State Shame versus Trait Shame
The temporary state of feeling shame when we realize that we have lost standing in someone’s eyes because we have done something wrong can be redemptive. As the theologian Lewis Smedes writes, “A healthy sense of shame is perhaps the surest sign of our divine origin and our human dignity. When we feel this sense of shame, we are feeling a nudge from our true selves.”1
But feeling shame as a more permanent trait—a sense that we are fundamentally flawed and are unworthy and unlovable — is toxic and destructive.
Healthy shame can function like a proximity sensor on a car, signaling that we have veered off in the wrong direction so we can steer back toward our divine origin. In the beginning we were made in the image of God, and before “original sin” we experienced original glory.
If shame tells us that we are not living the way we were designed to live, then before sin came into the world, shame was not an emotion human beings experienced. According to Genesis, Adam and Even existed in the garden of Eden naked and without shame. They lived not only physically naked in each other’s presence, but they were also psychologically and spiritually open and free with each other — a condition we’ve yearned for ever since.
But then sin and shame entered their story.
The very phrasing that Adam and Eve were both naked and felt no shame suggests that this emotion was about to enter their world. The biblical author could have written, “they were naked and happy,” or “they were naked and at home with themselves and each other.”2
Then Satan enters the garden of Eden and approaches Eve and Adam in the form of a serpent. When we hear the word “serpent,” we might imagine a hideous creature slithering on its belly. But according to some biblical scholars, before the serpent was cursed, it may well have been the most dazzlingly beautiful creature in the garden.
Scripture tells us that Satan was once an angel of light, but one who apparently didn’t feel like he was enough, so he aspired to be equal to God. This one who feels like he’s not enough approaches Adam and Eve and insinuates that they are not enough either. He whispers, “You could be so much more if you eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. You will be just like God, knowing good from evil. You will be fulfilled and free!”
The serpent suggests that by forbidding them to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, God doesn’t have their best interests at heart — and literally and figuratively, Adam and Eve bite.
But do they become like God? Fulfilled and free? A better version of themselves?
No — immediately, they sense that something has been taken from them, and they experience a feeling they have never known before: shame. Their instinct is to hide. So they reach for fig leaves to cover themselves (Genesis 3:7). When we turn away from our creator — the source of all beauty, love, and joy — instead of feeling that we are more, we feel that we are less. And
even as we are turning away, we are longing to experience connection and belonging, to find someone who, despite our shame, will love us and say, “I am here, and I am not going anywhere.”
Like Adam and Eve, shame makes us feel vulnerable and exposed, and so we avert our gaze, looking down and away, or curl in on ourselves, making ourselves small. When we feel this way — whether at a conscious or unconscious level — we frantically try to do something to cover ourselves so we don’t have to feel the pain of our shame.
Some of us may overwork as a way of covering our sense of deficiency. While I was in my twenties, I worked in the corporate world of Tokyo. My workday went from seven in the morning until just after eleven at night (including the commute time). In the shame and honor culture of Japan, “seven-eleven” men work long hours not only out of loyalty to the company but also to be seen by others as dutiful and hard-working.
Some of us might use sports as a way to cover ourselves. Growing up, I loved sports, especially informal games of hockey or football in the cul-de-sac in front of our home. But during high school, I began forming my identity around sports. I began to play sports as a way to earn respect and to impress girls who would otherwise not notice me.
Others might pursue knowledge and education as a kind of covering, a fig leaf to mask the nagging sense of not being enough. I have a brilliant and well-educated friend who has earned degrees from several prestigious schools and is a widely respected leader in his field. But in junior high, he was bullied because he wasn’t athletic, and sports were valued above all else. In the schoolyard, he hid from his peers and soothed himself by silently repeating, “I’m smarter than you. I’m smarter than you. I’m smarter than you.”
We can also use our ministry involvements to cover over our sense of inadequacy. Though I would love to say I have always engaged in my pastoral ministry solely for the glory of God and the good of others, if I am honest, I have to admit that a part of me has wanted to succeed in my vocation as a way to prove my worthiness.
