What Shame Does
In a moment pregnant with sorrow and hope, dignity and depravity, and suffering and glory, a grieving mother stood before the mourners who had gathered to honor a man’s life and spoke the words, “Shame killed my son, Luke. Shame kept him quiet, living in dark secrets with terrible regrets, surrounded by friends, but so very alone.” After surveying the faces of those gathered and silently recognizing those she knew who also had struggled with addiction, she admonished them. “Do not let shame win. The evil one has filled his quill with shame, disconnection, secrets, and sorrow and is writing his story of darkness. God’s story of light with redemption, hope, community, truth, and glory is written in His own blood.”
Luke Johnson took his own life last year at the end of a protracted battle with addiction and shame. Although he was a young man who grew up in a Christian home and had professed faith in Christ, he had lost all hope. He did not grasp the truth that the gospel of grace replaced his shame-based identity with an identity in Christ. Luke’s story is narrated by the voice of shame, in stark contrast to the gospel of Luke, which is peppered with stories in which shame is trumped by glory. In the gospel according to Luke Johnson, the evil one hijacked the story of glory and shaded it with shame. A person engulfed in shame will focus on self; they will isolate and blame others for their situation. Shame ultimately creates a relational style of avoidance. We want to avoid being found out, to prevent our darkest places from being discovered.
This is not only Luke Johnson’s story, because shame is a part of everyone’s story. Shame writes itself into the stories of our lives. Shame is made manifest by isolation, self-protection, self-hatred, self-destruction, self-preservation, and the illusion of control. The first dynamic is isolation, which is the relational stance of shame.
In spite of Luke’s popularity and friends, he created a world that did not know him, a world of isolation. The sin of shame has a way of distancing us from others. A simple way to define sin is to say that it separates us, most profoundly, from God; from ourselves; from others; and finally, from creation. A shame-based person will isolate themself from people who are healthy, and though they will not share their own secrets, they will be drawn into relationships with other shame-based people. They will avoid vulnerability and move toward cynicism in their relationships. The shame-based individual’s relationships are often shallow, broken, and focused on external common behaviors (gaming, music, cars) as opposed to shared emotional experiences. In order to create a stance of isolation, the energy that maintains that stance is self-protection.
If one feels as though they are about to be “found out,” they become gripped with fear. Good relationships demand vulnerability; the commitment to self-protection kills vulnerability. Much like a soldier behind enemy lines, the shame-based individual is always scanning and assessing the environment for any signs of potential exposure. Healthy boundaries are important, especially in new relationships, but relationships can only grow as deeper risks are taken to develop kinship. Shame prevents these risks from being taken. As isolation and self-protection increase, positive relationships decrease. The absence of encouraging influences and healthy perspectives propel growing self-hatred.
The motivation beneath all of the negative relational strategies is self-hatred. The level of shame that has entered into the story of one’s life correlates with the level of self-hate that is experienced. Shame-based people will rage at themselves and be offended at the thought of grace. They often live in a state of ambiguity, having both an odd sense of entitlement and a feeling of unworthiness. There is a demand for relief, but at the same time there is sabotage when it is offered. They often demand a great deal of attention while simultaneously sabotaging this attention because they feel unworthy. They are in a constant dance with the lie of inevitability: “I am a disgusting person; it is just a matter of time before everyone knows the truth of who I am.”
Satan is referred to as the “accuser of the brethren,” and he whispers and reminds us that our darkest moments will be revealed. In Jeremiah, God’s people are thirsty and in the desert. In Jeremiah 2:13, He states that they have committed two sins. The first sin is that they have turned their backs on God, the source of living water, and the second is that they have “hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water”; that is, they have stubbornly crafted their own creative ways to satisfy their thirst. It is the accuser who causes us to feel disgust for our thirst rather than being repentant for our rebellion.
God uses powerful imagery in Scripture to describe us as hungry, thirsty, in prison, in bondage, and enslaved. These descriptors are used to describe us when we are not in relationship with Him. Shame invites us to hate our thirsty, hungry desires for connection and redemption and makes us hate even the prospect of hope. Shame’s most insidious characteristic, though, is its ability to cause people to consider the erroneous belief that at their core, they are defectively designed. It is self-hate that told Luke that there was no way out and that he was too disgusting and too far gone for redemption. His “broken cisterns that can hold no water” eventually ran dry, leaving him to believe that he was alone and beyond redemption.
Self-hate gives way to desperate and self-destructive behaviors. Shame correlates with destructive behavior. Research shows a high correlation between shame and participation in bullying, aggression, and suicide. For Luke, the destructive behavior was addiction; in others, it could be soul-numbing activities. Shame operates as a filter and an amplifier. It filters out the dignity that is part of being an image-bearer of God and amplifies our depravity. Some may live a fear-based life and never take appropriate risks. The desperate soul longs to be numbed.
The fear of exposure when one is attempting to preserve the remaining shreds of dignity becomes profound. The amount of energy required to hide the growing struggle is immense. Living gives way to surviving; relating gives way to self-preservation. It is impossible to become other-focused or God-focused when one is survival-focused. In this heightened survival state, anxiety increases, there is an increased probability of depression, and we begin to hold and protect dark secrets of who we think we are, of what we have done, and in some cases, what has been done to us. When one’s goal is self-preservation, the illusion of self-control is imperative.
Shame paradoxically gives the shame-based person the illusion of control. It allows us to feel as if we are capable of digging our own cisterns—If the problem is me, I can fix it. I don’t need to be dependent upon God or anyone else. I can fix me. A principle of life is that we only fight battles that we think we can win, and shame allows us to restructure reality and believe that we are the problem and the solution; therefore, we can win. Shame invites a person to carry the weight, and in doing so, provides a false sense of control. The shame-based person is allowed to carry this weight and not trust God or others, ever again. Luke’s story of glory was hijacked by shame, whereas the gospel of Luke tells us of glory burst forth from stories that were initially bathed in shame.
The biblical gospel of Luke includes stories of the disenfranchised: the leper, the paralytic, the infirm woman. Luke’s stories invite his readers to see Christ as the transformer and healer. Luke even begins the grand story of glory in a place that many would consider shameful: a stable with shepherds. God’s great story of glory is teeming with stories of the poor, the ill, the neglected, the scorned, but His presence turns the lowly into the exalted. As believers, our stories will be woven together and end in glory.
Luke Johnson took his life, believing that his doing so would mean his story would come to an end. Yet, the Lord is using his story to comfort, instruct, and embolden others. His family is using their grief to educate and comfort others who feel as if they are losing hope. It is both sobering and exhilarating to realize that Satan’s voice will lead to shame, but God’s voice will lead to glory. Just as shame can lead to self-destruction, living in glory will lead to transformation.