Evil’s most potent weapon is shame. Shame says, “I am bad; I am not enough; I am wrong.” Guilt, on the other hand says, “I made a mistake; I did something wrong.” Guilt is corrective. Shame is destructive. God never shames us.
Neuropsychologists are convinced that shame can infect us as early as the age of 15 months if we are not welcomed by caregivers who delight in us. It is not enough to be fed, clothed, and kept clean – we also have an innate need for approval – approval, that is, for who we are, not what we do. To be emotionally healthy, we require caregivers who light up when they see us, who express joy, pleasure, and delight with their body language and their words. Lacking that, we absorb the unspoken and often unintended message that we are not enough, and that, therefore, someday we will be abandoned, left alone.
At any age, when we enter a room, or someone enters the room we are in, and that other person lights up with joy and emphatically expresses how happy they are to be in our presence, we are affirmed; we feel accepted and welcomed. We feel valued. We feel loved.
I had good parents. They both loved me. They provided food, clothing, housing, protection, education, travel opportunities, exposure to diverse ideas and cultures, tons of good books, instilled in me a love for learning, reading, nature, and classical music, and exposed me to art, woodworking, electronics, and church. I’m grateful for them. They were good people who did their very best.
Nevertheless, I have no memory of anyone being delighted with me. I have no memory of anyone lighting up with joy when they saw me. As an infant, toddler, and preschooler, I was often left to myself. As a result, I developed a rich fantasy life. Deep within, from a very early age, Evil whispered to me that I was not enough, and told me that someday I would be alone. In adulthood, my internal mantra became, “I’m alone; I’ve always been alone, and I’ll always be alone.” I have spent much of my life expecting to rejected.
When we are valued and loved, affirmed and accepted, we dare to be vulnerable. Vulnerability starves shame to death. Shame, therefore, can only be overcome in community, in relationship with an accepting, nonjudgmental other.
The community of faith should be a primary place where we are fully accepted and welcomed just as we are. The ones I have been a part of have not been. Part of that is because I was the senior pastor in most of them, and there lurks an underlying, unspoken assumption that pastors must have their acts together. They are expected to be emotionally healthy, to have good marriages, children without any significant problems, to be friendly to all, and to put up with everyone. Pastors are supposed to be holy. In the faith communities of which I was a part, there was no room for failure, for marital problems, for depression, doubt, or for vulnerability. I was accepted as long as I looked, behaved, and believed according to script. The love was very conditional.
Likewise in other places I’ve worked. For a number of years, I was a chaplain in hospitals and hospice. As long as I kept my head down, flew under the radar, and did what was prescribed, all was well. Vulnerability was welcomed in limited areas under specific circumstances. It was ok to be vulnerable about feeling sad when a patient died. It was not ok to challenge the status quo or try to shift the culture.
But now (better late than never) I am finding healing from shame in a couple of small communities. The first and most intimate is my marriage. I have a spouse whose love is unconditional and who quite often appears happy to see me. Second, is a small diverse Bible study made up of different genders, sexual orientations, ages, abilities, disabilities, and ethnicities. I pretty much feel like I can say anything when I’m with them without fear of being abandoned. I am deeply committed to on-going spiritual direction and periodic therapy. There, I find unconditional acceptance from compassionate wise people who listen well. Finally, I’m blessed with a few friends and colleagues over whom I can emotionally vomit. They don’t seem to mind. They just smile and wipe it off.
Together, those relationships are beginning to convince me that God likes me and is delighted when he sees me. As I sink more deeply into my essential belovedness, my prayer life becomes more intimate. I know God and am known by God.
Imagine a God who, like the prodigal’s father, runs overflowing with ecstatic joy to greet us. Imagine a God who really likes us. Imagine a God who fully accepts and affirms us, who values us, who loves spending time with us.
Imagine a God like Jesus.
21 July 2022