People say that shame is the feeling you have when you believe something is inherently wrong with who you are. Guilt, on the other hand, is feeling there’s something wrong with your actions.
But actually, shame stems from a fear of exclusion. It’s not just about how you relate to yourself, but how you relate to other people.
I learned about this when I read a definition from a 2003 paper by Thomas Scheff. He wrote that shame is:
“the large family of emotions that includes many cognates and variants most notably embarrassment, guilt, humiliation, and related feelings of shyness that originate in threats to social bond. This definition integrates self (emotional reactions) and society (the social bond).”Scheff, Thomas J. “Shame in Self and Society.” Symbolic Interaction, vol. 26, no. 2, 2003, pp. 239–262. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/si.2003.26.2.239. Accessed 23 Dec. 2020
Suddenly a whole heap of experiences made sense to me. Including those times when I haven’t felt shame.
You see, when I felt no shame, it’s because I had no fear of exclusion – even if I was aware that something I had done wasn’t fabulous.
I get the feeling that some people see their walk with God in quite a negative way. As if it’s like forever walking up a downward escalator. But I don’t believe redemption is like that.
Instead, the Bible says that God has made us part of his family. I think this is the image to take to heart. And it’s not because families are the ‘designed’ and ‘ordained’ societal construct, where everyone finds their assigned and proper place. It’s because family should be homely and healing; it’s a context where people are more important than their differences. No one earned their way in; no one’s place is temporary. And yes it might be messy sometimes, but no one is shut out. Each person is equally family.
Of course, not everyone experiences family in this way. And it can be manipulative to play the “But I’m family” card.
But this dynamic is what I believe relationship with God is meant to be like. We have privileged access and seats at the table; we have a permanent place.
I don’t know how, but when the Holy Spirit makes me aware of something I’m not proud of, I don’t feel shame. But if this is what family means to God, and I’m included, then it makes sense
Because I’m never afraid of being outcast.
A short look at the Bible
Today’s passage is Luke 2:39-52.
This is the only story in the Bible that tells of Jesus as a boy. I find it deeply fascinating though. You get the impression that Jesus was oblivious to his impact on Mary and Joseph. It’s like he assumed they would think the same way he did. Therefore, they would just know that he was OK, and that he would be in the temple.
By the way, the Greek is ambiguous when it says they found Jesus “after three days.” It’s possible that Mary and Joseph searched for three days in Jerusalem; but it’s also possible that the three days starts when they first left Jerusalem. That is, they travelled out for a day, back for a day, and searched for a day before finding him.
There are various schools of thought concerning how Jesus’s humanity and divinity interacted. The Orthodox Church often has an adult face in icons of Jesus as a baby; it’s to remind the viewer that they’re looking at God incarnate. For some, the theology goes beyond this; they believe that Jesus was fully formed, in full knowledge of his divinity, even as a baby.
For myself though, I think it makes more sense to understand Jesus as someone who learned – just as he grew physically. Even Luke’s gospel says he grew in wisdom.
I imagine one of his hardest lessons was learning that other people didn’t relate to God the way he did. Things that were obvious to him, were not obvious to them. And when you read the gospel accounts, it seems he never outgrew this problem. He was frequently surprised by what he had to spell out and explain to people.
A couple of years ago, I wrote a monologue / narrative sermon on this passage. It’s told from Mary’s perspective as she and Joseph take the family to Jerusalem. (The gospels strongly imply Mary had children other than Jesus.) The story covers their search for Jesus and her conversation with him afterwards.
The monologue pulls together the themes of shame and scandal. It explores the possibility that Jesus had to grow in empathy and social imagination. Only then could he understand other people’s struggles and present himself fully on his terms.
If you’re interested in reading it, it’s 2,500 words and on my blog here.
Invitation to pray
We each pray in our own way; some of the best advice I had was ‘Pray as you can, not as you can’t.’ So I offer an invitation to pray – not an instruction.
Ask God to make his unconditional love known (or more known) to you.
If you have any questions or feedback about this series, please feel free to contact me. I do my best, but can make mistakes, and my theology is always under construction.
All posts in the series can be found via the tag Xmas2020.