|Monroe County Community College|
I have struggled with shame, even as a follower of Jesus. One resource that has helped me is Lewis Smedes' beautiful book Shame and Grace: Healing the Shame We Don't Deserve, Smedes was a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary. Like me and many others, Smedes had inner wars with shame and self-hatred.
Shame, says Smedes, is different than guilt. We feel guilty for what we do. We feel shame for what we are. "A person feels guilt because he did something wrong. A person feels shame because he is something wrong." (9)
Guilt is a good thing when it is God-given. We should feel guilt, we should have a conscience, if we hurt someone. But shame, if it is an unhealthy feeling of unworth that is distorted, exaggerated, and utterly out of touch with our reality, is an emotion out of hell.
"If you have a nagging feeling that you do not measure up to the person you ought to be..., the generic label for what you feel is shame. We have shame when we persistently feel that we are not acceptable, maybe unworthy, and are less than the good person we are supposed to be. Shame is a vague, undefined heaviness that presses on our spirit, dampens our gratitude for the goodness of life, and slackens the free flow of joy. Shame is a primal feeling, the kind that seeps into and discolors all our other feelings, primarily about ourself but about almost everyone and everything else in our life as well."
Smedes says the "shame equation" is this: one wrong act equals one bad person. If that were true (which it is not), then I am a very, very bad person. I have experienced doing wrong, even to people I love, and then whipped on myself for days afterwards. Even though I know Jesus died on the cross for my failures, I have crucified myself over things I have done.
Smedes tells the tragic story of a gifted piano player named Lech Koplenski, and an adoring fan named Chenska Wolenka. Lech played piano at a local cabaret, and Chenska, an attractive woman, loved Lech and wanted to see him get a break and become a concert pianist. There was a producer of concerts who would come to the cabaret, and Chenska became friends with him. She hoped to draw his attention to Koplenski's gifted piano playing. The producer told her that he would help if she would sleep with him. She did. He made good on his part of the bargain. Lech Koplenski became a concert pianist star.
Lech never came back to the cabaret. Smedes writes: "All that Chenska had left over was a deep shame of herself. One early morning in May she jumped from her apartment window to her death. Taped to her mirror was this sentence: I am filth." (18)
The perverted Cartesian reasoning looks like this: I did. Therefore I am.
If you live with unhealthy shame, what's the way out of it? Smedes says "the experience of being accepted is the beginning of healing for the feeling of being unacceptable." (107) "Being accepted is the single most compelling need of our lives." (Ib.)
This is where God and his grace enters in. "The surest cure for the feeling of being an unacceptable person is the discovery that we are accepted by the grace of One whose acceptance of us matters most." (108)
God, in his grace, overcomes our shame.