Last week I posted “The Virginity Lie.” In the blog, I linked to a raw and honest post, “I Am Damaged Goods” from a beautiful blog called A Deeper Story. In it, Sarah Bessey recounts her story of being likened to a dirty spit cup and then being told, essentially, your chances for a healthy marriage are irredeemably blown. She entered the room that day 19 years old and “crazy in love with Jesus” and left it feeling disqualified and crushed by shame. Her blog, written to to those whose sexual past holds them captive, stands guard against the spitting pastor and proclaims the truth–that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ.
“Darling, young one burning with shame and hiding in the silence,” she says, “Your worth isn’t determined by your virginity. What a lie.”
In my post, I wanted to affirm her message of grace, but also note what I saw as a “challenge to a Christian culture that idolizes virginity and often wrecks the very men and women that Christ is grabbing hold of, redeeming, and healing with His grace.” And I think this holds true in other sin areas as well, of course. There’s a list of sins/sin patterns that “disqualify” people from a full life, for which the church uses shame as a controlling and/or punishing tool, and it certainly doesn’t end with extramarital sex. We could easily add others, like bankruptcy and divorce.
After some healthy dialogue, both on Facebook and in person, I felt compelled to offer a follow-up post.
Is it possible that shame is necessary?
Not-all-that-surprisingly, there are people who feel afraid to relinquish shame from their morality arsenal. “People should feel ashamed–it’ll help them act rightly!” they tell me. If feeling or fearing shame causes a person to either repent or avoid sin, then the ends justify the means, I guess. Apparently the damage caused by sin itself may not be enough to dissuade people, and so we must take it upon ourselves to make sure there are consequences.
As one who has struggled with shame and unworthiness on so many levels, this ruffles my feathers. As if already broken people need our extra kick in the shin.
Guilt vs. Shame
In high school, I couldn’t understand why God would want anything to do with me. Looking back, it’s almost silly because in retrospect, I was a really good kid. But I knew every unacceptable thing about me, and I knew that He knew too. I believed the worthiness lie, and I kept God at a distance. It wasn’t until John Burke gave a message at my church about Romans 8:1–There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, that I allowed myself to hope for healing, even for love. He differentiated between guilt and condemnation, and it rescued me from a wicked, spiraling self-loathing. And he continues to rescue me, continues to heal me.
I’ve been reading (and LOVING) Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly. In the book, she contrasts guilt and shame. Her simple differentiation is that guilt says, “I did something bad,” while shame says, “I am bad.”
Here’s an excerpt that I think every church leader should read:
When we apologize for something we’ve done, make amends, or change a behavior that doesn’t align with our values, guilt–not shame–is most often the driving force. We feel guilty when we hold up something we’ve done or failed to do against our values and find they don’t match up. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, but one that’s helpful. The psychological discomfort, something similar to cognitive dissonance, is what motivates meaningful change. Guilt is just as powerful as shame, but its influence is positive, while shame’s is destructive. In fact, in my research I found that shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we can change and do better.
We live in a world where most people still subscribe to the belief that shame is a good tool for keeping people in line. Not only is this wrong but it’s dangerous. Shame is highly correlated with addiction, violence, aggression, depression, eating disorders, and bullying. Researchers don’t find shame correlated with positive outcomes at all–there are no data to support that shame is a helpful compass for good behavior. In fact, shame is much more likely to be the cause of destructive and hurtful behaviors than it is to be the solution.
A Church of Truth and Grace
The church is called, in part, to speak truth which convicts people of sin and helps them to turn toward faith and abundant life.
But when we hold someone’s worthiness hostage, when we question whether they can be redeemed through the healing love of Christ, we do not turn them toward life. We do not EARN our worthiness with our behavior; Christ decided we were worthy. End of story. Christ is saying, “I love you and I covered even this when I died for you.” It is Satan who says, “You’ve blown it. You might as well give in. You are damaged goods, and it’s your own fault. God doesn’t want you now, and He isn’t interested in healing you–you are getting what you deserve.”
We cannot disassociate our teaching around the brutal damage of sin from the healing power of grace just because we are afraid people might sin. If we could, through legalistic morality, avoid sin and destruction, Christ’s death would have been unnecessary. Let’s not spit in the cup that He drank for us.
Let’s tell the truth about sin and brokenness; let’s tell the truth about how healing is an often painful process. But let us never cease to proclaim that we are loved by the ultimate healer. This is the good news of the gospel.