“Their rulers dearly love shame.” Hosea 4:18
In college, I struggled with using pornography. It was an accessible, covert drug for me. I used it to cope with stress, depression, and pain. But it was not pornography alone that I used as a medication. I loved the shame that came afterward. Yeah, you heard me right. I loved the shame. Now, if you asked me, I would have told you I hated shame. Its nasty stuff, like black tar that gets stuck to your insides and will not wash off. Or a stomach ache after too much candy. Only much worse and much more spiritual. Its more like your soul has a hangover.
But I got a lot out of shame. Shame was so motivating to me. When I felt so terrible and despicable inside, I got a lot done. I used to wash my car, organize my finances, read, call old friends, go exercise, go to church consistently. Anything I could do to clean up or bring order to my external life, I did. These were my self directed acts of penance. Before I turned to God, I felt like I needed to make myself decent, clean up my act, get my appearance right, get some control. As much as I loved the temporary relief that pornography gave me, I loved the motivation and pseudo energy that shame gave me just as much. It seemed to give me the kick in the butt I needed to reorder my life. And this motivated me about as long as a sugar rush.
And all of this kept me from God. Yeah, I hid in it. I did not want to really admit to myself or to God that I needed love, that I needed help, that I felt like a mess. I did not let myself risk being loved.
Of course, I’m not talking about real shame. Real shame, or true guilt, is meant to show up when we do something wrong. It invites us be loved, to be vulnerable, to be sorrowful for what we did. And it produces life. Listen to the fruit of such guilt as described by the ancient Biblical sage Paul:
“You’re more alive, more concerned, more sensitive, more reverent, more human, more passionate, more responsible.” 2 Corinthians 7:11 (the Message)
When we really see what we did wrong, how we’ve hurt others, offended God, true guilt invites us back to life, back into being loved. Yes, through sorrow, maybe even tears, we get our human dignity back. It draws us into relationship rather than turning us back in on ourselves.
And that’s the result of false shame – the black tar stuff. It turns us on ourselves, to hate ourselves. “How could you be so stupid!” says false shame. “You idiot!” This is the self contempt that made me so productive at cleaning up my life. I worked really hard to feel loved again, driven by the whip of my own inner hatred. Sadly, precisely when we hate ourselves, we cannot receive love. And in part, this is what we get from turning to our shame; we do not have to risk receiving love.
Let me say that again. That is what we love about shame! We do not have to risk being loved.
If we punish ourselves with contempt, we do not really have to be vulnerable to others or to God. We are afraid of God’s angry back handed slap across the face. I have a friend who used to think he would lose his job or get in a car accident or be robbed for the 24 hours after he looked at porn. Another friend admitted he feared God would keep him from getting married or make him marry someone ugly. I’m guessing here, but I bet the rumor that masturbation leads to blindness was started by someone struggling with the fear of what God would do to him.
If Adam and Eve had listened to their real guilt, they would have gone to find God. Seriously. That sounds crazy doesn’t it?! They would have gone naked to God and asked for mercy. Instead, God had to find them hidden in the shrubbery of the Garden of Eden.
I know we do not normally think of shame as something we enjoy. Why would anyone want to embrace something like this? But shame is so much easier to handle than love. Oh, yes, love is what we need. But true love as C.S. Lewis says, is more stern and splendid than mere kindness.
What does shame tempt you to do? How does it keep you from love?