I felt shame last week.
The township sanitation worker slapped me with a written warning. It was bright orange and plastered on my garbage can for everyone to see. Apparently, he found unauthorized material in that garbage can—namely, errrr….. a bunch of concrete. I wish I could say that I wasn’t aware that heavy items like concrete are prohibited, but I was fully aware of that. I consciously decided to push the boundaries of what was “allowable.” Guilty as charged! Maybe that’s why the sanitation worker’s chastisement had so much impact. Or, maybe it’s because any disapproval and disappointment shakes me up. To be fair, it’s likely a bit of both.
The reason I share this story is that in the midst of all that was happening, I also found myself noticing things about the experience of shame. Here is some of what I observed.
- Shame is a bodily experience. When I saw the written warning, my legs felt a bit shaky, my heart rate increased, and I lost my appetite.
- Shame turns you in on yourself. I was immediately caught up in my head, distracted and analyzing—trying somehow to find a way to convince myself that I didn’t do something wrong. I felt disconnected from those around me. It seemed like there was a piece of me that wasn’t fully there.
- Shame doesn’t care if it’s legitimate. Our bodies don’t differentiate between whether you really did something shameful or not. You will likely feel the exact same way. It’s only in retrospect that we have enough distance or wherewithal to process and appraise the incident.
- Shame can’t be explained away. Good luck convincing yourself that you don’t need to feel the way you do. I tried. I attempted to rationalize and trivialize it, but to no avail.
- Shame has to run its course. Ugh. Since shame contains a bodily component, it has to “wear-off” in a manner of speaking. It will take some time for the hormones to dissipate and body systems to reset.
All of this because a sanitation worker found concrete in my garbage can! This person doesn’t know me or anything about me. And yet, I experienced tangible and palpable shame. How much more significant it must be for someone whose shame is perpetual or involves a family member, neighbor, or colleague.
Whether it’s a singular episode like in my story or a chronic life experience, having some insight into the physical and mental experience of shame helps prepare you for its eventual reoccurrence. But there’s something even more fundamental that needs to be understood about the experience of shame. It is this: what feels true is often different from what is true.
This fits my experience to a tee. My feelings of shame were so real and powerful that I was tempted to question basic things I thought I knew about reality, namely: I am God’s child, I am acceptable, I am eligible to serve God, etc. Shame can threaten our foundational beliefs like this because, in the moment, it feels like it is the most accurate representation of what is true.
My only hope (and yours) is in what God says is true. His message transcends the experience of shame and grounds me in what is real and unchanging. Shame does not decide my identity or my status before God, or my future. Nor does shame determine my competence to love and serve others. My status, my identity, my future, and my qualifications to participate in kingdom ministry are secured for me in Christ. Paul hammers this home in Romans 6 through 8. First, he proclaims that I am dead to sin and alive in Christ (chapter 6). Next, he tells me that much of the time I won’t feel that way (chapter 7). Finally in chapter 8, Paul implores me to remember that even when all this doesn’t feel true—it still is true. God claims his people and shores up their frailty and weakness by means of his Spirit (v.16, 26-27). With an experience like shame that condemns and accuses, Paul rhetorically asks (v.33-35):
Who shall bring charges against God’s people?
Who is the one who condemns?
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?
The emphatic answer to all three questions is: “no one.” Not the evil one, not myself, and not the experience of shame.
On the day of the garbage can citation, my body needed to work through the physical manifestations of shame, and my conscience had to sort out my culpability and calling to confess and repent. But nevertheless, I was confident that my status before God was not at stake—even when it felt like it was.