How Shame was Born: A Theological Perspective

Peter Scazzero’s Awakening

In Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, Pastor Peter Scazzero shares his story of growing up in an Italian-American family. Ever pushing himself and his family, Peter’s father’s greatest goal for his children was that they go to college. Dad’s workaholic bent left Mom alone to raise Peter and his four siblings. During those years, Peter’s mom suffered from clinical depression.

While fulfilling his father’s expectations at the university, Peter met Jesus Christ. He spent the next 17 years developing a pastoral ministry. He tells of his marriage to a woman named Geri, and his wholehearted, grueling investment in the ministry.

Despite the blood, sweat, and tears Peter was pouring into the kingdom of God, his wife Geri used to protest from time to time that something was wrong – with Peter, and with the church. Peter, with the nagging suspicion that she might be right, tried to fix the problem, whatever it was. As he pastored his church, he tried every spiritual emphasis he could think of, from prayer to spiritual warfare to grace, but something was still missing. Somehow, neither Peter nor his ministry quite felt whole.

(What Peter certainly didn’t do was approach his feelings or emotional world with a 10-foot pole. What he didn’t do was confront how he was falling into very similar patterns to his family of origin.)

After years had gone by, there was one night as Peter was alone in the bedroom reading, when Geri walked in and said these fateful words: “Pete, I’d be happier single than married to you. I am getting off this roller coaster. I love you but refuse to live this way anymore. I have waited…I have tried talking to you. You aren’t listening. I can’t change you. That is up to you. But I am getting on with my life. Oh, yes, by the way, the church you pastor? I quit. Your leadership isn’t worth following.”

(Is it just me who wants to curl up in a ball and cry right now?!)

Peter says he understood in that moment why people murder those they love. He says, “She had exposed my nakedness…Mostly I felt deeply ashamed.”

Exposed

Unfortunately, Peter isn’t alone in the torment of feeling exposed as defective, incompetent, undesirable, unlovable. Shame seems to haunt all of us.

Can you remember the last time shame gripped you?

Brene Brown, a leading researcher, defines shame as “the fear of not being worthy of real connection.” Shame is a feeling, and as with all feelings, it brings us a message. Shame tells us we are pathetic, and no one who sees the real us would ever want to stick around.

It is perhaps the most intolerable of human emotions. It carries with it a dread of utter abandonment.

Shame in the Garden

It all started at creation. God created humanity, you and me, in His own image. We were like Him from the get-go, in deep and mysterious ways. Despite being humble, limited creatures, our beauty was extraordinary. We weren’t the Light itself, but we were glorious reflections of the Light.

I believe that the fullness of our human identity was found in worship of the One in whose image we were made. Like a ripe fruit grown in perfect conditions, we were most whole, most fulfilled, most joyful, when enjoying our Creator. Just as Eden brimmed with lush fruit and foliage, the human hearts of Adam and Eve were bursting with health and all of God’s goodness.

God took pride and joy in the people He had made, declaring us “very good”. He had grand plans to multiply us, His image-bearers, throughout the earth, a worldwide Eden of peace and glory.

The last verse in Genesis 2 gives me chills – for some reason, God saw fit to inspire the author of Genesis to point out the raw vulnerability of Adam and Eve in the garden – they were “naked”,  yet “felt no shame”. My imagination goes wild as I conjecture what that means. To me, “naked” represents no mask, no filter. They clung to nothing to make themselves appear different or better than they were. They didn’t hide behind a shiny career or expensive makeup or Instagram filters. In their relationship with one another and with God, utter authenticity dominated, body to body, soul to soul, spirit to spirit. Adam and Eve were fully known. Naked and unashamed.

Going into Hiding

But it all went bad. Rather than worshipping Yahweh in our humble, dependent position as image-bearers, humanity (through Adam and Eve) sought to ascend the throne of God, so to speak. Sin entered the human race.

And with it, shame. Ah shame, that sense that we are not all we are meant to be. Gen. 3:7-10 says:

Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.

Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”

He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”

Suddenly man’s nakedness took on a different meaning. Man was no longer content to be seen for who he was. What did he do? Did you catch it? He hid. 

