I’m not a visual person. I couldn’t accurately describe my baby’s face or my wedding dress to a sketch artist. But as I consider shame and guilt in my own life, my mind’s eye can recall in vivid detail the ground or carpet present in those memories. It wasn’t until I sat down with Laura that I began to understand why.
Laura sat across the table from me and allowed shame to resurface as she recounted the details of being victimized by secrecy and adultery. I saw the top of her head, but she was staring at the ground. Shame revisited her and instinctively distanced her from me, not by space, but by gaze. We were no longer able to look each other in the eye because she felt unworthy to share such fellowship. I didn’t realize what had happened until long after our conversation. I wish I had been more observant to the situation, because it took a few moments to regain our connection and meet each other again. Be it temporary, but in that moment, shame had broken a union.
When I spoke to Amanda about guilt, the topic was further from her emotional grasp. She spoke of regret and the conviction of the Holy Spirit in instances of misconduct. There was a coldness to her understanding of guilt, but her illusions of shame could not be removed from the conversation. She spoke of hesitancy in her communion with God after guilt-inducing events. She conveyed anxiousness in even the words used to approach the Throne of Grace following moments of regret. She was approaching Him with her head down. In the disguise of guilt, shame had evidenced itself by making communion with God strenuous.
Amanda gets it. Laura gets it. I get it. We all get it. The leper in Luke 5:12-13 gets it. “When he saw Jesus, he fell with his face to the ground” (5:12 ESV). There is something about the disruptive nature of shame that instinctively forces your gaze to be diverted. Unworthiness interrupts all sense of communion, and becomes a blockade to relationships. In a way that only Jesus could, He overcame the insurmountable uncleanness of the leper to make him holy. “Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. ‘I am willing,’ he said. ‘Be clean!’” (5:13). Jesus reestablishes relationships in a tangible way. He is personal; He is helpful; He is gentle; He is honest. In a few short words, Jesus communicates that the problem, and by necessity the shame, is real. He does not skirt the difficulty or tell the leper that it isn’t that bad. Knowing more fully of his guilt and shame than even the leper could express, Jesus establishes a personal connection. In his book Shame Interrupted, Ed Welch expresses this wonder: “God is the one who cleanses, and it is his pleasure to do so.” His touch and words brought restoration to this man’s body and his dignity.
Shame puts space in relationships. The old Facebook relationship status “it’s complicated” comes to mind as I consider the effects of shame on each life. For those who belong to Christ, immunity to shame is a slow process. The communion of saints needs to do a better job observing those who are staring at the floor, and follow the model of Jesus, “the Touching King” (Welch), to be personally involved in their lives enough to look them in the eye and touch them. Restoration of fellowship begins with a little Christ expressing “I am willing to understand what makes you feel shame, now let’s be clean together.” This then is our great hope: that the Holy One who knows our shame is also the “lifter of our head” (Psalm 3:3) and we will “see his face.” (Revelation 22:4)