The Curse of Our Shame
We’ve all been there. It was 7 a.m., and we were out of milk. I threw on some sweats, tied my hair in a knot, and swished some water in my mouth before running to the store. No need to fuss with makeup, or even fresh breath, I’d only be gone for five minutes.
I inevitably ran into someone I knew—which is what always seems to happen when you leave the house looking like the crypt keeper. It took her a moment to recognize me without makeup on (another win for my self-esteem), so I squeaked out a greeting and evacuated the conversation, but not before apologizing for not wearing makeup…as if my actual face is offensive to people.
Before and since, I’ve had plenty of embarrassing and humbling interactions like the one in the store: the time an unexpected visitor glimpsed the true state of my house; the time my child bit another child at daycare; the many times I have stuck my foot in my mouth. I have also endured more serious humiliations, like getting dumped by a boyfriend, or being rejected by friends when I needed them most.
In every instance, I always feel compelled to hide, to manage, or to apologize. I want to assure people this isn’t me: This isn’t how my child normally acts. This isn’t how I normally dress. This isn’t how my house normally looks. I respond this way because it’s painful when my weaknesses are exposed.
However, I’ve started to see those experiences very differently.
On Good Friday, Christians remember a whole gauntlet of suffering. We remember Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice for us, how “he endured the cross, scorning its shame” (Heb. 12:2). Christians are called to follow his example, but the truth is few of us will be asked to choose between faith and death. That is why our commitment to Christ is revealed less often by a hypothetical willingness to die for him, but by our willingness to bear small humiliations, to lean into our shame the way Jesus leaned into his.
That said, the American narrative for shame and insecurity doesn’t always resemble the Good Friday kind. In the current shame culture, we tend to outright reject shame as an enemy, or an obstacle sent by Satan. It is something to turn from and pray away. Surely, we reason, humiliation isn’t God’s plan for us. But Good Friday is a major challenge to that perspective. Rather than viewing shame and humiliation as obstacles to the path, Good Friday reminds us that sometimes, shame and humiliation are the path.
To be sure, the Christian relationship with shame—and all of suffering—is multi-layered. We are both shielded and set free from shame, while also being called into it. I suspect the devilish kind of shame is that which condemns; it casts doubt on our relationship with God and others by questioning the power of God’s grace. But there is another kind of humiliation or shame, one that acts more like a winnower than an accuser. Tish Harrison Warren likened this latter kind of shame to “pain in our bodies, a natural indicator, a check engine light that signals that something is spiritually awry.” This kind of shame highlights our sin and our idols, which gives us an opportunity to repent, and also become more like Christ.
Jesus’ shame was not the result of his sin, but he willingly endured it as an act of love. Likewise, we are challenged to endure the everyday humiliations of life, as inconsequential as they may seem, as acts of love for others. Running into a friend at Target without any makeup on is an opportunity for her to see your true self; welcoming people into your home just as it is—or your life, just as it is—can dispel any threat of comparison; sharing your pain with others can shatter the image of perfection. In each situation, major or minor, we can make ourselves small so that we don’t make others feel small.
A modest act like showing your imperfections seems like nothing compared to all that Jesus endured for us. And yet, we live in a culture where a woman’s appearance is her kingdom, and the only way to undermine its power—and the power of its henchmen, competition and comparison—is to attack its foundation. The way to subvert crushing one-upmanship is glad humiliation.
In that sense, Good Friday reframes our insecurities—big or small—as opportunities to follow Jesus. We can embrace these moments as the very means by which we die to self and become like Christ, a transformation that no self-help mantra can provide.
So, the next time you feel embarrassed or insecure, try reframing that moment as a tool in the hands of a Redeemer. Perhaps he has called you to make yourself small out of love for others. Perhaps he carved out space for redemption to flood in. Perhaps this marks the first step on the road to resurrection. But also know this: when we miss those opportunities to love God and others, by hiding our shame or covering up our insecurities, God extends grace. On Good Friday, we don’t simply remember the Savior who died, but one who bore our shame and humiliation—and bore it perfectly—knowing that we could not.