Imagine for a moment you walk up to a scuffle on the street. One man appears to be fending off a thief who was trying to steal his wallet. Being the good person you are, you cheer the man on and shout at the thief to get lost. If you’re feeling particularly brave, perhaps you jump in, wrestling the thief to the ground while the other man punches him and recovers his stolen wallet with your help.
Now imagine that later you discover that the man you helped is actually the thief, and the man you shouted at or wrestled down was in fact the one being robbed.
This is what happens more times than we know in our churches.
As crazy as it seems, I think sometimes we don’t recognize in each other when we’re motivated out of a godly zeal and when we’re motivated from a place of shame or self-hatred. Like the two men scuffling for the wallet, we think we’re being helpful, when in reality, we’re pushing down the one who needs our help.
The truth is, it can be difficult from the outside to know the difference between a zeal for God coming from a grace-filled place and zeal that’s coming from a place of shame and self-hatred. And if we can’t discern between the two, our cheers and applause may only fan the flames of self-loathing.
Here’s an example:
John reads Scripture every morning. He authentically loves God but without realizing it, he also reads like a boss in part to try to outrun his deep-seated shame and self-hatred. John feels insecure, he doesn’t think he’s very smart, he doesn’t like his body, and he has always felt embarrassed by his recurring sexual fantasies. He works at all of these, but if he would quiet himself enough, he’d discover that even deeper than these, John just feels there’s something uniquely deficient about himself.
On the outside, John’s friends hear him quote chapter and verse, and when they listen to his input around spiritual questions, it sounds like godliness and they say so.
But since John is actually trying to make up for his deep-seated shame, his shameful heart interprets their affirmations as applause for his performance, not for John, himself. Sadly, in this way, John’s shame interprets their words as being against who John truly feels himself to be. He thinks, “If they ever really knew me, they’d reject me.”
Like the street scuffle at the start of this post, John’s friends have unintentionally joined in the fight against John’s true self and with John’s false self—the self that John is trying to project to the world.
Self-hatred is insidious and it cannot be outrun by performance or applause. It can only be removed by surgery in the brightest of lights—the light of God—and it can only be healed by the truest of Loves.
For me, healing from self-hatred began with discerning shepherds who listened through my words (whether confessions of sin or reports of victory)—shepherds who saw removing shame and self-hatred as a higher priority than my ability to say and do the right things.
I’m still on my own journey out of shame and self-hatred, and I’m grateful for discerning others willing to stop awhile and ask me to shine a light into places I may otherwise rush past. Men and women like these aren’t afraid of naming sin, nor do they excuse it, but they also aren’t so eager for me to have victory over sin that they would use (or even permit) my shame or self-loathing to get me there.
This is one of the things I love about the team here at Regeneration. If we can help you, please let us know.
To hear more on this topic, listen to this week’s podcast here or wherever you listen to podcasts.
Question: In your opinion, are there signs that a shepherd can look for to help him or her know when someone’s zeal to do good is being fueled by shame?