More on Shame and Guilt

Perhaps understandably, my last post, with its emphasis on acknowledging our fundamental brokenness and our need for healing, raised more than a few objections from folks who are worried that all the focus on what is wrong with us can lead to unnecessary guilt and shame.  I really seem to have hit a nerve when I said that, decades of efforts from the self-help community to build our self esteem at all costs, to bring us to the belief that ‘I’m okay, you’re okay,’ can lead to a kind of denial about our true condition of brokenness.  “Spiritually speaking, I’m not okay, and truth be told, probably neither are you,” I said.  Well, these comments triggered some heartfelt protests from those who have worked hard to overcome childhood religious guilt, family shame, and a crippling lack of self-esteem.  So I want to honor those concerns, and revisit the point, with a view toward separating out what is an honest assessment of our true condition, on the one hand—true or genuine guilt– and false guilt or self-defeating shame, on the other.

I wish there were another name for healthy guilt than “guilt,” but until we get more creative with our language, “healthy guilt” will have to do.  Perhaps the New Testament’s metanoia—often translated as “repentance,” but meaning literally to stop, turn around and go a different direction—is a better way to think about it.   But the point is, there is a world of difference between metanoia, or healthy guilt, properly understood, and the all-corrupting shame that the mental health community over the past few decades has helped us identify and label.

And there is no doubt that, in decades and even centuries past, too many churches have foisted an unrelenting guilt or shame on its members, perhaps from bad theology, perhaps from the need to control people.  We all know people who grew up in fundamentalist churches, or strict Catholic communities, or other church homes, and were constantly told that they were unworthy, bad, or even evil, with the result that they emerged into adulthood covered with dark shame and without a basic sense of worth and inherent value as children of God. Surely the doctrine of “original sin,” often laid at the feet of St Augustine (unfairly, I would argue, but that is a point for another day), is one of the most misunderstood and misused ideas in all of Christian theology.   But here, as in so many other places in theology, the remedy for bad theology is not to jettison the whole point, but rather to put on a new pair of glasses and see the old teaching through new eyes.  And here is where our friends in the 12 Step Programs can be of help.

In recovery we learn the difference between a healthy and authentic recognition of wrongdoing– guilt –which, properly understood and acknowledged can be a great teacher, and shame, which can never be understood and can never teach us anything. It can teach us nothing because shame is not from God. It is a poison, a toxic habit, foisted on us by unlovely and unholy demons, literal or figurative.

Metanoia, then, is a clear, honest and life-giving realization and acknowledgment of my faults.  To one in recovery it brings an understanding that, in my disease of addiction and the life that I have built up around that disease, I have erred, I have been selfish and narcissistic, I have hurt those around me, I have turned my back on the God who loves me unconditionally.  This is what the 4th Step of Alcoholics Anonymous and all the other 12 Step Programs is all about—“we made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves,” in the words of the AA Big Book.   In short, the Gospel of Bill—the 12 Step approach—teaches us that a natural and humble guilt is a healthy thing, for it tells me I need to change specific things about myself and my life, I need to make amends to those I have hurt, and I need to chart a new course with my life.  In fact, in recovery we are taught that, unless we are willing to be fearless and thorough in acknowledging our errors and defects of character, we will continue to be shut off from the sunlight of the Spirit, for we will continue to live in self-absorbed denial.

On the other hand, the 12 Steps will harbor no corrupting shame. They teach recovering addicts that, once we do acknowledge the error of our past ways, do our inventory, make amends to those we have hurt, and turn our lives over to the care of God as we understand God, we are free.  No ifs, ands or buts. We are specifically promised in the Big Book that, if we are honest in this phase of our growth, we “are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness; we will no longer regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it,” for, “no matter how far down the scale we have gone we will see how our experience can benefit others.”  This is an incredibly powerful and liberating teaching—we will no longer regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it-– and is part of the day to day stock in trade of the recovery programs.  Of course, it helps that we are surrounded by people who have done all the bad things we have done—and even worse things—and yet still are leading lives of joy and freedom, as is fitting for those who have been unexpectedly released from our self-made prisons. We are reminded constantly, both in the 12 Step literature and in dealings with our brothers and sisters in recovery, that we are beloved, both by God and by those in the fellowship.  We learn and experience, over and over again, that we are unconditionally loved.  Shame—that nagging, vague, ever-present feeling that I am a mistake—not that I made a mistake, but that I am a mistake— melts away in the white hot flame of this love.

Turning to the life of the Christian faith with greater understanding, then, we can see with new eyes the teachings of the Old Masters, and we realize that the Christian Gospel is the last place we should ever find shame.  We remember that, starting with Jesus and Paul, with Ignatius of Antioch, with Irenaeus, with Clement, Origen and Athanasius, and, yes, with Augustine, Christian theology, properly understood and practiced, has from the beginning laid the foundations for a view of human dignity far surpassing any other philosophy the world has ever known. One cannot read Thomas Aquinas, for another example,  and not marvel at how high a value of human worth naturally flows from our Faith.  We remember that God so loved the world—and us in it—that He gave His only begotten Son.

To recall one of the loveliest of Jesus’ parables, we remember that it was no false guilt that awoke the Prodigal Son to the error of his ways; rather, it was an honest and true acknowledgment that he had spent his inheritance in reckless and loose living.  And, being clear on that, he knew what he had to do: he had to go to his father and acknowledge his fault.  But note this: he also knew—he absolutely knew—that he was his father’s beloved son, and that no matter how badly he had strayed, he would be welcomed home. He knew that, by the very nature of his father’s love and the very essence of his relationship with his father, he had a natural dignity and worth.  Far from being crippled by shame or believing that he was without value, he knew at his core who he was and to whom he belonged.  I have often imagined that the Prodigal Son, in deciding to go home to his father’s house, would have recalled  the words of Isaiah (43.4), “for you are precious in My eyes, and honored, and I love you.”

So, when the Gospel of Bill teaches Christians that we must acknowledge our true condition of brokenness before God and our brothers and sisters, it assumes and emphasizes the very highest dignity and worth of each of us.  And, knowing our fundamental worth and dignity at our deepest level, we are no longer slaves to false guilt, to shame, and to the old toxic habits of self-destruction.  For we, too know who we are and to Whom we belong; we, too, know that we are precious in God’s eyes, and honored, and loved. That, indeed, is good news.

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About Kelly Clark

I am a convinced, if not very virtuous, Christian, recovering from alcohol abuse and many other addictions, and have been working a program of recovery consistently for over nineteen years-- since I blew my life up with chaos and crimes and hurt many people I loved. I am active in 12 Step Fellowships, sponsoring several men and attending several meetings each week. I expect to finish a Masters of Divinity in the Fall of 2011, and soon will begin a discernment process in my church about possible ordained ministry. In my day job, I am a trial attorney, representing adult victims of childhood sexual abuse.
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