Shame And The Good Christian

Real Christian therapy is about exposing the spiritual roots of shame.

Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean…”                                                                                             – John 13:5-10


The Pride-Shame Swing

As a Christian psychologist I see myself as sort of a “shade tree mechanic” that “gets under the hoods” of Christians’ thoughts and emotions. Contrary to what a lot of people nowadays will try to sell you, I’ve done enough therapy to tell you it’s no cure-all for emotional ailments. Therapy is a diagnostic tool, the cure is encountering the presence of Christ. If the church is an “authorized dealer” of the gospel, I’m the guy that points out some engine trouble that a lot of Christians seem to be having, how to avoid it, and where they might need to ask the Spirit to apply his remedies.

To be honest, I grow increasingly concerned about Christians’ fading awareness of important spiritual struggles that play out in our inner lives. We have increased our medical and psychological understanding of thoughts and emotions but we have lost much wisdom about deep spiritual struggles that cause them. Patients come with sophisticated questions about their serotonin levels and they always know what their “love language” is but when asked about the Spirit’s role in their current crisis they give surprisingly elementary answers. “Maybe God is teaching me a lesson?”

It was not always this way. The great Christian writers of history (St. John of the Cross in the 16th century or Augustine in the 4th century) explored deep workings of man’s soul. Today the writings of these saints sit on the shelves with books like “The 30 Day Faith Detox” and “The Holy Spirit, Your Financial Advisor.”

My goal here is to try and expose a common but important spiritual battle that goes on in your head. I’m calling this struggle “Shame and the Good Christian.”

Why are so many Christians unhappy? We Christians believe that Jesus has come and paid for our sins and opened a clear path to unbroken fellowship with the living God. So, why aren’t we content? What interferes with experiencing this unbroken fellowship with a God who loves us and has promised that “… all things work together for good…?”

Take just a couple of examples from the last few weeks in my practice:

A mom with grown children, one of whom has struggled with issues of substance abuse; the other a broken marriage, came to my office tearfully seeking the answer to the obsession that burdens her, “What did I do wrong that caused my children to be so screwed up?”

Another example was the husband who can hardly stay in my office when his wife even touches the subject of his past infidelity and the pain and insecurity it has caused her. Almost yelling he angrily answers, “Don’t you think I know what I did? The Bible says we should forget what is past and look toward what is ahead! Why can’t you do that!?” Later when I remind him that she really needs to be able to talk to him about what happened he says, “I know I’m forgiven but I don’t think I can ever forgive myself.”

In both examples, these are Christians have examined themselves and found themselves wanting. They know their sins are forgiven but it doesn’t give them any peace in these circumstances. You can think of things you’ve done or characteristics that you really don’t like about you and “Jesus died for my sins” doesn’t really make much difference. You’re just unhappy about you.

The human tendency toward negative self-judgments is actually universal, but few people talk about it or try to understand where it comes from. Without knowing you, I know that because you are human, there are many things you just don’t like about you.

Take, for example when you hear a recording of your own voice. An audiologist can explain the mechanics of why your voice sounds different in your own head vs. outside. But that doesn’t explain why virtually everyone has a negative response when they first hear their own recorded voice. Why does no one react with, “Hey, I sound good!” Or what about photos of yourself? When looking at a group photo, why do you almost always look for yourself first? Don’t you know what you look like? How often have you looked at photos with others and heard people saying, “I look terrible in that picture.” “No you don’t, you look cute. I look like a troll.” “No you don’t…”

All these examples point to an underlying pattern that exists within all of us but few of us see it or realize the significance of this pattern to spiritual growth in the Christian life. This pattern is clearly seen in the incident described in John 13:5-10.

What I like about this story is that it perfectly illustrates this struggle. It’s why you don’t like you. I call it the “pride and shame swing.”

Notice Peter’s first reaction to Jesus’ humble action of foot washing was one of pride, “Never shall you wash my feet!” You can just hear the emphasis on the word “my.” Peter’s objection seems to suggest that he fancied himself a more humble, loyal servant than the other disciples. Unlike the other disciples, Peter, in his great self-denial, would never allow Jesus to wash his feet. This was hardly the only time Peter would assert greater devotion and courage than his peers. Peter is not the only disciple who fancied himself somehow better than the other disciples (James and John asked to sit at his right and left hand in heaven). Peter was bad at keeping his mouth shut. Remember at the transfiguration? God Himself had to interrupt Peter’s “let’s build you three shelters” speech with, “This is my son listen to him!”

