Genes 3: 8 Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. 9 But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?” He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.” 11 And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”12 The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” 13 Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” 14 So the Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, “Cursed are you above all livestock and all wild animals! You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life. 15 And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring[a] and hers; he will crush your head,
and you will strike his heel.”
A friend of mine once told his 10 year-old misbehaving son, “You should be ashamed of yourself.” Without skipping a beat, his son replied, “Well, Dad, I’m not.” And almost as quickly, Dad replied, “Good for you; I’m glad you aren’t.”
He still didn’t feel right about his son’s conduct. I don’t know what it was, but that’s not the point. He didn’t want his son to feel good about it, either. He wanted him to have a strong, healthy sense of right and wrong that would prod him with guilt, or remorse, or regret or repentance or whatever else we might want to call it, so as to recognize and repair anything he might break, like trust or a relationship, and then do something constructive about it. But he didn’t want his son to feel bad about himself.
That exchange between father and son sounded right to me, too, but it was only after I began to understand something about shame, that I began to understand why. And now I can agree wholeheartedly with what the Old Testament scholar, Claus Westermann, said about the Genesis 3 story that the middle schoolers just acted. Westermann said that Genesis 3 is about our fall into shame, as well as into sin. Whether you take that story literally or not, it is the human story; even my story.
Here are the reasons why I agree with Dr. Westermann. You can write them down if you like under the first point in the sermon outline: how shame differs from a healthy conscience. First of all, a healthy conscience judges actions, while shame judges persons. I believe that Jesus is saying not to judge persons, when he says, “Judge not, lest you also be judged.” For whenever we judge persons, we’re seating ourselves upon God’s throne. But we can’t avoid judging actions, choices and conduct; telling us not to judge requires that we judge judging.
Jesus also made this distinction when he was presented with the woman caught in adultery. He said, “Neither do I condemn you.” But he did condemn the behavior when he said, “Go and sin no more.” He critiqued the Pharisees’ behavior as well when he said, “Let those of you without sin cast the first stone.”
The second difference between shame and a healthy conscience is that conscience takes God for its reference point, while shame is about comparing people to each other. When we ask, “What does God think about these choices? and compare our behavior to God’s holy nature and standards, we know there is room to grow. But we can also avail ourselves of God’s mercy, to receive pardon, and to help us grow. Shame, by contrast, asks, “What do other people think of me? How do I rate, especially in comparison to other people??” And whenever we ask, “How do I rate?” that’s all we get: irate.
Which leads to a third difference between conscience and shame: Shame leads to hiding, while a true, healthy conscience leads us to confess and come clean. And that’s one reason why I think that today’s reading from Genesis is about shame. Hiding is what we find Adam and Eve doing when God comes into the garden, in the cool of the day, to enjoy fellowship with them. Having just disobeyed God, they could have let their consciences prod them to come forward and say something like, “You know that fruit we weren’t supposed to eat, the one that tastes like sour apples? You’re right, we shouldn’t have touched it. Oh, the fruit itself didn’t do much of anything; it’s the realization that we fell for the lies of some snake in the grass; and just knowing that we distrusted and disobeyed you changed everything, for the worse, starting with ourselves. We’re sorry. Is there some way we can start again?” Maybe, by coming clean like that, they could have started over from square one. We can. Instead, they are hiding from God, each other and themselves. That’s what shame does.
During one of the many persecutions of Jews in Czarist Russia, a police officer was interrogating a Jewish rabbi. The rabbi was about to be sent to a labor camp in Siberia. But the officer wanted him to go there broken in spirit and without his faith. So he began ridiculing his Bible. “If your God is all-knowing, then why does he ask Adam and Eve, when he comes into the garden, ‘Where are you?’ Why does your all-knowing God need to ask a stupid question like that? What sense does that make?”
To which the rabbi replied, calmly, “Do you mean to tell me, Sir, that you don’t hear the Most High asking you that very question even now?”
“Where are you?” is God’s very first question in the Bible. And he hasn’t stopped asking that question of us since. Just as shame drove Adam and Eve into hiding, from God, themselves and each other, so it does to us. Not only is that a shame, that is shame. We find many ways to hide our true selves from God, ourselves and each other, including religious ones, like gathering for church to look good, rather than because of how much we need God and each other.
