I Am The Worst
I am the worst.
This is what shame says to you.
This is what shame says about you.
It is easy to believe and hard to dislodge.
There are many ways to get to this point. You can end up here because of what you have done, what others have done to you, or by being connected to someone who has done something shameful. While much of the shame experience is common across these three categories, each source of shame tends to have a unique DNA or genetic code.
Consider the shame that comes from your own failure. This one is gnarly, especially if you failed at something simple. The moment failure happens shame begins talking to you.
You had one thing to do, one simple thing, and you couldn’t do it. It wasn’t rocket science!
Before long you are drawn into a vicious cycle of critical self-reflection. You think,
How could I have blown it? It wasn’t that hard! A little kid could have walked in and nailed it, but it was too hard for me, and now everyone can see.
Maybe your failure was made worse by how many times you have fallen for the same thing. It wasn’t just simple; it was simple and the hundredth time you’ve blown it. So shame gets louder. You look around and can’t see anyone that has failed something this simple so many times. In fact, all you can see are hundreds of people who seem to get it right. The math was simple, the right way to act was clear, and you got it wrong.
Shame tunes you into other people’s successes and your failures and it isn’t easily quietened.
We confess our sins to God, and seek and receive forgiveness, but the feeling doesn’t go away. Your record is now clean, but you are still left with this disorienting, confusing feeling. Your sin has left a mark on your identity, a dark stain on who you are.
Shame is like an evil echo.
When you stand on the edge of a cliff and shout into a canyon, your voice comes back to you, but it is not actually you shouting it is a reflection or echo of you shouting. It is not the thing anymore, only a reflection of it. This is what living in shame is like. It isn’t the thing you did. What you did is done. It is an echo of what you did which you hear for years, an echo which ongoingly confirms the worst fears you have about yourself.
Shame isolates you.
It tells you that you are different, a special case. The normal rules that apply to everyone else don’t apply to you. You are beyond reach and undeserving of anything good. Like a gazelle separated from the herd, you are easy picking for predators. Perhaps you even feel as though you deserve the predators. You probably wouldn’t run if they came for you anyway. You would just give in and be taken out. You deserve it after all. You would like to hope for more, but the feeling you don’t deserve it stops hope in its tracks. You just need to take your medicine.
So what are we to do?
If you want to break the shame in someone’s life, you need to break their isolation. When shame isolates people it insulates them from help. The ‘special case’ spell needs to be broken. The kryptonite of uniqueness needs to be taken away. The idea that you need to pay for your own sin and bear the marks and stains of your failures needs to be broken.
Shame-filled people rarely reach out for help.
Someone needs to come close. Someone to sit with you, hear the messiness of it all. Not someone who stands at a distance and shoots bible verses at you, but a fellow sinner who is open about similar struggles, because in some ways, two sinners are better than one. Two sinners says, ‘I am not alone’ to the shame-filled person.
But sometimes the people who interrupt our isolation, who come alongside us, don’t have the same struggles we do. You know they are still a sinner, but in a weird way they can look clean to the shame-filled person. As they come close, they can leave the shame-filled person wondering why this person would have anything to do with them. But they come alongside and interrupt your isolation and they say, ‘I love you and I am with you.’ To have someone who is strong associate with the person filled with shame is sublime.
While shame comes by association, association with bad deeds and bad people, glory comes by association too. When someone who doesn’t have another person’s sinful weakness associates with them, something glorious happens. Something a little Christ-like.
When we intrusively love one another we disrupt shame and fracture it, and in doing so we image the one who drew close to us and landed the mortal blow on shame once and for all. This is the way Paul expresses it:
Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. 1 Timothy 1:15
Note the tense of this verse. It is not past tense, or future tense, but present tense. He is the worst and his being the worst doesn’t undo him because Jesus came into the world and saved him. Jesus himself was pleased to associate with Paul.
The battle against shame has been won decisively on the cross (Hebrews 12:2). Yet there are still wounded people everywhere who need their shame and isolation interrupted. Draw close to them, hear their pain, take Jesus to them. Incarnate His love for them. Love them as Christ loved you (John 13:34).