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From Shame to Grace

shame and grace

“Don’t you think the things people are most ashamed of are things they can’t help?”

-C.S. Lewis

I learned an important distinction this past week between the words ‘shame’ and ‘guilt.’ I would have told you they were vaguely similar before this and probably used them interchangeably without realizing it.

Guilt says: “I did something awful.”

Shame says: “I am awful.”

We feel guilt when we have violated a norm, a law, something outside of us that we subscribe to and realize that we have committed the wrong. It is a feeling of “I wasn’t supposed to do that...I did...now I’m feeling the weight/consequences of that decision.”

We feel shame when we have internalized these feelings of guilt and made the assumption that it reveals a deeper understanding of who we are fundamentally. We tell ourselves “you did ____ because you are _____.”

The Cycle of Shame

Here’s the problem for us as Christians: we are awful. We intellectually know that. We occasionally, actually, know it. I’ve heard much wiser Christians explain that the older they get in life, the more they see the sin in them grow bigger. Without a proper understanding of our sin, the grace of the cross makes no sense.

But we cannot handle the tension of living between two kingdoms. We’re either all awful...or we’re all good. This all or nothing thinking creates a cycle. We’re trying to live by standards that are no longer measuring us because of the work of Christ. When we vacillate between these extremes, our hearts anxiously wait for that feeling of comfort like an addict - ok, maybe you are bad, but you just did some really good things so it balances out! Relief.

And we live in these shame cycles everyday. You feel shame because you believe you are bad...unlovable...unworthy...terrible... and when you have this confirmed by someone else, or by failing in that same sin you seem to indulge in week after week - it further entrenches your belief: “See...I told you! You ARE terrible...look what you just did…”

The Beauty of Grace

The problem with this thinking should be obvious to us, but every last one of us to some degree is stuck in this cycle. This leaves zero room for grace. Grace says “You are valued and loved.” Grace says “You are no longer that old person...you are a new person.” Grace says “You have a new identity, one that’s outside of yourself.” Grace says “Come as you are.”

This isn’t positive psychology. It’s the reality of the cross. Churches are full of Christians living as if the old covenant is still in effect: “If I just try a little harder...if I just sacrifice more...if I just pay for those sins I committed...then I’ll feel more like I can be loved by Christ.”

And we continue in the cycle.

We seek that feeling of being worthy of Christ’s love forgetting that the requirement is not to show up with our best...but to show up bruised, battered, and broken. Shame tells us we will always be bruised, battered, and broken, BUT if we try hard enough we can hide those scars. Shame says “Christ doesn’t want those scars….why do you have them? Oh right...it’s because you were lazy...you weren’t trying hard enough…”

But the beauty of grace is manifested in a risen Christ who still had the scars of his death. The economy of the cross sees brokenness not as something to be ashamed of - but rather as a prerequisite for growth. Shame wants you to stay stuck. Shame is telling you to clean up your act before coming anywhere near the cross. Grace is beckoning you to come. Grace is telling you that you no longer have to listen to the shame that is holding you back. There is freedom in Christ who ‘...endured the cross, scorning its shame…’ There is freedom in grace. How have you let shame influence how you speak and act around others this week?