One common way of hiding comes after God’s next question, which is, “What have you done?” Shaming and shameful is Adam’s response to God’s question: “That woman, that you gave me, she gave me the fruit and I ate.” That’s another way in which we hide our true selves from God, ourselves and each other: by fixating on others, especially negatively, judgmentally, so that we feel better about ourselves by comparison.
That’s the fourth difference between a healthy conscience and shame. While our consciences can motivate us to take responsibility for what we have done, shame moves us to assign blame, to cast it upon others, and so take the spotlight off ourselves, and off our slipping fig leaves, like Adam did to Eve. Sometimes, I wonder if that is the fall of Creation into bondage, not just when Adam disobeyed, but when he refused to take responsibility and instead, cast the blame on Eve. I wonder if that is why Paul would write in Romans 6 that in Adam we fell, not Eve, even though it was Eve who first tasted the forbidden fruit.
Any sin can be forgiven, if forgiveness is sought. But to cast blame on someone else is to say, “Hey, I don’t even want forgiveness, because I don’t need it; someone else is at fault; let them ask for it.”
Fifthly, a healthy conscience moves and empowers us to take responsibility for future actions, to take steps to re-earn trust, restore the relationship, to make restitution, if possible, and to amend our ways. Shame, by contrast, paralyzes us; it can even bond us and bind us to the very actions and personal characteristics we feel shame about. For example, one thing that often provokes feelings of shame in us is the experience of powerlessness, especially, having less power than what others have over us. When someone has been abused sexually, verbally or physically, or has experienced trauma, or political oppression, or economic exploitation, the victims may feel shame, for having been unable to prevent the abuse, or to stop it or fix it.
That’s a sixth thing that distinguishes conscience from shame: the guilt of a faithfully functioning conscience comes from what we do; shame can come from what was done to us. Such shame is undeserved, of course. It’s the bully, the oppressor, the abuser or the exploiter who should be feeling the pain of a guilty conscience, not the victim. But who expected shame to be logical, the way conscience is? We want the world to make sense, so it’s hard not to believe the abuser, and The Accuser, when they say, “You must have deserved it.” Otherwise, the abuse doesn’t make sense, and that’s scary, too.
I remember one woman at the first church I served busily working away one day on her hands and knees, edging the grass around the walkway to the sanctuary door. When I thanked her for it, she said, “I want us to be able finally to hold our heads up in this community.”
Now, ragged edges on my lawn leans, or how many colors there are in it, don’t push my shame buttons. Our neighbors might wish they did. But this woman was of the first generation born after World War I, when Mennonites were shamed, mocked and bullied for speaking German, all the more for being pacifists.
She also vividly described to me once how their first church building had burned down some years before, because some neighborhood boys snuck in and played with matches. Everyone knew who they were, but being from a prominent, wealthy family, nothing was done about it. Was a perfectly-edged church lawn her way of alleviating the shame of powerlessness and low status?
That’s why so many physical and sexual abusers of children were themselves physically or sexually abused in childhood. Abusing someone else may bring to the abuser a rush of feeling powerful that brings momentary relief from feelings of shame. But then comes even more shame for having done the same thing to someone else that was done to them, a shame that builds up, until the only way they know how to relieve it is by doing the same thing again. There you have a self-perpetuating cycle of shame. Recovering substance addicts have told me the same thing: that often they drank or shot up to get relief from their shame of drinking so much and shooting up.
Which means that whenever we shame people with rejection, labelling, fear and hostility for something they have done, or some way they act, we are not really encouraging the opposite behavior, much as we’d like to think so. Actually, we are doing more to help bond them with it, and bind them to it.
Lastly, the work of a healthy conscience has a short shelf life; for only as long as it’s needed. As Patty Loveless sang in her Country Western song, “You Can Feel Bad If It Makes You Feel Better,” but heaven doesn’t give out any brownie points for punishing ourselves with the pain of guilt after we have discharged our responsibility to come clean and make amends. But shame wants to hold on and keep inflicting such pain, even, to intensify it, in a blasphemous attempt to sit upon God’s Great White Throne.