Jesus’ response cuts through Peter’s false humility, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me.” This coincides with His constant assertion that He has, “…not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). If Peter sees himself as someone who doesn’t need to be served by Jesus then he is not really a believer. This is of course true for us today. So-called “Christians” who feel they are “good, humble people” really don’t understand Jesus’ message at all.

What’s interesting here, however, is Peter’s strong reaction. Instead of accepting this mild rebuke, he turns completely around and announces, “Lord, then wash not only my feet, but also my hands and my head.” He has gone from secretly feeling he is the best man in the room to a new certainty that he is the worst of all men, needing complete renewal from his wickedness. His pride having been dashed as misdirected, Peter expresses what may seem like an opposite emotion, shame.

Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work and has conducted a decade-long study on shame and empathy. In her book, “I Thought It Was Just Me” she writes. “Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.”

Peter’s experience happens to all of us. We can swing from feeling like secret super-heroes to feeling like the lowest human on the planet so very easily. It turns out that pride and shame are two sides of the same coin. The problem is that we can feel the shame part. Pride (the constant striving to be more than we are) is so automatic that we don’t realize it. That’s the dangerous part.

Thomas à Kempis, the 15th century German priest observed, “Many are secretly seeking their own ends in what they do, yet know it not.”  Our own pride often feels like humble devotion to a good cause or purpose. Remember that kid in elementary school that was always bossing you around while claiming “I’m just telling what the teacher told us.”

Gods in the Garden

The pride/shame swing isn’t a specifically Christian observation. Deep thinkers throughout history have seen this pattern. Jerry Seinfeld (the great American philosopher) says, “All men kinda think of themselves like low-level super-heroes in their own world…. when men are growing up and are reading about Batman, Spider-Man, Superman… these aren’t fantasies. These are options. This is the deep inner secret truth of the male mind.”  Lao Tzu the 5th century (more serious) Chinese philosopher observed, “When one sets his heart on being highly esteemed, and achieves such rating, then he is automatically involved in fear of losing his status.”

Remember the two patients I mentioned at the beginning of this talk? Two people who, for very different reasons feel intensely ashamed of themselves. How are these struggles due to pride?

Remember the mother who assumes she must have done something to cause her adult children’s problems? To these moms it’s useful to just extend their logic a little further to get at the underlying pride issue: “Don’t worry, if your children’s failure really does show that you did fail as a mother then it just follows that your bad mothering is your mother’s fault.” As you can guess, this is never received as comforting. Do you see the secret super-hero mom in there? “My children are completely the result of my parenting but I’m not the result of MY mother’s parenting. I’m… super mom!”

What about the man who committed adultery and can’t forgive himself? Interestingly, their church had assigned this couple to be mentored by an older couple who had gone through the same thing except that the mentor husband had had three separate affairs. Based on his negative appraisal of himself, I asked my patient, “So, you must really hate your mentor.” He looked at me surprised. “No, he’s a good guy.”

How can my patient forgive someone guilty of the same sin or worse? Because it isn’t him. The mentor is a side character in my patient’s ongoing superhero fantasy. No one walks around consciously thinking, “I’m better than everyone else.” Pride works subtly, often without our notice. This inflated view of ourselves is usually experienced indirectly. We are harder on ourselves than others because we expect more from ourselves.

The Bible’s warning that “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18) may not be some promise that God will destroy every proud person for their arrogance. It seems to simply be a description of the human condition. Watch a person’s life long enough and you will see significant times when they are shaken to the core with uncertainty about whether they’re worth anything. Earlier crowing over their skill and success become mocking voices in their head.

So where does this pride/shame swing come from? Why is it “normal” for human creatures to view themselves with shame? Research hasn’t really addressed this. Often shame is assumed to be the result of cultural messages and expectations. This idea only shifts the focus of the source but still doesn’t explain why people of all cultures experience this basic emotion.

