Don’t Let Good Shame Go to Waste

There are a handful of emotions people would do nearly anything to not talk about.

Shame is one of them.

Our feelings of shame tell us we’ve disappointed reasonable expectations we hold for ourselves or violated our own self-chosen values. In social groups and relationships, the function of shame is to prevent us from damaging our social relationships, or to motivate us to repair them. In these instances, the unpleasant feeling of shame can actually be productive and helpful. In other situations, shame can be toxic. Shame turns toxic when it degrades the divine image of another person. When shame leads someone to think they are unworthy and unlovable and it diminishes them, it’s toxic. (Why Shame Is Good)

Shame is different from guilt, though connected to shame. David Brooks notes the difference: “In a guilt culture you know you are good or bad by what your conscience feels. In a shame culture you know you are good or bad by what your community says about you, by whether it honors or excludes you. In a guilt culture people sometimes feel they do bad things; in a shame culture, social exclusion makes people feel they are bad.”

In the story we’re considering for this Sunday, where David abuses his power and commits adultery with Bathsheba, and he finds out she is pregnant (2 Samuel: 11). David starts to feel shame. He then continues to abuse his power to cover up his sin in an effort to continue in a place of honor as king and to keep from recognizing he has failed to meet his own expectations for himself. David’s experience of shame becomes toxic not only for himself but for Uriah, Bathsheba, their child and eventually David’s family. But David’s shame – when exposed by Nathan in 2 Samuel: 12 – becomes productive as it leads to his repentance and trying to set things right, even though the damage has been done. David will live with the tragic consequences of his sin all the rest of his days, but he won’t be bound by shame. David will live life and it will be a tough one, but it will also be a life with hope.

As I write this blog for the week, we’re just a few days from receiving our Church Wide Assessment Report. You can read the report for yourself or watch the presentation here. At this point, I haven’t heard from too many people on their thoughts, reactions or feelings of the report so far.  The Assessment Report named some big rocks that stand in the way to most future growth and vitality for our church. The first is Heal the Hurt of past conflicts. Followed by Clarify the Vision of the Church; Restructure the Church for Today and Beyond; Enfold and Assimilate Guests and Reimagine Ministry to Younger People.

I have to wonder if part of the silence I am hearing is overwhelming as the Report names some big challenges that we can only overcome if we all choose to work on them together? I also wonder if there is shame in hearing the report. In seeing this reflection of ourselves have experienced disappointment for not meeting reasonable expectations we hold for ourselves, or have we violated our own self-chosen values? In seeing this report do we feel bad because of what we have said about ourselves?

I don’t know if shame is one response we are collectively having to the Assessment Report as no one has told me as I write this, but my intuition says it might be. If there are collective experiences of shame in our church, we can choose to let them be toxic. We can let shame erode our self-worth and participate in a passive exclusion of those who won’t keep things comfortable and nice. Or we can let shame be productive, we can decide we don’t like this feeling and we can trust in God’s grace to help us forgive us our sin and shame as we forgive each other.

This Assessment Report could be our Nathan moment. We could ignore it or silence it with the power of our shame or we can be like David and repent. We can make things right and live freely even as we deal with the consequences of our sin and shame. The choice is ours to make.

I, for one, don’t like toxic shame. It seems anti-gospel to me as toxic shame erodes life. Productive shame leads us to life. It brings repentance, forgiveness, and new life. It took me the first 25 or 30 years of my life to figure out the productive side of shame and to experience enough grace to know that God’s grace overcomes any shame. It might be hard to face our shame, but I do know that Jesus is ready to embrace us, forgive us, heal us, and bring us life that is truly life when we are ready to let go of our shame and let grace take its place. If I’m right, let us not let good shame go to waste. I’m ready to take the brave first steps towards grace when we are ready as a church.

Or maybe I’m reading the silence all wrong and those who read this far in the blog will reach out and correct me and that will be fodder for future content. I suppose time will tell.

In the meantime, let these words of Isaiah be a comfort: “Do not fear, for you will not be ashamed; do not be discouraged, for you will not suffer disgrace; for you will forget the shame of your youth.”

Isaiah 54:4