The longer I’m a pastor the more convinced I become that every person, regardless of situation, is fighting a hidden battle with shame. Shame, the greatest enemy of God’s grace and the greatest inhibitor of truth, justice, and human love, is something that must be addressed if a dysfunctional human community will become functional, healthy, and mutually supportive.
Shame—the terrifying sense something is deeply wrong with us—keeps us preoccupied with ourselves and inattentive to the needs of others. It tells us we need to fix ourselves before we can focus on serving others. It tells us we must get our act together before we can act on behalf of friends and neighbors and especially the poor, the lonely, the oppressed, and those on the margins. Before we can give attention and energy to paving paths of flourishing for others, we must first develop our own sense of purpose and our own sense of self. Charity starts at home, we tell ourselves.
In a way, we assume correctly. When Adam and Eve’s shame was exposed in the garden, they both turned immediately inward. Adam looked away from God and searched for fig leaves with which to cover himself and hide his shame. Eve did the same. They sought independence from God, lost interest in one another’s flourishing, and looked out for number one. Adam blamed Eve for the new predicament. Then he blamed God. Eve blamed the serpent.
Our first parents set the tone for the rest of us. Ever since Eden every man, woman, and child has been facing a hidden battle with shame. The vague sense there’s something deeply wrong with us compels us to hide, blame, and run for cover. Left to ourselves, we are helplessly and restlessly turned inward. We are desperate to create a counter-narrative to the shaming voice within and without. It’s just that our fig leaves in the developed world have become more sophisticated than the ones Adam and Eve used to cover themselves. Our fig leaves are represented in the ways we compensate for the failed expectations others place on us and that we place on ourselves.
Loss of Self
Before relocating to Nashville, I was ministering in an area of New York City with a high concentration of men and women who worked in finance. When the Great Recession hit in 2008, and as financial institutions crashed and careers were ruined, many people expressed a feeling that they’d not only lost money and a career, but also a sense of self. When you work on Wall Street, you begin to believe you are what you do, and you are what you make. “What is she worth?” is a question taken quite literally. The metrics of human value are measured in terms of salaries and bonuses. When the salary and bonus disappear, so does the person’s worth. This becomes true not only in your peers’ eyes but also in your own. One multibillionaire lost half his net worth in the crash. Though he was still a multibillionaire, and though nothing about his quality of life had changed, he committed suicide. The shame of losing rank in the pecking order of the financial world turned him completely inward and caused him to self-destruct.
Kelly Osbourne, the famous daughter of Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne, disappeared from the public eye for an extended season. In 2010 she reappeared during Fashion Week with a new look and a new body. She’d lost 42 pounds, causing her new and curvy figure to become a major headline. When a journalist asked what motivated her to lose so much weight, she said she hated what she saw whenever she looked into the mirror. Osbourne measured her own value in comparison to other women, and was undone by the comparisons. Why don’t I look like this girl or that girl? she’d ask herself. But her shame wasn’t only internal. It was also reinforced externally by a culture that says (absurdly) that thin has value and full-bodied is worthless. “I took more hell from people for being fat,” she remarked, “than I did for being an absolute raging drug addict.”
What if there were a way to divorce ourselves from cultural pressures to be rich and beautiful? What if we no longer felt a need to prove ourselves, to validate our own existence in the world’s eyes and in our own? What if we began actually believing God has not called us to be awesome but to be humble, receptive, faithful, and free? What if our secret battle with shame was neutered, freeing us to turn our attention away from ourselves and toward our neighbors?
This is my greatest joy as a Christian pastor. I get to tell people such a remedy exists. When Jesus allowed himself to be stripped, spit on, taunted, rejected, and made nothing on the cross—when he, the one who had nothing to be ashamed of, surrendered to the ruthless, relentless shaming that led to our redemption and healing—he neutered our shame and stripped it of its power. He who was rich became poor so that we through his poverty we might become rich (2 Cor. 8:9). But our riches are more solid, so much more solid, than mere material riches. Our riches are the kind that free us from having to be affluent or thin or intelligent or networked or famous or anything else the world says we must be in order to matter. Our riches are the kind that assure and reassure us we have nothing left to hide, nothing left to fear, and nothing left to prove. Because Jesus took on himself the full freight of our shame, we are no longer under pressure to exhaust ourselves with endless and futile efforts to make something of ourselves. We now have an inner resource that can liberate us from self-preoccupation. We now have a resource than frees us to treat all persons as our equals. We now have a resource that invites us to join God in his mission to love.
At a recent awareness dinner in Nashville, Melinda Gates told a room full of pastors and other leaders why she and her husband, Bill, decided to devote their lives and resources to helping people in the developing world. Her reason was plain and simple, and echoes a truth spoken on the first pages of Scripture: every person is equal. “There is no reason,” she said, “why a woman in the developing world shouldn’t have healthcare and education and running water and opportunity just like I do. Because a woman in the developing world is equal to me.”
The notion all people are equal is one to which any reasonable person will give mental assent. But when we understand that Jesus has taken away our shame, and that because of this we have nothing left to hide, nothing left to fear, and nothing left to prove, we actually own the notion that every person is equal. To the degree we’re able to internalize the freedom Jesus has secured for us, our energies move from preoccupation with self to preoccupation with the beauty of God and the flourishing of our neighbor.
Martin Luther King Jr. takes this affirmation further, reminding us not only that every person is equal, but why every person is equal:
The whole concept of the image of God is the idea that all men have something within them that God injected . . . and this gives him a uniqueness, it gives him worth, it gives him dignity. And we must never forget this. . . . There are no gradations in the image of God. Every man from a treble white to a bass black is significant on God’s keyboard, precisely because every man is made in the image of God. One day we will learn that. We will know one day that God made us to live together as brothers and to respect the dignity and worth of every man.
C. S. Lewis affirms the same truth with equal eloquence and conviction:
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest, most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship. . . . All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people.
You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit. . . . Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.
Because of the way Jesus valued you on the cross, and because you are the image of God, you are among the holiest objects that will ever be presented to God, to your fellow human beings, even to yourself in the mirror. Is this enough, and will this be enough, to relieve you of your own hidden battle with shame? Will it be enough to free you from a tiring, love-hindering preoccupation with self?
Because your neighbors who are near, as well as those on the other side of the world who need you, are also the image of God and your equals, you have a privilege and responsibility to participate, as God leads you, in his mission to advance his kingdom in truth, beauty, love, and justice on earth. Is this enough, and will this be enough, to stimulate your imagination as to how you can steward and share your privilege?