We can also become religiously compulsive and obsessively conscientious as a way of masking our feelings of not being enough. Or we might cultivate a sculpted body, curate our image through social media, or try to raise accomplished children to cover up our inner shame.
- All these psychological fig leaves of being more athletic or musical, smarter or better educated, thinner or beefier, higher on the ladder of our profession, amassing money or travel experiences, or being morally upright may make us feel temporarily better, but none of them will bring us the lasting, confident contentment we are seeking.
Trappist monk Thomas Merton observed that we try to clothe our invisible, nonexistent self in an attempt to make our invisible self more objectively real.3 We wrap achievements, novel experiences, pleasures, and material possessions around ourselves like bandages, believing that these coverings will make our invisible selves more visible.4
Merton described this self that we are trying to create by what we do, have, or accomplish as our false self.5
The False Self
Living for achievement, approval, pleasure, and material security will ultimately fail to cover and protect us. All these coverings are mere fig leaves that provide a very temporary and flimsy garment.
I have a friend who is a gifted actor, who can step into a variety of personas not only on a movie set but also in real-life interviews and social situations. He can play a brash, über-confident man or a deferential and solicitous one, a charming flirt or a shy and nervous misfit. But when we project a false self, the “self” that others love is not really us.
Furthermore, when we live from our constructed false self, we cannot truly experience the love of God, for as Thomas Merton contends, God does not know (and therefore cannot love) our false self. Merton goes on to say that to be unknown by God gives us way too much privacy!6
Coming Home to Our True Self
So how do we return to our true self? How do we recover our primal innocence of being “naked and without shame” before God? How can we exhibit the best qualities of a healthy and free child who has not yet learned to wear the cumbersome raincoat of shame, which repels the grace of God?7
In the words of a friend,
how can “we become who we were before the world told us who we had to be”?
How can we become more vulnerable and open, living from the deep center of our true selves rather than a projected image that will impress others or ourselves?
Where we can say with the poet May Sarton:
Now I become myself.
It’s taken Time, many years and places;
I have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other people’s faces...
Now I become myself.8
How can we begin to live from our true self so we can truly experience the love of God, which will cover us with a lasting garment that protects us from the storms of life?
When we realize we have lost our keys, wallet, or something precious or important, we retrace our steps to the place we last remember having the lost item. We have all lost the innocent sense of being naked and unashamed, uninhibited and free, living from our deep center, our true self. So let us go back to where we last experienced that sense of uncovered vulnerability.
At the beginning of the biblical story, humans walked with God without shame in Eden in the cool of the day, enjoying true intimacy with the Creator.
- We, too, can overcome our sense of shame as we walk with God and enjoy intimacy with our Maker.
When the light of God’s love shines into our lives, the diamond of our true self will be illuminated, and we will grow more beautiful and vulnerable, open and free. As we live in the light of this divine love, we will be freed of the shame that binds us.
Our deepest happiness will not come from pursuing achievement, pleasure, or material security, but from knowing and living in divine love. This love isn’t something we achieve but is a gift that we receive. It is not something we can create; it is conferred on us by another.
- Lewis B. Smedes, Shame and Grace: Healing the Shame We Don’t Deserve (Lexington: Lexington Accessible Textbook Service, 2006), 32.
- Curt Thompson, The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe about Ourselves (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 99.
- Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 34–35.
- Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 34–35.
- Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 34–35.
- Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 34. Shame is not hardwired into us, but children as young as fifteen months can learn to feel shame.
- May Sarton, “Now I Become Myself,” in Collected Poems, 1930– 1973 (New York: Norton, 1974), 156, used with permission. The poem was brought to my attention in Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000), 9.
Excerpted with permission from Now I Become Myself by Ken Shigematsu, copyright Ken Shigematsu.
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Do you have that sense of shame like it's become a permanent trait? Do you feel fundamentally flawed and are unworthy and unlovable? That's not God. That is toxic and destructive shame. Run to Jesus! We can kick toxic shame to the curb as we walk with Jesus and enjoy intimacy with our Maker. ~ Devotionals Daily