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Glorious Poetry and Personal Shame
by Ronnie Schlittler

Why is it that shame feels more personal than sin?  Often people are more comfortable admitting their status as a sinner or confessing specific sins.  However, shame is more difficult to discuss or even admit it has impacted our lives.  A number of components make shame more personal than sin. First, take 1Cor 10:13 which claims that “No temptation has seized you except what is common to the human race.”  But “what is common” cannot individuate us from each other and our society identifies what is personal with what is unique about each one of us.  This raises the question of whether our society’s identification of ‘what is the real me’  with uniqueness is biblically supported?  We will return to this question later.

Looking back at 1Cor 10:13 a good question to ask is why temptations are common?  Because sin (with its associated temptation) is established by God’s revelation. Plainly it has a source and focus outside ourselves.  Therefore, the extent of sin is clearly demarcated and applicable to all. This is not true of shame at all. One person can feel shame for being rich, another wealthy person would not be bothered.  Some are horrified by their smarts and others glory in it.  Unlike the autonomy of sin, feelings of shame are dependent on the society in which one lives and even the context one finds themselves in.  In fact, shame manifest a complex and manifold dependency which contrast with the relative autonomy of moral codes.  A poor person who generally doesn’t have an issue with lacking money ends up going to a formal event.  Because of the context, he might experience feelings of shame.  It’s not related to his lack of money, but to his lack of proper social skills. Nonetheless, whether at home or attending the formal event he believes that lying is wrong.   Shame manifest a connection to person, context, kind of relationship and even the over-arching story one has incorporated into their life.

The multi-faceted context-dependency of shame is best explained by the way issues of glory/shame assume a larger story and moral standards don’t.  From a Christian perspective, moral standards intrude into a story.  They are revealed to us by the Father God. However, acting gloriously involves stage setting (so to speak).  Typically an evil individual has acted or a tragic situation has occurred (baby in burning house) and with this backdrop an individual’s actions are viewed as heroic. Again sporting events help us to grasp issues of glory/shame.  Take the woman’s world cup finals.  It comes down to a shoot out. (This assumes that two or more hours of action has already occurred.)  The American goalie has blocked one of the Chinese attempts and the last person to kick for team China is their star?  She scores tying the score, but  the American’s have one more shooter.  The whole game has come down to this moment. Her kick will determine her status: hero or goat? Notice how this moment would not exist without this past.  For example, what if the game was a blowout?  No opportunity for last second heroics. A strong connection exist between a story and moments of glory/shame.

Characteristics unique to glory/shame can be explained by the surrounding story assumed by moments of glory/shame.  Stories and moral standards are vastly different kinds of things.  Stories are more fine-grained, than moral standards.  They include details that, if included in a moral standard would make morality oppressive and unwieldy.  That is why we have judges; to interpret the law regarding situations the moral standard was not specifically designed to address. A moral code is atemporal and unchanging, while a story assumes temporal concepts like past, present and future.  Usually a good story involves changes.  As we have seen, the previous stage-setting is essential to moments of glory/shame.  Conversion stories glorify Father God because they demonstrate His transforming power.  Angels don’t have a testimony because they haven’t been transformed by the redeeming love of Jesus Christ. By exploring these differences we can elucidate why shame is more personal than sin.

We view our lives as more fundamentally a story, than an expression of a moral standard. Moral codes are not anyone’s unique property.  However, each of us is involved in a unique life story.  Remember, we are created in the image of God who has a hankering for stories.  He started a creation story that included storytellers capable of writing their own scripts. When they (Adam/Eve) lost the plot line, he started a story within a story (redemption within creation) and the second story’s ending involves such an unexpected twist that many just can’t believe it.   Think how often Jesus taught in parables, which are what? Stories!  As image bearers of the storytelling God, we are storytellers.  But we don’t just tell stories, we are stories.

More precisely we are a poem.   Ephesians 2:10 suggest that our storytelling abilities run deeper than verbal ability, fundamentally our lives are a glory poem.

We are God’s workmanship created in Christ Jesus to do good works.