First, before God came into the garden, Adam and Eve hid behind makeshift fig leaf clothing. Why did they cover themselves before God even showed up? I imagine it must have been to hide from one another. Suddenly, these two people had a gut sense of not measuring up. It seems that they couldn’t even tolerate being exposed in each other’s presence.

Second, when God did show up in the Garden, Adam and Eve did a full-on hide-out. I imagine they hoped their fig-leaf costumes would help them camouflage into the trees of the Garden. When Adam and Eve felt shame, it was warranted. They had given up their naïve innocence for an awakened state of rebellion against God.

Interestingly, after pronouncing the curse upon mankind for Adam and Eve’s sin, God Himself crafts garments for the pair to cover themselves. I can only conjecture at the full meaning of this gesture, but it seems as thought God were somehow in agreement with Adam and Eve that they needed to cover up now. Yet He Himself seems to tenderly cover them. Sort of like a, “Yeah, you messed up big-time, but I’m still here. I’m still involved, even in your shame.”

That thought brings tears to my eyes.

Adam and Eve’s Descendants: Us

As the human race multiplied across the earth, our understanding of who God is and who we are became darkened, confused.

As we fell from the heights we were created for, plummeting to failure from the grand plans God had for us to spread His glory across the planet, humans became inundated by our shame. We started believing deep down that we were rotten to our core. Nothing could be further from the truth.

But despite this darkened understanding, all Adam and Eve’s descendants remained image-bearers. Many Scriptures, such as Genesis 9:6 and James 3:9, affirm this.  Although we had good reason to be ashamed of our sin, we forgot who we were; we forgot that even with all our shortcomings, we were yet reflections of God Himself. Like an antique masterpiece of art, covered with fingerprints, grime, and dust, we lost sight of our truest selves.

I do believe that sin is shameful. What is sin, after all, but that which destroys? Particularly before we are redeemed by Christ, our allegiance is “to those who by nature are not gods” (Gal. 4:8). As much as our anti-supernatural western minds resist the idea, the Bible teaches that prior to being bought by Christ, we are slaves to spiritual powers that are themselves in rebellion against God. This is a sad, shameful state to be in. Shame can be an appropriate response to our own pride, selfishness, hurting others, and worshipping self rather than our kind Creator-Father.

Yet, it is this very kindness of God that leads us to repentance. Recognizing our own failure in light of Yahweh’s extraordinary gentleness and mercy ushers us back into life. Shame that draws near to God rather than pushing Him away enables us to rekindle connection with our Creator. We then realize once again what it means to be His precious image-bearers – with worth and beauty beyond comprehension.

Hope

God sees our beauty even when we are in the throws of sin and shame. We are desirable by God even in our undesirable state. He loves us.

That’s why the Cross ever happened. While we saw ourselves as scum, God saw us as more. Jesus communicated our value by paying for our redemption with His own blood. That must mean God thinks we’re really something.

Accepting the redemption Jesus bought for us changes us. Those of us who know Jesus Christ are no longer slaves to sin! The work of Christ on the cross has broken the chains that bound us. We are new creations. We have been transformed from the inside out. We now not only are in God’s image, but we also have been renewed spiritually such that our nature isn’t shaped by sin anymore. God has instead given us the very Spirit of Christ. We have been made children of God, bringers of life and love to those around us.

What this means is that in Christ, our identity has radically changed. We’ve been invited into wholeness.

In Christ, we get to rest. We get to stop trying so hard to prove our worth or to cover over our shame. We experience a new sort of relationship – a relationship with God in which He sees us, knows us, and loves us unconditionally, intimately.  Shame is very personal and it takes a personal God to touch those tender places of our souls.

I don’t believe the feeling of shame ever disappears for human beings, even after we know Christ. Shame is a human emotion and becoming a Christian doesn’t cut off any part of our humanity. It actually does quite the opposite – knowing Christ can open up our experience to the full spectrum of human emotions. Yet the basis of our deepest, most intolerable self-loathing has been defeated on the cross.

To this day, as with Pastor Scazzero, our shame and sense of being defective runs deep. Often it is so deep as to be buried in our unconscious. One of the best ways to let God’s love renew even the deepest crevices of our souls is to work with a Christian therapist.

If you would like go on this journey, I am available to walk by your side. For more information or to set up an initial appointment, please call (626) 351-9616 X143 or email me at jennifer.camareno@laviecounseling.org.

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