I was recently reading a book about relationships. The book explored how we learn to act in relationships and what actions are learned behaviours that we picked up somewhere along the way. We all get this choice about whether a relationship is worth us unlearning those behaviours that cause the other person pain (and in turn ends up hurting ourselves) or creates an environment that doesn’t feel like safe space. The choice to unlearn behaviours can be really hard and we often discover some really ugly things about ourselves during the process, but I think that’s the difference between relationships that work and are centered around grace and truth, and those that aren’t.
I’m finding that at the root of many learned behaviours is shame. Shame is that feeling that we are not enough, that what we did or who we are is bad, this sense that we will never meet the bar. Guilt often goes hand in hand with shame and I’ve become convinced that many of us are walking around with this deep sense of guilt and shame. Throughout history, the church has been an excellent producer of shame in people. The strategy to make people feel so guilty and ashamed of themselves that they must get “saved”, or the missionaries who compel us to give money by shaming the way we live so we give out of guilt, instead of joy. Guilt turns life into a “have to” instead of a “get to”. Shame makes us hide in dark corners and tells us we have to struggle in silence or else we will not be accepted.
But how did we learn shame? Can you sit and remember that exact moment when it entered your life, when you first felt like you weren’t good enough?
I sat and thought about this for a while and then it came to me and it brought tears with it, suddenly as I relived that moment in my mind, the sense of shame was so real all over again. Growing up, I was always slightly overweight. I blame my grandmother who introduced me to cinnamon buns as a toddler when I was going through a phase of not eating anything, until I met those buns. Needless to say, I’ve always had a little junk in the trunk. My second grade teacher never really seemed to like me, even though I tried everything I could to make her happy. We were doing a math lesson and all I remember is that she decided that she would weigh each one of us in the class and put the number on the board so eventually we could add them up. I froze. I knew I was a bit heavier than some of the kids but more than that; I didn’t want to step on the scale in front of everyone. I didn’t want them to know how much I weighed. I waited until the end hoping she might forget me by accident. She didn’t. I stepped on the scale and I weighed more than most of the kids in my class. Everyone snickered and whispered things. I sat down at my desk and at the age of 7, I felt complete and utter shame. It was that day that I learned to hate my body, a behavior I’m still trying to unlearn 20 years later. It was that year I developed a stomach disorder because I went to school nervous and worried everyday. What would the teacher make me do, what would the kids say? I was 7 years old when I learned what real shame felt like. Not the kind where your Mom scolds you for hitting your brother, the kind that takes root in your soul and reminds you daily that you are not enough. Not skinny enough, not pretty enough, not smart enough, not tall enough, you are not worthy of love or respect or being treated with equality.
There are few of us that walk around with a sense of entitlement but there are many of us walking around with the sense that we aren’t worthy of anything good.
I have too many conversations with people who tell me they don’t feel like it’s safe to bring their junk into the light; they are too ashamed and too afraid of what others will say. And I get that. The church can be the most frightening place to bring any type of sin and shame to the surface.
And that’s not ok.
And no, it shouldn’t be like this.
This is not how God created us to live. This is the stuff he longs to free us from. And so I don’t want to be silent any more and hide in my dark corner because my shame has made me feel so afraid and so alone.
The truth is that I am not alone and neither are you. You don’t have to struggle alone. I absolutely believe that Jesus doesn’t want to throw another stone at you, he wants you to know that you are loved, you are known and you are seen. And it’s ok. There is more life for you so don’t waste it hiding in the dark.
Like I wrote earlier, the choice to unlearn behaviours can be really hard and we often discover some really ugly things about ourselves during the process. Unlearning to cling to shame and guilt is no different. The process can be messy and bring up stuff we’ve tried so hard to hide and it’s a daily struggle. But I want to be a person who offers grace and truth to people and I can’t do that if I haven’t let those things invade my own life and my own relationships. This is the journey of faith and it’s where Jesus longs to meet us. We were never meant to cower in the corner; we were made to live in the light with other people, working our junk out together.
This is the Jesus way and it’s the stuff that makes for the deepest and most meaningful relationships. So let’s dump the shame and live in grace. We just might discover the “more” we’ve been longing for.