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Turning off the shame alarm

I spoke at UC Davis AACF's winter retreat this past weekend and had a blast. I met some awesome people. I spoke about shame and my messages weren't that clear but fortunately some asked questions. A student named Chris asked a good one. He asked me how I could say is shame is bad if shame helps us know when we have transgressed social norms. It seems to him that shame's purpose is to help us know when we've done something wrong.

I completely agree.

The purpose of shame is like the purpose of the law. 

Romans 7:7  What shall we say, then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, "Do not covet." 

Shame functions like physical pain. It tells us when something is not quite right. You touch a hot stove and your hand experiences searing heat and tells you not to do that again. When you are humiliated or ridiculed for dressing poorly, the pain tells you to never again wear striped sweater vests over a striped shirt.  What makes someone a sociopath is they do not experience shame or guilt. And those with leprosy are physical sociopaths. Without the ability to feel pain, they lose limbs because they have no warning system to tell them to take their hand off the stove.

Every community has norms that shame people when they go outside them. Some are formal but most norms are unspoken. If everyone dresses up for church service, then formality is an unspoken norm. In a college fellowship, if dating among leaders is discouraged because it distracts from spiritual focus, that also may be an unspoken norm. 

We need the alarm, which is a type of law, to tell us what is right. We need it when we're growing up into adults to teach us what are good moral values. I shame my kids in order to help them learn how to treat others and how to change their attitude.

Most Asian American Christians are far from sociopaths because we are creatures of community. That is a good thing because we value the opinions of others and social norms are important especially when we're maturing. However in churchianity, shame is a motivational strategy. Youth groups and Sunday school use shame as a to motivate people towards obedience. A person with a sensitive conscience soon finds his alarm system always going off. He sees the gap between the person he's supposed to be and the evidence of his behavior. Shame hurts. And it's not fun to live in pain. People often walk away from God and the church because they tire of walking into the church and hearing the alarm blare.

Add churchianity to a sensitive conscience and you get a broken alarm system. That's the reality of most Christians' spiritual lives. We live in fear of the alarm. And the system is easily triggered by imagined threats. It's like the over-sensitive car alarms that go off at the slightest vibration.  And we engage in all matter of addictive behaviors - religious activity, drugs, alcohol, porn, etc. to salve the pain of the incessant blaring.

Galatians 5:18  But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.

In Christ, we don't need the warning system any more. We have the Spirit of God. As we are led by the Spirit, we bear fruit. We don't need shame to tell us what is right and wrong because we are already inclined to do it because of the Spirit. If we do feel pangs of shame or guilt, we trust His Spirit to reveal areas of our life where we have sinned and we confess. But we don't live by the warning system and most of all, we don't live in fear of the warning system. 

As a follower of Jesus, if you experience shame (and the warning system is part of the flesh), it is a prompt to ask the Spirit to search your heart and examine if there's sin going on. If there is, confess it. If there isn't, continue to walk in boldness, courage, and confidence. Regardless, shame is always a prompt to come before the Father and receive His acceptance, grace, and mercy. Because His son took on shame on our behalf and set us free to live for Him by His Spirit. And regardless, we are to think of shame lightly - to scorn it because of the one who scorned it on our behalf.

Hebrews 12:2  Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.


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