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Shame in the Light of the Gospel

By Clint Wilson

The earliest class project I can remember completing was a take-home assignment from my kindergarten teacher for which we were tasked with making a sculpture out of clay. As a budding pragmatist, I decided that I would mold clay around the contours of my toy dinosaur, conforming it to the dinosaur muscles and texture. Consequently, it looked amazing and was obviously beyond the skill level of a kindergarten student. I brought it to school and I’m certain my teacher knew what I had done, but she never spoke a word about it; perhaps she was rewarding my ingenuity.

My dinosaur was a piece of fine artwork compared to the lame snowman my friend had made, but it wasn’t my work. Thus, shame tiptoed into my young mind and set up camp where phantom guests of darkness were welcomed for years to come. In that moment I got away with the glory of a great sculpture without having to work hard at all. It was a small lie, a childish joke, really. But it did not feel right, and actually, at the end of the day all I felt was shame. This is a shame I’m willing tell you about, but there are also shames I am afraid to mention; I’m willing to bet you have some similar experiences of shame.

All of us have felt and feel shame, and many have known shame to a much greater degree than my five-year-old conniving self. Shame is something that starts early and it seeps into our bones. In his 2013 book Saving Face, Stephen Pattison addresses this early start to shame as he observes that infants very quickly begin to notice and recognize faces, and they imitate the expressions they observe. He writes, “to be and to become human socially and emotionally is to engage in real, nuanced, face-to-face visual relations” (p. 58). But when a child doesn’t see approval in the face that looks back, the result can be deadening:

If the mother cannot let her eye gleam, or “light up her face” with a smile, then what may be reflected back to the baby is deadness, possibly leading to notions of unacceptability and unresponsiveness, even to primal shame … a small child may feel that they are the cause of this coldness and rejection — they are seen but not valued, loved, accepted.

Situations like this create a recipe for shame, and every one of us have known this dark reality. We know we have harmed and been harmed. If shame is not tended to, it will make us hide, and it will make us mean. Shame is not the kind of thing that will heal over time, and yet we so often bury it deep, and its toxicity seeps into the soil of our hearts, our relationships, and more. It is insidious precisely because we do not want to talk about it. We must do something; but what?

The story of Zacchaeus shows us a model for freedom from shame, even if he was likely plagued with other miseries. Simply put, this story shows us that if we risk stepping out of our shame and onto a limb into the light of day, God will grace us with his healing power. There is no way to be healed of our shame passively. It is only Christ’s presence and delight in us that will melt it away. George MacDonald wrote a poem about Zacchaeus that so effectively captures this journey:

To whom the heavy burden clings,
It yet may serve him like a staff;
One day the cross will break in wings,
The sinner laugh a holy laugh.

The dwarfed Zacchaeus climbed a tree,
His humble stature set him high;
The Lord the little man did see
Who sought the great man passing by.

Up to the tree he came, and stopped:
“To-day,” he said, “with thee I bide.”
A spirit-shaken fruit he dropped,
Ripe for the Master, at his side.

Zacchaeus had lost the respect of everyone around him, so he had nowhere to go but up. In this sense, shame does have a healing role to play in shaking our conscience to understand that we have violated moral standards. We should be ashamed at points. And surely Zacchaeus was not primarily a victim of shame placed upon him; after all, he participated in the system of imperial oppression.

However, it is often not until we have realized that we cannot earn the love we want, cannot meet all the expectations or satisfy the shame placed upon us by ourselves or those around us — often not until this rock-bottom moment — that we have nothing to lose by going up into the tree, as it were, to look for the God of grace. After having stepped out on a limb, there Zacchaeus finds this Jesus who publicly delights in seeing him. I imagine his eyes glimmering grace toward Zacchaeus.

This Jesus is usually not met in the places of safety. He is in the brave place, out on the limb, redeeming the shame we possess from the tree in the garden by climbing out onto the tree of the cross. And the great irony of Christianity is that it is as our shame is nailed to the tree that we simultaneously receive the invitation to a feast with Jesus. The invitation here is one that goes straight into the heart of the home of Zacchaeus. Jesus will not be placed in the attic or basement; he wants to dine with him, because grace wants to go to the most intimate spaces of our lives and commune with us; how often shame shuts grace out. But God’s grace is here the affliction that heals the soul.

The challenge is that our shame is always threatening to pull us back into itself through the ploys of the evil one. Again we must turn to George MacDonald:

Sure never host with gladder look
A welcome guest home with him bore!
Then rose the Satan of rebuke
And loudly spake beside the door:

“This is no place for holy feet;
Sinners should house and eat alone!
This man sits in the stranger’s seat
And grinds the faces of his own!”

Having stepped out on a limb and out of his shame, Zacchaeus is dangerously close to the healing presence of Christ. Thus, the trick of Satan is to use the very shame we have stepped out of to disqualify us for the life-giving presence of the God who will heal it. But we must not succumb to our fears; how I long for those in my congregation addicted to pornography to hear this: Why is it that so many Christians, and especially so many Episcopalians, come to church when life is good, but not when we are suffering or wracked with the effects of our sin? It is because we want people to see us at our best, but we simply cannot tolerate others seeing us at our worst. This will kill us, and is killing us.

But when we know that we are the object of God’s delight, we will find our hearts transformed such that we are free from shame and free for lives of generosity toward others.

This is why MacDonald finishes his poem-interpretation of the story in this way:

Outspoke the man, in Truth’s own might:
“Lord, half my goods I give the poor;
If one I’ve taken more than right
With four I make atonement sure!”

“Salvation here is entered in;
This man indeed is Abraham’s son!”
Said he who came the lost to win—
And saved the lost whom he had won.

Salvation is here rooted in the man’s identity, not his action. Jesus names Zacchaeus as a son of Abraham, worthy of the promises of God. He names him as family — and the words Jesus speaks are really an extension of the love he has already shown, from the very first glimmer in his eye as he turned to look at Zacchaeus in the tree.

In other words, action flows from identity, not identity from action. But if we spend our days doing acts to prove the kind of persons we are, or the kind of persons we hope to be, then we will always be striving and never arriving to receive our Lord at supper. We will feel shame for not doing enough, and our response will be to do more to satisfy that shame, thus creating a dangerous cycle. But, if while knowing who we are, we act out of a gracious response to God’s delight and invitation to us, then we can live increasingly as those who are free from anxiety, and free from social expectations or stigma.

However, this requires reaching the point of Zacchaeus, of reaching the moment(s) when we are willing to step out of our shame by stepping out on a limb. We do this when we confess our sin; we do this when we share with others the struggles we have, and we do this when we open up about anxieties and our fears. The author and psychologist Dan Allender wrote:

The Gospel does not make sense, unless you have a heart to enter your own shame. And you will not have the work of the Kingdom of God guiding your mind and heart, unless you have the courage to enter even into your own simple broken stories of shame.

God offers you and me the eyes of delight that invite us back to the table after something in our own heart says that no one could bear me, no one could understand me. At the end of the day, one of the greatest signs of the health of our churches will be multiplication through love that frees people from struggles such as shame. It is not our buildings, or our Average Sunday Attendance; it is not the size of our budget or the amount of incredible programs we have (although these are not unspiritual, of course).

Our final metric must be grounded in love taking root in the hearts of our people, and in our hearts, such that postures of shame are resurrected into postures of generous joy. This begins when all of us, in our lives, step out onto the limb and open ourselves to the possibility of God’s healing and gracious presence at the Table of our hearts.



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