The Judeo-Christian understanding of this emotional pattern comes from early scripture. The Bible makes it clear that the pride and shame swing is the result of sin. The story of sin’s origin is found in Genesis chapter three.

Remember that the temptation our great-great grandparents succumbed to was to “be like God.”

“… when you eat of [the fruit] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” – Gen. 3:4

This was not a couple of kids who broke God’s fruit-eating rules. This was a created being seeking to usurp the role of the creator and make a god of themselves, equal to the true God.

And their eyes “were opened,” that is, some sort of awareness dawned upon them that hadn’t been there before. God Himself, in verse 22 said of this change, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil.”  Gaining “the knowledge of good and evil” might be better thought of as “they became knowers of good and evil.” They started thinking like they were gods. Only the true God has the clear picture of good and bad, but we begin to think that we don’t need his vantage point to make sense of our lives. Thinking like a god means that we decide for ourselves what is good and evil… like God does. There is one major flaw in this scheme to reach godhood, we are not gods and we know it. The chasm between our sinful, godlike thinking and the limited, vulnerable creatures that we really are results in the pain of intense shame. “They knew they were naked” (Gen. 3:7).

I want to be clear here. This has nothing to do with redefining sin as a psychological condition. I am only making the point that the changed awareness that sin brought about has created a painful conflict within us that has plagued mankind throughout history. Too many people still assume that sin is all that fun stuff that God says you shouldn’t do. Nothing is further from the truth. Sin is a state of the soul; a consciousness that produces emotional turmoil and pain. We are the man who thinks like he is a god.

The reason this conflict is not apparent to us is because the human’s reflexive response to the shame of nakedness is to cover. “They sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths” (Gen. 3:7). The man and woman didn’t want to see their own vulnerability and didn’t want each other to see it either. There’s nothing indicating that they disliked their partner’s appearance. They were ashamed of their own appearance. Those who think like gods are ashamed to discover they are men. For this reason, people have a very bad habit of assuming that others are judging them with the same condemning eye they have turned on themselves.

Studies show that the appropriate amount of eye contact you can have with a person you don’t know before they get creeped out is 3.3 seconds. We wither under the gaze of others because we begin to feel our own self-condemnation coming from their eyes. I have known more than one angry high school boy who got into a fight with another angry boy he did not even know just because they happened to catch each other’s angry stares from across the lunchroom. Cain killed his brother Able because he saw his own shame and guilt when he looked at him.

Again, Brene Brown observes, “When we are feeling shame and fear, blame is never far behind. Sometimes, we turn inward and blame ourselves and other times we strike out and blame others.” Human history is replete with the drama of people covering their own shame by lashing out and even killing others who threaten to expose their nakedness.

These coverings they made for themselves, by the way, are completely useless when God shows up. You might have some fun if you show up to a party and pretend to be a cop. You can tell people what to do etc. The fun is over however when one particular person shows up… a real cop. The next few verses describe the sad and funny scene of the man hiding from God in the trees. This is like playing hide-and-seek with your 2-year-old who stands with his hands over his eyes and thinks you can’t see him. We may be able to cover our shame when we face others but it is not possible to hide in the presence of God.

So, the sin of mankind permanently changed us and we are cursed. We are the man who thinks like he is a god and knows that he’s not. Your problem is not that you are making wrong judgments about yourself. The problem is that you were never meant to be judging yourself at all.

So what can be done for us?

What doesn’t work by the way is self-consciously try to stop the pride/shame swing. In the past there was a great deal of focus on bringing down pride. People were instructed to be humble root out their pride. In the end, this approach tends to make people who are actually proud of their humility. Charles Dickens’ character Uriah Heap in “David Copperfield” being an excellent example. Remember that guy? “I am well aware that I am the ‘umblest person going […] My mother is likewise a very ‘umble person.”

In our day and age the emphasis has been on not shaming ourselves. Educators are told not to tell children they are “being bad” but only “we don’t behave like that.” The Huffington Post is filled with articles like, “Woman answers those who shame her for breast-feeding in public” or “Plus sized model body-shamed.” But this has only resulted in tremendous insecurity and a cultural watch-dog mentality that demands protection for our shaky self-esteems from “triggers” and “micro-aggressions.”

