In praise of shame.
This is one of those passages that troubles our theology. In part because we do not think it through, and in part because there is a tension between being saved by grace and grace alone and being accountable. To say that we are not accountable because we are saved is to be against the law.
You see, the law is good, and the shame we have when we do not keep the law is also good.
Now, the reformed would say that all that is good is from God. That includes our actions: we cannot do good by ourselves. But to the text
1My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted. 2Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. 3For if those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves. 4All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbor’s work, will become a cause for pride. 5For all must carry their own loads.
6Those who are taught the word must share in all good things with their teacher.
7Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. 8If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. 9So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest-time, if we do not give up. 10So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.
Now Sis wrote this a couple of days ago. Sis is writing here about the pain of looking at the news, at the ugliness of an affair and divorce being scattered everywhere, for it is better to talk about General Patreus having an affair than his testimony that a bunch of CIA operatives in Benghazi were left to die… but the shame, it burns.
I really hate the Petraeus affair, I can’t stand reading it and it’s painful to hear about. But what I really hate is when someone attacks his wife for being too ugly or attacks her husband for being a wimp. I want to scream at them that it’s not their fault! Looking at their affair is kind of like seeing myself through a window from a distance, I watch and I know what they feel like. I see how he was horrible to his wife and when she gets blamed it’s disgraceful and shameful. What could she have done to make their marriage better so he wouldn’t have strayed with a beautiful woman half her age? Is there anything she could have done? To make matters worse, the wife kind of looks like my mother-in-law who is the sweetest, most giving woman alive; and the last thing anyone would tell her is to dress younger, she’s supposed to look like a grandma. But we all know that when a marriage breaks, it’s never just one person’s fault because we are connected, we are one, and when one of us falls we both fall.
So I’ve been absorbing it, and I feel shame. Shame so deep, I’ve been rejected by my husband who knows me best and then I took him back. I think how hard I’ve been holding on to the idea that I’m good, that it couldn’t be my fault, that I don’t deserve shame and I have to wonder why. Could the reason I took him back have more to do with the baby who was in my arms, could it have been because I didn’t want to be called divorced, could it have simply been because my pride refused to fail at something, maybe I was a greedy woman who would take a man back because it made her better off and more secure. Maybe I didn’t have what it took to divorce him. Maybe I’m not good either. Maybe he was right and I’m not worth being faithful to.
It hits me hard, and I crumple inside, like a stick burned to ashes, and the ashes fall to the ground at the slightest touch. But my God holds me in His hand, and He lets me feel and absorb the pain, and when I can do no more except fall, He takes my ashes and blows them and I disappear, He blows them to the farthest reaches of the earth and they become powerful, His breath makes them burn and gives them new life and everything they touch knows the power of God. I am new but I’m not me anymore and no matter how hard I try, I can’t gather my shame back, it’s just spread too far. I can’t explain how He works to people, but I do know that He does amazing things with me when I trust Him. I am free.
God can heal us. Amen. God can take our shame, our tears, our guilt, and shatter them. God can heal us.
But first we need to be healed. We first need to realize that what we do matters. It matters. It is not nothing: it matters. We are not to fall into the gnostic error, and discount our body, our behaviour, our work in this world.
For the law is there, and looking at that we should feel guilt and shame. For we have not kept it. We should pray that our conscience is quickened, not abraded into scar tissue, our sensitivities hardened, so that only the most strong tastes and stimuli move us.
But please, do not lie to yourself. Having a quickened conscience hurts. Living with your failure — every day, in the same way, the same lies, the same secret idols, the daily acceding to lies that our society demands — is shameful.
Yes we are healed, but God then takes us to the desert: we need to learn how to live for him. For he is not mocked. Our choices lead to habits, our habits to character, and character will either lead us towards living for Christ or the world.,