Here again are the ways that shame differs from having a healthy conscience: 1) shame points at the person, while conscience focuses on the conduct; 2) a healthy conscience takes God, God’s holiness and God’s mercy as its reference point, while shame fixates on how we look to others; 3) Conscience moves us toward disclosure and coming clean, while shame is about hiding from God, ourselves and each other; 4) Conscience leads us to take personal responsibility for past actions, while shame casts blame on others; 5) Conscience guides and empowers us to take personal responsibility for a better future, while shame binds us to an enduring and ensnaring cycle of the same actions, as has happened to all of Adam and Eve’s descendants; 6) while conscience responds to what we do, or fail to do, shame can even come from what was done to us, and finally, 7) conscience can bother us for a moment until we resolve it, while shame is the gift that keeps on giving and won’t stop, like something set in motion by the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. That’s why I agree with Claus Westermann, that Genesis 3 is not just about our fall into sin, but into shame, and its bondage. And that’s why we need a Savior.
As for the second point, What the Bible says and does about shame, some people would say that church and religion are the problem; you’ll feel ever much less shame once you forget about God. And sometimes, sadly, the church is like an army that shoots its wounded. But then you only have to watch TV commercials to see how our economy runs on shame, and how advertising constantly tries to instill in us the fear that we are not young enough, thin enough, up-to-date enough in dress, lingo and the cars we drive, to be loved and loveable enough. On Twitter and other social media you can witness the drumbeat of “digilantee-ism.” when perfect strangers latch onto something someone tweeted, give it the worst possible spin, and then forward their shaming, blaming, ridiculing responses to the world, into an ever-widening network.
A woman recently got off a flight in Johannesburg, South Africa, to find a large crowd of strangers waiting for her and jeering at her because of something she had tweeted when she boarded the flight. It went viral, and every Tom, Dick and Harry gleefully seized their chance to be her judge, jury and executioner. Yes, we have problems in the church separating our high standards and holy aspirations from shaming and blaming people. But the world has made no commitment to that which is at the center of our gospel: mercy.
God’s question still rings down through the generations to every one of us: “Where are you?” But the question is a cry of care and concern, like a mother looking for a lost child, and not an accusation. In the Hebrew Bible, the sacrifices and ceremonies we find so strange today were dramatic, visible, blood red ways of posing that question, “Where are you?” by the One who lends us life. All that stuff about sacrificing and sprinkling blood to cleanse a person, or a house, or even a city if a dead body was found nearby, was a way of managing shame, and reducing it. And they did all this with the very substance that reminds us of our own fragility and dependence—blood—and with the main coin and currency they had at hand, and which God provided: livestock and grain. In fact, the first blood sacrifice for shame was provided by God, when he covered Adam and Eve with animal skins.
Thirty-five centuries later, we’re not all that different from Bronze Age Israelites. Deep down we feel the limits to our power, and our indebtedness for the gift of life itself. We want to do right, and yet, our unruly and unreliable selves keep messing with our best intentions. If we are blessed with much, we may also feel bad about those who have less. So we give to this cause or that, or help with this ministry or that. But even that confronts us with the limits of our powers, and our never 100% pure motives. We may for a while fake ourselves and others out with perfectionism, having the perfect lawn, the perfect house, the perfect car and kids and wardrobe, the perfect physique, but our fig leaves always find ways to slip and fall. Shame, lurking just under the surface, always finds ways to break through.
But those Old Testament sacrifices, ceremonies and rituals were pointing ahead to Someone else who would offer the perfect sacrifice, once and for all. That someone is, of course, Jesus. You knew that, right? The Jesus who bore the sins of the world. Or should we say, the shame of the world? For when we read the Gospel accounts of Christ’s trial, torture and crucifixion, little is actually said about the physical details of his sufferings. The Gospel writers didn’t have to tell people all the gory detail; crucifixions were daily events. Instead, in the Passion accounts, they focus most on the abandonment, the betrayal, the shaming, blaming, mockery, humiliation, bullying, rejection and the deliberate distortion of justice from at least three show trials with pre-determined verdicts that Jesus suffered. In fact, the staged and systematic shaming of Christ, from his arrest to his death, is the longest single section of each of the four gospels, as if to say, “As a disciple of Jesus, you too could face this same thing; you need to know how Jesus faced it.” The cross itself was the First Century imperial lynching tree, meant to silence and to paralyze, with shame, not only the victim on the cross, but any and all who witnessed it, especially any who cared about the victim and what he stood for.
