I remember the first time I felt it. The raw, exposed, un-shadowed shame that causes your thoughts to accelerate; your heartbeat quickens, and just as you think you have the strength to hold back the tears, you feel the lump. It's that lump in your throat that signals the inevitable: you have been found out and there's nothing you can do to get out of it. Shame that makes you wish you had the power to turn back the clock and change what you did, that makes you wish that somehow, if you crawled beneath your covers and curled up into a small ball, you would disappear - melt away, perhaps - beneath your sweaty blanket and clammy sheets. Shame that is so strong you know deep down that it's too late to change things.
I was seven (give or take a year, maybe two). It didn't take me long to catch onto my dad's habit of emptying the change out of his pockets when he got home from work in the evenings. Every evening I'd meander past the end table next to the couch and see it there: spotlighted by the lamp - six or seven or eight coins casting off their shininess, an irresistible sight to anyone still in her single-digit years. Too irresistible for me. When no one was looking, I swiped it.
I can't remember how long it was after that when my mom asked my siblings and I who took my dad's change. Flash back to paragraph one -- just the start of that feeling, which crescendo-ed into loose tears as my mom interrogated me one-on-one and I confessed what I had done. I remember apologizing to my dad and fearing [what I thought was] the worst, that she'd tell my siblings it was I who took the change because I knew I'd never hear the end of it.
A simple misdemeanor of a crime, but oh the shame! You bet I didn't swipe my dad's change again. I didn't want to relive that experience.
Shame is painful. That one event in my childhood hasn't been the only time I've felt shame in the last 20 years. Well-placed shame is a logical result of exposed guilt. I did something wrong and I feel horrible about it. In my walk with Christ, I've experienced shame when what I do (or don't do) is dishonoring to God.
Ezekiel 43:10 says, "And you, son of man, describe to the house of Israel the temple and its appearance and plan, that they may be ashamed of their iniquities." God says Israel should feel shame because of their iniquities. Sin is always a proper cause for shame because sin is dishonoring to God.
Something I'm continually needing to remind myself of is the grace of my God. Well-placed shame becomes misplaced shame when I hang onto it. Christ died on the cross. I sin and I cry out, "Father, forgive me!" And He replies, "Alyssa, beloved, I already have." Why do I continue to beat myself up over my past sins, my forgiven sins? I look at it like this: say my friend Hannah is visiting and she gets off the phone with a boy and is angry and goes and smashes up three of my plates. Hannah rightfully feels shame. She comes to me and asks for forgiveness for breaking my plates and being angry. Even though I really liked those plates, I tell her, "Hannah, I love you. I forgive you for breaking my plates." And Hannah feels peace for a good 30 minutes. She goes and sits outside and drinks her coffee and comes back in and starts rambling off apologies and berating herself, saying she is such a horrible person, a chronic plate-braker, a lousy human being.
"Hannah! What is wrong? Did you not hear what I said? I forgive you because I love you. When I look at you now, I do not see 'Hannah, the girl who broke my plates.' I have forgotten it! I look at you and I see Hannah, my beloved friend with whom I am well pleased."
It would be ridiculous for our friends to not trust in our forgiveness or to keep bringing their iniquities to light long after we have forgotten them. Then why do we do this with God? Why do we continue to live in our shame? Holding onto sin and shame and not trusting in the freeing forgiveness of our Lord cripples us in our walk. It slows us down in our journey to know Him more and to make Him known. Instead, we can cling to His promises:
There is forgiveness with thee that thou mayest be feared. - Psalm 130:4
Seek the Lord while he may be found. Call upon him while he is near. Let the wicked man forsake his way and the unrighteous man his thoughts. Let him return to the Lord that he may have mercy on him and to our God for he will abundantly pardon. -Isaiah 55:6
If we confess our sins he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. - 1 John 1:9
Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners of whom I am chief. - 1 Timothy 1:15
Every one who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name. Acts 10:43; 13:39