On Shame

I met with a student of mine a few days ago who talked to me about shame. She lamented that much of her faith history was in communities that (as she experienced it) emphasized shame. The effect was a lingering sense of her utter inadequacy and condemnation.

Now, a sense of one’s inadequacy regarding salvation is not a bad thing at all, and she knows that (see Ephesians 2). We are not saved on account of the adequacy of what we do, but wholly on account of the adequacy of what God does for us in Jesus the Messiah, as it is brought to life in us through the Holy Spirit. God comes to us with life from the inexpressible sufficiency of his divine life. The super-abundant adequacy of the divine life overmatches our inadequacy. Our sin is no match for his life.

She knows it. Her struggle is more a matter of this: as she sees it, once saved she still doesn’t amount to much.

So I was delighted to hear that she’s been finding a fresh vision for discipleship, one less centered on shame, from one of my favorite theologians: Rowan Williams. After reading his new book, Being Disciples: Essentials of the Christian Life, my student (who is fast becoming a friend) said a new way forward opened up in front of her. She specifically mentioned an image Williams uses in the first chapter. Birdwatcher

Disciples are expectant in the sense that they take it for granted that there is always something about to break through from the Master, the Teacher, something about to burst through the ordinary and uncover a new light on the landscape. The master is going to speak or show something; reality is about to open up when you are in the Master’s company, and so your awareness…is a little bit like that of a birdwatcher. The experienced birdwatcher, sitting still, poised, alert, not tense or fussy, knows that this is the kind of place where something extraordinary suddenly bursts into view (4-5).

Beautiful. It makes me wonder: could it be that a shame-based sense of our relation to God gives us the sense that we shouldn’t expect God to show up, surprise us, overwhelm us with delight?  When the Christian life centers on shame, why should we expect God to show up for anything other than condemnation? It’s like talking about the Christian life in terms of “mortification” and “vivification” but without the “vivification.” All death, no resurrection. It’s a shame. No, it’s tragedy, and maybe even heresy.

Father, lead us to know our own worth as we discover our lives in you and only in you.

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6 thoughts on “On Shame

  1. Thanks for sharing these thoughts, Kent. I look forward to reading Williams’s new book soon. I think your questions are spot on. We are people of the good news, not people of shame.

  2. Kent I think this is absolutely right. I know for me I am constantly evaluating myself and am thus very much continuously aware of my own depravity and failings. Through that I struggle with expecting God to move in my life because I feel so unworthy even though I know with 100% confidence that my identity lies within Christ. I know that many other peoples feel this way because some pastors tend to emphasize our failings without a greater emphasis on the cross and redemption through it. The trouble is is that it is easier to teach about our depravity because we live it. We see it day in and day out through news media, social outlets, and relationships. What we struggle with seeing is the full blow power of grace and the redemptive power of the blood because it is something that, as humans, we battle with comprehending. I think that the sum of all that leads us to be taught how bad we are without the context of how great God is.

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