Which brings me to the third question in the outline: How do we overcome the paralyzing power of shame to bind us to the very things for which we often feel shame? We don’t. We can’t. Not on our own. We are no match for shame’s power and subtlety. But someone else took on our shame and overcame it with us and for us, through the Cross, through an empty tomb and by his ascension to the throne of highest honor in the universe. And there he is leading us, so that we might share his honor, forever. His grace and goodness are ever present and always available, and more than sufficient, to liberate us also from bondage to shame, and anything we feel shame about.
We can cooperate with Christ’s shame-busting work by imagining our shame being up there with Christ on his cross, so that whenever we feel any shame, or experience any shaming, we can say, “Yes, of course I know I fall short. But ours is a God of second chances, and shame will only keep me from availing myself of them. Someone else has taken the shame from me and for me; it’s over.”
That should allow us to do another thing, which is to realize and accept that whatever we feel ashamed of or afraid about in ourselves, God knew it long before we ever did. God knows us better than we know ourselves. Yet God is not shaming us for it. We do that to ourselves and each other, with help from that snake-in-the-grass, The Accuser of the Brethren. So there’s no point in putting on fig leaves and hiding from God, because of the next thing we must remember: that the God who knows us better than we know ourselves also loves us better than we can ever love ourselves. So there’s nothing to fear from opening up our real selves to God and to caring, trustworthy friends. In fact, there is everything to gain, because it is only love, and God’s love, that releases us from shame, and which releases us from the things for which we might feel shame.
The Evil One, the Accuser, would tell us that shame and shaming will keep evil and temptation in check. With enough blame and shame and disgust and disapproval, with enough rules, regulations and rejection, we think we can keep evil in check. But shaming does not drive evil away; it only drives it underground. Then it comes up in different forms, including religious ones. Like when the Pharisees brought the woman caught in adultery to Jesus. The law against adultery is good, but their intentions were evil: to ensnare and to shame Jesus.
But Paul wrote, “The goodness of God leads us to repentance,” for it is only love that gives us the will and the wherewithal to grow in true goodness and godliness. Shame may hold some impulses in check, for a while, but only love draws us outward and upward toward God, who does infinitely more that shame ever could to help us and to heal us. That’s the wisdom of the old song, “Love Lifted Me….When nothing else could help,” like rules and regulations and shaming and blaming and rejection and better education and progress and political actions committees of the left or right…. “love lifted me.”
If we get that down, that makes it easier to do the next thing: to cease, desist and disengage from the world’s marketplace of shame and honor. To the world, honor and shame are a zero sum game in which my honor can only come at the expense of someone else’s honor. That leads to frenzied, fearful activities to put other people down or climb over each other’s heads. In the end, everybody loses, because someone is always looking to be the next king of the hill, status-wise.
There’s no escaping the need for honor and worth. God made us in honor, and for honor. But there’s only one source of secure and everlasting honor: God. If we invest our honor in God, and make God’s honor the source of our honor, then three things will happen: 1) we’ll live and love in ways that honor God; 2) we’ll be as secure and safe as is God’s honor; and 3) God will give us the honor we need, and that he promises. As God said through the Prophet Samuel to King Saul, “Whoever honors me will I honor.” It’s always good and right to be recognized for good work, like what our graduating seniors have done. But let’s not get hooked on the world’s highly-rigged marketplace of honor and shame and instead, invest ourselves in honoring God, like what we’re doing here in worship.
Lastly, though, be prepared to receive and resist shaming. We’ll never be beyond shame’s reach this side of the New Jerusalem. In fact, the freer we become from worldly human conventions of shame and honor, the more we should expect to have shame coming at us from people, like hailstones in a Kansas thunderstorm. That’s why his persecutors tried to shame Jesus, because he lived so shamelessly, for his Father’s honor.
If such a life, free of shame, sounds strange and unfamiliar, it is, I admit. But we have the perfect example of the shame-free life, which is the last question in the outline, What does life without shame look like? It looks like Jesus. His shame-free life was a life of reverence, not rebellion nor reaction, a life of conscience, conviction, sometimes confrontation, one so focused on honoring his Heavenly Father that that he was free from the shackles of shame. About him we read that “for the joy set before him, he endured the cross, despising its shame.” That joy is you and I, and all who would share his honor, seated now at Gods right hand as Lord and heir of God’s kingdom.
May we all grow in freedom, to know and to live the shame-free life of Jesus.