It is interesting to me that Jesus never calls our identity-based shame sin. Instead, identity-based shame is that which Jesus heals. When you get home, I invite you to take a quick look at chapters 8 & 9 in the Gospel of Matthew. When I read these chapters, I have the impression that the author is left almost breathless as he tries to count up all the people Jesus healed: A leper, a Centurion’s son, Peter’s mother-in-law, two men who were possessed by demons, a paralytic, a girl thought to be dead, a haemorrhaging woman, two blind men and a demoniac who was mute. Each of these people was – in one way or another – a social outcast. They were social outcasts precisely because they were considered to be bearers of shame – either because of their culture of origin as with the Centurion’s son or because of their gender or because of the illness itself. To touch a leper, a dead person or a bleeding woman was like being infected by a contagion. Why is this important for us? Because when Jesus healed these people, he was not simply healing these people as individuals, he was also healing the whole structure of shame that kept these people down and cast out. Jesus’ acts of healing are a direct challenge to the shame structure in 1st Century Judea. They are also a challenge to the shame structure of our current age.
It is precisely this structure of shame that Jesus calls sin. Jesus reserves the category of sin for those actions people take to cause identity-based shame in the first place. He challenges those who cast out or judge the blind, the lepers and the bleeding woman. There is a connection, of course, between our sin and our experience of shame. Often, it is precisely our desire to cover our shame that causes us to harm or shame others. Let me explain by way of example:
Let us imagine for a moment that I carry shame associated with something about myself and then let us say that you make a comment to me about this very thing. My unhealed shame about this very thing has left a wound in my soul. Your comment stirs that wound and I lash out in pain. Maybe your comment wasn’t even intended to be hurtful. Maybe you were trying to be kind or helpful. Unfortunately, the pain that I carry as a result of my shame blinds me from seeing this. When the wound of my shame is stirred, my first and strongest reaction is to protect myself from further wounds and from further shame. But in my attempt to do this, I have now wounded you! And to make matters worse, if my shame is buried deeply within me, I may not even realise that it is because of my wound that I have lashed out at you.
Or let us imagine a different scenario. Let us imagine that you carry an identity marker that reminds me of my own wound of shame. To cover my shame and to hide myself from it, I may accuse and judge you for precisely the same shame I carry in myself. Why? The way the mind works is that we tend to believe that pressing down on another person simultaneously presses down our own shame. Or said otherwise, we tend to believe that we move up as the other is moved down.
Whether we shame others to cover our own shame or we lash out at others to protect our wound, both of these fall under the category of sin, according to Jesus. And this is where the word “guilt” comes in. Jesus exposes our behaviours that cause shame and harm in order to transform us. In this sense, the feeling of guilt is a gift to us. Guilt allows me to see that I have hurt you; it also pushes me to look into myself and to discover the wound that is within me that is causing me to lash out and which is demanding to be healed.
Guilt allows me to say, “I did this to you and I am sorry.” And if I am open to it, guilt also allows me to say, “What is it within me that is causing me to do this? What deep shame within me needs to be healed so I don’t do this again?”
These questions and the knowledge of this shame can cause us great pain. But they are also the roots of empathy toward others and of compassion toward our selves. They are also the beginning of our healing. In the world of spiritual transformation this is a huge and important step toward maturity.