torrent, a war within that cannot be silenced by human hands.
"Any significant abuse causes the victim to despise the way he or she's been made: a person wired for deep, satisfying, eternal involvement with others and God."
So, the good that God built into us is seen as the enemy by the victim. The victim sadly reasons, "If I could just kill that aching desire to want love, then I would not care and therefore I would not hurt any longer." Meanwhile, the evil perpetrated by the abuser often produces no immediate shame in the abuser, unless by the power of the Holy Spirit bringing conviction upon them.
Second, things become twisted in the life of the victim, too. The focus is often solely placed on the marred dignity and the pain that caused, but the depravity of the victim is ignored. I'm not suggesting that the victim did something to deserve what happened to them at all. People don't make other people sin. But plainly stated, we know that all of us are not innocent before God. And furthermore, when sinners are sinned against, we typically respond at some point with sin. Thus, shame almost always leads to contempt -contempt for ourselves and often contempt for others. Shame also leads us to self-protect. It tempts us toward the road away from God and His universe and toward autonomy, the path of trying to seize control of our little universe so that we will never be hurt again. Hence, we shut down, refuse to open ourselves to others, and refuse to love or really live. Rather than pursue others, we either try to control them or we withdraw from them. Rather than enter into the lives of others, we either use them or safely try to placate them so that we will be safe. Or mission in life becomes self-protection and numbing our pain, not the interests of others. We effectively deny God the right to use is in the lives of others. The list goes on.
And, again noting that the abused did not do anything to warrant the abuse from the other person, much of our illegitimate shame involves a discussion of an element, touched on above, that is equally difficult to discuss. It is difficult particularly because it involves looking at the reality of depravity in the heart of the individual. It does not minimize the acts of abuse that others perpetrate against us, but there is another force that works against us to bring illegitimage to our doorstep, and this force is found within our own hearts. Allender writes, "Shame is an excellent path to exposing how we really feel about ourselves, what we demand of ourselves and others, and where we believe life can be found. It unearths the strategies we use to deal with a world that is not under our control." What is he talking about? He is talking about the ways in which sinners determine to deify and create false gods -things, ideals, people which we believe, if we serve them (performance), will deliver us from the painful realities of life and give us what we want.
In my own life, I have seen how my heart has responded to insults and shame by erecting more and more idols. Rather than turning to God, grieving the pain and loss with God (who more than equally hates these aspects of sin in His fallen world), I siezed control and placed my trust in things that I believed would protect me and deliver me from such pain.
There are numerous examples. Perhaps we place our trust in our own strength. We determine to never let ourselves be hurt again. Of course, we can't deliver. We can't protect ourselves no matter how hard we try, and in the process we destroy ourselves and everything around us, especially relationships with others. Another common example is human approval. We determine that we never want to feel so low and insignificant, so we will just make sure everybody likes us and appreciates us and thinks we are great. The problem, again, is that these false gods do not deliver. They fail us, and we are crushed in deeper shame. The Bible promises that false gods bring shame. Yet, we become slaves -unwillingly on one hand, but willingly on the other. We become spiritual and emotional slaves to these gods, determining to serve them relentlessly with the promise of deliverance from things like pain, loss, rejection, emptiness, etc. We return to Egypt all over again.
This is seen acutely in some abuse situations. "Shame is experienced before the one I've entitled or given the right to judge me. Ultimately, that is the prerogative of God alone. To give that privilege -in essence, the opportunity to bestow or retract life- to anyone other than God is idolatry." (Allender) In Allender's book, he tells the story of a woman who desperately looks to her father in such a way, yet he regularly disappoints her and it crushes her. One time, she waits patiently for his arrival for a visit.
"Every time she would look up to see if he was finally coming, she would feel a wave of self-hatred and shame. Her hope of connection with a man who was her false god -the one who could bestow or retract life- failed her, and she was ashamed. Of what was she ashamed? The answer involves two inter-related forces: the ache of disappointed longing and misplaced trust. The shame of folly is involved whenever our false god remains deaf and dumb, impotent to heal the wounds of our heart."
And later, Allender writes...
"False gods are a diverse lot. They can include people, objects, or ideals. Central to a false god is the assurance that we will be protected by their ministrations, and when they fail us or we perceive that we have disappointed them, the combined shame of rebellious independence and naked aloneness floods our soul."
I've experienced all of the above. You can't live in a fallen world, and be a fallen person yourself, without it. You will sin and feel good shame for it. You will be sinned against, have your dignity demeaned, be told you are stupid or fat or ugly or undesirable or defective, and it will scar you and wound you with inexpressible shame and pain. You won't know how to get out of it. You will self-protect. You will trust in things other than God to protect and control your little piece of the universe and give you the life you demand. You will close down from others, withdraw from them, use them, spill contempt on them, or abuse them. Some of us, such as those who were abused sexually as children, experience these things more acutely than most, especially illegitimate shame.
We know there is hope for legitimate shame. There is a God who sent His Son to die for us and redeem us. But is there hope for those marked by illegitimiate shame? Is there a way to remove that painful stain, that branding on the soul? I believe there is, but it is beyond the scope of this article to really share my findings on that topic. In short, it involves a long, arduous path of embracing the whole truth of our situation and who we are, embracing life -including pain and hurt, patiently walking with God through the pain rather than hiding from it, and openly seeking to embrace others in the dance of love and intimacy once again.