In the Greek, the word ‘workmanship’ is poem. We are God’s poetry, each one unique. Every individual is intended to be a unique expression of God’s glory. God’s intention to make us glory poems makes issues of glory/shame unavoidable. Our unique life story should be lived for the glory of God and shame is the underside of this calling.  We can feel shame for failing to live up to the unique gifts and calling God has for each one of us.  When we experience shame we feel like we have let God down in a unique fashion, therefore shame is more personal then sin.  Shame occurs when we have ruined or marred the unique glory poem God intended us to manifest.

Unfortunately, the fine details characteristic of stories make issues of glory/shame more pervasive and insidious than what moral issues are capable of. This accounts for why  shame and glory are not as clearly demarcated as moral issues.  Feelings of shame and glory change with each person we encounter, each act we make and by what over-arching story we bring to bear.  Take evangelism.  We wonder how to go about it.  We don’t want to come on too strong.  But we also fear compromising, or missing the opportunity, etc.  Using spiritual gifts raises the same hornets nest of issues.  What if my prophecy is erroneous?  Maybe I expressed Father God’s message in an inappropriate fashion and the person wasn’t encouraged. Praying in front of others becomes touchy. Others may judge our prayers as shallow, inauthentic or amiss?  Relationships carry a weight of glory.  Marriage, parenting, friendships and business all become more complicated and significant.  This ongoing concoction we call a life story is messy business.  The details are overwhelming.
Making it even worse, is how we come up with all kinds of ‘glory scripts’.  A ‘glory script’ expresses our ideas (a story so to speak) about how things should go. Think about a job interview, first date, a family reunion, or marriage. If you call your date by an old girlfriends name - that is bad! After leaving the job interview you notice a big lunch stain on your tie.  Everybody wants to hire a slob - not. We even have a glory script about who we are and what we are about (think about the Fonz of Happy Days). Whenever the story diverges disastrously from the glory script we feel shame. One questionable aspect of any glory script is it’s origins.  Our society offers plenty false gods with their associated glory scripts.  Discernment is necessary and even those grounded in scripture can have harmful effects.  Every glory script has shame attached to its underside. Falling short of the standard can evoke shame.

I would call this kind of shame: joy-stealing shame.  If we don’t measure up, then we lose our sense of joy.  For example, we may hear somebody pray and envy their _______.  Different people will fill in the blank with different responses: power, passion, accuracy, etc..Suddenly how we talk to Father God becomes embarrassing and we no longer enjoy prayer as much.  We may encounter worship leaders who take others into a deep encounter with Father God.  Suddenly we no longer experience joy leading others into worship.  We are dis-satisfied with ourselves and those we lead.  (This could be true of the individual worshiper.)  In these cases we have not blundered (saying something embarrassing or do something stupid) and feel exposed.  We are simply unsatisfied and feel a loss of worth in what we are doing. Certainly it is pleasing to Father God to become ‘better’ in prayer, worship or leading worship, however it is counter-productive to lose our joy.  Father God accepts whatever level we are at.  Anything that undermines that reality is detrimental to our relationship with Him.   We do not attain glory by our performance, but through His grace.

By viewing our lives as fundamentally stories we can account for a unique characteristic about shame. For example, if someone sinned against me.  I may feel put out, angry and wished it had not happened.  Nevertheless, I don’t feel like a sinner or an evil person when someone wrongs me.  However, there are cases of shame (rape, child molestation, alcoholic parent) where one person feels shameful as the result of another’s actions.  A good way to understand this is to remember that God gave us limited authorial dominion within his creation story. ( The word “dominion” should remind you of Genesis, where God gave Adam and Eve dominion over the earth.)  Clearly this dominion mandate implies some control over our own life story. A God ordained connection exist between us actively pursuing a chosen life story. Typically we establish the story line and choose how to follow it out.

However, when another acts on us and destroys opportunities we would have pursued in the future, then it makes sense to feel shame.  Someone has stolen a part of my story before I was ready to pursue that option.  They have undermined my God given mandate to follow my own authorial intention and thus eradicated opportunities to uniquely expressed God’s glory in my life in this area. By forcefully intruding on my story I have lost the rights to my own story.  This makes it more difficult for me to act heroically.