Shame seems to settle differently in different personalities. There are tender folks who agonize over the slightest fumble. Others seem able to walk away from an acute mistake feeling very little remorse at all.
I process shame like a thinky type. For years, I rehash my mistake over and over, fleshing out the nuances. I dissect my foolishness into micro-errors and imagine every terrible way it might grow into something worse. I push beyond a healthy conviction that would bring me closer to God into a thick black guilt that makes me want to hide from His voice in the garden. In general, I have a very hard time believing that God’s forgiveness might extend to me.
The types of mistakes I make tend to align with my personality as well. I have a sense of humor that gets wild fast. On top of that, I’m sensory, philosophical, and highly responsive. I feel so many things so strongly all at once. I am delighted, and infuriated, and infatuated, and grieved. I let too many words run out, express opinions before I have adequate information, and judge too quickly. Add to this my tendency to work my mind and body relentlessly, which means I make mistakes out of fatigue. And I take enough risks that I live sore from learning things the hard way.
None of this is new for you. You’ve lived with me a long time. You have a mother who worships with vigor then falls like Chesterton off a high dive. The same personality that allows me to create almost nonstop, that allows me to feel the intense emotions that writers wield as tools, also makes it very difficult for me to live a consistent Christian life.
Three times I have used eloquence to wound someone deeply. I have pushed rules too far. I have bent art and theology attempting to justify what I wanted. I have tried to rename things holy that were not holy, because I wanted them so badly.
I have believed lies. I have said: God, I don’t trust what you’ve given. I’m tired of being hurt and lonely. I don’t believe you love me. I don’t think you can fix this. Therefore, I’m going to steal what is withheld. I’m going to find a temporary rush that will numb my pain. I’m going to gather solace somewhere else. I’m going to fight to protect myself instead of waiting on you.
And for five minutes or five months, I have pushed truth out of the way far enough to chase what felt better.
Then it settled.
You’ve watched hunting scenes on National Geographic. A dazzle of zebras is grazing on the plains when three lionesses slink up in the grasses. They watch from a distance, assessing. They notice a foal. He is limping.
The lions charge, the herd bolts, the little one can’t keep up. Circle and dodge, circle and dodge, the foal is isolated from the pack. Once he is alone, he’s easy prey. There is a leap, teeth sink into neck flesh, a few kicks later, he’s gone.
It always bothers me to see it, because I walk with a limp, too.
Good parents tend to have an annoying habit of being a little bit behind the times. I’m forty-one this year, old enough to suspect that those grey-heads who roll their compression socks halfway down their shins know good and well how ridiculous it looks, they just enjoy watching the young folks straining, trying not to giggle about it. For my part, by the time I’m sixty, I plan to run a thin line of drool down the left side of my chin.
That said, let’s talk about satan. It’s grown terribly unstylish to mention him. The devil’s jumped the shark. Heaven is still groovy, as long as we are bringing glory to earth by means of art houses or hot meals, but modernity would rather claim the worst bad that is than pass that honor to an unseen another. I’ve known haute intellectuals and graphic-t spiritualists who associate the personification of evil with some sort of projection of our collective unconscious. And if satan is not the fairy child of the unimind, he is progeny of popemongers or snake oil evangelists.
I say, poppycosh. In vogue or not, you’ve got an enemy, and he hates you. He is a being. He is the antagonist in the story of your life.
And shame is his briar patch. The darkness will tend to make the most of what he knows of your secrets. He’s been watching your strengths and analyzing your weaknesses. He knows your type. He will circle you and dodge when you try to strike.
His cruelty knows no limits. Sometimes he plants a wound when you are six-years-old or sixteen, young enough still to be grown a little crooked on the inside. Other times, he will wait patiently for thirty years, slowly draining off your hope and strength with a thousand reductions. Then, all at once, he will catch you between breaths and tear out your throat.
This is why I have been so protective of you, I suppose. I’m not just worried about that first big mistake. I’m worried about the compounded interest. The aftershocks. The dominoes that will fall. I’m worried about the blows that will come on you, the things he will whisper over you, the damning discouragement, and that you might either absorb it or let it turn you numb.
I can tell you exactly what to believe when the devil’s shame hits, but the world is full of right answers that change nothing. Belief is always harder (and at the same time easier) than we usually imagine it to be. Schools teach us to read with our eyes and comprehend the idea of a thing very shallow in our stomachs, so that we might regurgitate it before the nutrients absorb and change everything. So, we learn to hear without hearing. We learn to speak without knowing. You and I are disabled by intellect enough to read and rewrite a thing convincingly without ever having done it, and that is my temptation here. Because though I think I do know the answer to this mess at last, I often fail to bank on it. This is an area where I am growing still. I hope Buechner is right in that it matters sometimes to simply discuss a thing without subterfuge.
Here are seven statements, then. In the final part of this letter, I will expand upon them.
1.) Failures are part of your story. They are not your identity.
2.) The world is full of people who want to oversimplify things. Never let someone who does not understand your situation name you.
3.) Nothing is wasted. Not even that thing that would horrify you if anyone knew. God is a redeemer.
4.) Authenticity doesn’t mean everyone should know every mistake you’ve made. Not all people are safe people.
5.) It’s helpful to have one or two trusted friends. Choose them with great caution and prayer.
6.) Take time to look honestly at the why’s. Why were you inclined to that particular mistake? What heart ache was there? Were you lonely? Were you angry? Did you feel insufficient?
7.) Let the gospel expand into something present. You’ve seen what happens left to your own strength. Walk now in light of Galatians 3:3.
(to be continued…)
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