Imagine for a moment you’re walking home one day and you happen upon a scuffle on the street. A smaller man appears to be fending off a big man who is trying to steal his wallet. Being the good person you are and feeling particularly brave that day, you jump in and wrestle the thief to the ground while the other man recovers the stolen wallet.
Wallet in hand, the smaller man pats you on the shoulder and says, “Thanks so much!” and then takes off running. Meanwhile, the larger man you’re holding down shouts, “You idiot! That was my wallet! He’s the thief!”
I hope you’re never in this situation, but truth be told, many of us have been in a very similar situation in pursuit of holiness and integrity.
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. Why? Because we have a hard time discerning the difference between godly zeal and shame.
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.
Shame is insidious and it cannot be outrun by performance or applause. It can only be removed by surgery in the brightest of lights and healed by the truest of Loves.
For many, even discovering the presence of shame and self-hatred is a step in the right direction. If your good behavior has been applauded all your life, you may have difficulty recognizing it’s been driven by shame. 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 if we can’t discern between the two, cheers and applause may only fan the flames of self-loathing.
This is where discernment comes in. This is where wise counselors are needed–men and women who know how to ask good questions and attune to your heart, Christ-followers who understand removing shame and self-hatred are a higher priority than your ability to say and do the right things.
Men and women like these aren’t afraid of naming sin, nor do they excuse it, but they also aren’t so eager to claim victory over sin that they would use (or even permit) your shame or self-loathing to get you there.
Jesus is this kind of Shepherd. Nowhere in the Gospels do we find him trying to goad someone toward righteousness by belittling, comparing, or shaming. Rather, we see him spending time with sinners (Luke 15:2) and attuning to the thirsts of the outcast (John 4:7-15). He bore their shame for them and offered him kindness instead.
Where do you feel ashamed? Are you trying to outrun your shame through good behavior? What if you were to let Jesus love you right there instead? After all, it is not his scorn, but the kindness of God that leads us to repentance (Romans 2:4).
There’s a team of men and women here at Regeneration who seek to shepherd as he does. If we can help you, please let us know.
Question: Is it possible you have ever mistaken shame for godly zeal in yourself or someone else?