We’re all familiar with pain in various forms; the pain of rejection, the pain of hitting your physical, financial, academic, or emotional limits, the pain of worthlessness, the pain of sin, the pain of scarcity, the pain of abuse, the pain of abandonment. However, we’re often afraid to look underneath the pain to the messages that we may receive and believe. Pain brings the potential to believe messages that form our identity. From the above list we may believe messages like, “I’m not cool/smart/holy enough to fit in, I’m not strong/rich/educated enough, I’m not stable enough, I’m not worth enough, I’m not righteous enough, I don’t have enough, I’m not worth enough for this person to love me. In a nutshell… I..am not….enough. This is the core message of shame.
Shame is different than guilt. Guilt says, “I’ve sinned, I’ve done something wrong”. The healthy response to the emotion of guilt is repentance. Shame says, “there’s something wrong with me”. It attacks identity, personhood, and flies in the face of the truth of who we are in Christ. It attacks past mistakes, present limits, and hypothetical futures. It fosters regret, hopelessness, discontentment, compulsive fixing, burnout, and depression. Shame is everywhere. It was present in Eden at the fall. It was a core part of the lies Adam and Eve believed about themselves. “Am I really loved? Does God have my best in mind? Am I enough as a human?” In their minds, the answers to these questions were “no”. Thus they sought to “be like God” because being a dependent human wasn’t enough. Shame often fosters a pride in our hearts that arrogantly hangs onto the lies of Satan instead of submitting to the truth about our belovedness, purpose, and identity in Christ. This leads to all kinds of “old self” living that rejects the identity God has bestowed on us as image-bearers. Once we agree with the lies, we make a vow to never feel the pain again. We vow to get love, acceptance, safety, holiness, and control of our lives in our own strength.
So what do we do with this mess of shame that has been with us since the fall? First we have to identify the shame, to bring it into the light (Eph 5:11). This must be done in community and before God. Giving voice to speak the unspeakable things we hate about ourselves or things we’ve done is a key part of healing and growth. Shame thrives in the dark, and if we don’t know our enemy we can’t fight.
Fighting is the second step, to “resist the devil and he will flee” (James 4:7). This cannot look like a negotiation talk. “If I do better will you leave me alone, I know I’m better than this, I can fix this”. That is not resisting. When Jesus’ identity and purpose were questioned by his friend who spoke the lies of the enemy, he didn’t negotiate. After Peter’s suggestion that he need not die, Jesus said “Get behind me Satan!” (Matt 16:23). Even going to the shameful cross, Jesus “despised the shame” and defeated it because of the “joy set before him”(Heb 12:2). Shame tried to win, but Jesus knew who he was, what he came to do, and did it. He crushed the powers at be, “putting them to open shame, and triumphing over them at the cross” (Col 2:15). We can’t argue with a lie. We must send it back to where it came from, and we’re promised to have the power to do so. Like Jesus cleansing his Father’s house, we must direct righteous anger at lies, for we “are powerful through God for the demolition of strongholds. We demolish arguments and every proud thing that is raised up against the knowledge of God, and we take every thought captive to obey Christ (2 Cor 10:4-5).” We cannot continue to entertain both lies and truth in the temple of the Holy Spirit.
After resisting the devil, the next thing James calls us to in 4:8 is to “draw near to God, and he will draw near to you”. As we resist being filled with lies, we must also come home to God and be filled with the truth of who we are. As we resist the lies and peel back the layers, pain will be exposed again. We will be reminded of the source of those lies, and we will be called to believe them again to cope with the pain. But this time we can bring the limits, the losses, the pain, the sin, and the failures to the One who actually has power to do something about it. You see, our shameful messages often try to shame us into “being better”, or to “just do something about it”. Instead they crush us when we fail in our own strength. We are then left even worse off, and the messages get stronger in a never-ending cycle. Instead of covering ourselves in the fig leaves of shame, we can come to God in vulnerability for healing and live into the true identity he has bestowed on us. In that place of being sustained and held by God in the midst of failure, rejection, sin, limitations, and pain, the thing we actually want – namely change – can happen as we surrender to God’s action within. The process is just going to look a lot different than our shameful messages want it to. It looks like the path of humility, of surrender, of embracing limits and losses, letting go of the things we demand of ourselves, and clinging to Christ. As we humble ourselves before the Lord, he will exalt us (James 4:10).