It seems that we are not able to correct these painful emotions by our own will. The apostle Paul seems to sum this problem well when he laments, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?” (Rom. 7:24)

Brene Brown points to some hope by noting,  “If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.”  (Daring Greatly – B. Brown)

The Bible shows us that there is only one, surprising cure for the man who thinks like he is god. What if God were able to think like he is a man? What if God literally became a man? Emanuel, God with us.

But how could the real God who is a man empathize with us? He would have to be born just as we are. He would have to have endured poverty, torture, rejection by family and friends, false accusation, racial prejudice and not even be good looking. That’s Jesus.

The God who became a man would completely expose our true nakedness and just how “not god” we are. In our shame we would strike out and eliminate such a man. But what if God raised him from the dead? What if we dealt him our worst and he’s still here, totally knows our facade and yet loves us as we really are? It would make a mockery of the whole pride/shame problem. That is the spirit of Christ that inhabits Christians today.

In the end it’s actually Peter that shows most clearly the change that must take place to overcome our sinful self-voice. In the book of John chapter 21 we read a story of Jesus standing on the shore calling to some of the disciples who are in a boat fishing and directing them where to cast their nets resulting in a huge catch. This actually happened twice. The first time this happened Peter had responded in shame directing Jesus to “Depart from me for I am a sinful man.”

But this time things had changed. Peter had just suffered the greatest failure of his life by abandoning Jesus and several times denying that he even knew him when, only hours before, he had pridefully claimed that he would never leave Jesus’ side. What also had changed is that the man calling to them from the shore had endured death on the cross, despising the shame, and had been raised from the dead, transformed. The disciple John recognizes Jesus from the boat and tells Peter, “It is the Lord.” This time Peter did not respond with shame. He immediately dives in the water and swims to Jesus. Peter finally learned what we must learn. In all things seek the spirit of Christ and stay near to him.

Jesus then asks Peter some questions that reveal what has changed in Peter. He asks, “… do you love me more than these?” Peter certainly doesn’t take the bait and boast of himself above the others but neither does he react in shame at a clear reminder of his previous boasts. He answers, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Peter now knows himself only as he is known by Jesus. Jesus then asks two more times, “Do you love me?” Peter is saddened but not shaken by Jesus probing, finally appealing to his only foundation, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”

The spirit of Christ in you is not calling you to work on not being too prideful nor is he trying to raise your self-esteem. He is in the process of dethroning your godlike self. This process is called sanctification.

Growth in the Christian life is surrender, not self-improvement.

François Fenélon, the 17th century French archbishop put it this way,  “You do not need to be cured, you need to be slain. Quit looking for a remedy and let death come. This is the only way to deal with self.”  Instead of judging ourselves acceptable or unacceptable, the Christian is learning to not judge himself or herself at all. Jesus is now our judge. We no longer belong to ourselves.

I’ve often heard people say things like, “God sometimes has to hit me over the head with a two-by-four to teach me something.” My friends, Jesus has never hit anyone with a two-by-four. The Bible says, “a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench…” (Isaiah 42:3).

When you’re standing in front of a mirror do you really believe that’s Jesus’ voice in your head saying, “girl you have just got to lose weight.” Does Jesus think your nose is too big or that you’re too short? Is Jesus’ voice condemning you for not reaching your sales goals this month? And shall I dare say it? Is it the voice of Christ that will accept nothing but A’s in school?

Is that Jesus’ voice that tells you to stop looking at porn? Um yeah that’s Jesus. But what about those thoughts that say you’re the world’s worst person or couldn’t possibly be a Christian if you struggle with that? No, that’s you. You’re resisting simply being a loved and forgiven child of God, you’re still trying think of yourself as a good person. This is one of the reasons we must study the Bible as best we can to learn to differentiate Jesus’ voice from our own self-as-god voice.

In the end, Peter laid down himself-as-judge and knew himself only as he was known by Jesus. Jesus calls all of us to lay down the burden of self-as-god and find peace in making Him our judge.

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

– Matthew 11:28-30

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