Sunday, August 07, 2016

Shame, Abuse, and Grace

Silver maple leaf on my front porch

I sat in my office with a man who had been verbally abusing me. I asked him, "Can we just pray for love for each other?" My thought was that, as Jesus-followers, we're even supposed to love our enemies, and apparently that would be me, for him.

My appeal for love did not reach him. It was as if I never said those words. He just kept on defaming me, in person and behind my back.

Where did his wrath come from? I don't think it was about me. I think it came from a heart of shame. Most abusers of others are shame-filled people (the relationship between shame and abuse is assymetric: not all shame-filled people are abusers of others). Sprouting from the root of shame, the shaming of others grows. 

Others exist as threats to the shame-based person's experiential nothingness. So they call others words like "Nothing," or "Stupid," or "Amateur" (which is how this man referred to me), or whatever. In this way the shame-filled abuser ensures, at least in his own mind and sometimes in the captive minds of the ones they abuse, their own superior status in the honor-shame hierarchy. They "put down" others so that they might rise up.

Shame-filled people don't experience grace. The abusers among them are graceless and merciless. Shame-filled abusers feed off the failures of others. They love to see others fail and fall. They gossip and slander about the failure of others, justifying their own existence as somebodies. The declared nothingness of others becomes the somethingness of the shame-filled abuser.

Most people struggle with pride and shame. I know I have. Both are forms of self-obsession and, as such, other-dissonance. These two sides of the same coin are killers for the struggler, and for those people in their lives. I have battled these twin evils. Thankfully, I found an answer in the grace of God. As I experientially understand grace I find myself more grace-filled towards others.

Grace, as C.S. Lewis understood it, is the Christian distinctive. By it, shame is overcome.

(For more on freedom from shame see Lewis Smedes's excellent Shame and Grace: Healing the Shame We Don't Deserve.)

My new book is Praying: Reflections on 40 Years of Solitary Conversations with God.