The Way Maker 1: Life Without Shame

About three weeks ago, Susan and I were driving down the I-5 to Seattle for a flight that we were going to catch there. At one point in the journey, I noticed that two cars were going to merge onto the Interstate, so I changed lanes from the right lane to the left to give them space to do that. As I was going alongside those two cars in the left lane, I looked in my rear-view mirror and noticed a pickup truck right on my tail. So I continued in the left lane and, when it was safe to do so, I switched back to the right lane. A few moments later, I hear a horn blare right beside me and when I look the driver of this white pickup truck gives me the finger. Now part of me wondered how people do that. Like is there a class you can take to learn how to give people the middle finger as your drive? But the biggest emotion I felt was shame. Something happened on that road and I felt bad about it.

The Way Maker by tommy-lisbin-DG-BBGw7d6E-unsplash.jpg
Photo by Tommy Lisbin on Unsplash

Now some of you may be saying to yourselves that I should just ignore that kind of stuff. Just because that other driver is a jerk doesn’t mean that I should have let his actions affect me. And I get that. But the point of my story is that most, or all of us, have a reservoir of shame within us that can get pricked when certain things happen and then that shame rises to the surface. When someone gives you the finger as you drive down the highway, it may not bother you at all. But maybe your shame gets triggered when a co-worker criticizes you, or when your child disobeys you, or when someone fails you in a significant way. And you may not even realize that it is your shame that is being triggered, because the primary emotion on that you may feel in that moment is not shame, but anger or fear. But I am suggesting to you that there may be shame underneath that anger or fear.

Imagine for a moment, what it must have been like for Adam and Eve when God banished them from the Garden of Eden. Prior to that  time, they were in Paradise where everything was very good. But when Adam and Eve ate from the one tree from which God told them not to eat, everything changed. Later, God came looking for Adam and Eve and asked them, “Where are you?” Adam replied, “I heard you walking in the garden, so I hid. I was afraid because I was naked.” (Gen. 3:10) Adam was naked before he ate fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, but after eating that fruit, he realized that he had done something wrong and his innocence was gone. He and his wife hid from God because they realized that the worst part of what they had done was to sin against Him.

And then came the consequences which God announced to them. Life was going to be hard. Instead of being a fruitful blessing, work was going to be frustrating and difficult. Having children would be painful and relationships between men and women were going to be very complicated. And death became an unwelcome part of life. As God said to Adam, For you were made from dust, and to dust you will return” (Gen 3:19).

What a catastrophic turn of events! And yet, Adam does what I think might be one of the most curious things in the entire Bible. He “…named his wife Eve, because she would be the mother of all who live” (Gen. 3:20). Instead of Adam’s shame increasing, which is what we would expect would happen as a result of his encounter with God, that shame disappeared and Adam responded to God actions with hope that life would continue on and grow and that his wife would be the person through whom that life would come. So, it was then that Adam named his wife Eve, because, in Hebrew, the name Eve sounds like the word which means “to give life.”

So why would Adam respond to this terrible news of sin and all its consequences with hope instead of shame? Because Adam knew through the way that God reached out to him and his wife that God was not giving them the finger. Adam knew that God was reaching out, not with condemnation, but with grace and love. Was it necessary that God give Adam and Eve the bad news about the wrong things that they had done? Of course, it was! We always need to know how bad the bad news is before we can realize how good God’s good news is for us.

But here is what makes all the difference. Along with the bad news, God also gave a promise that changed a hopeless end into endless hope. As He spoke to the serpent, God said, And I will cause hostility between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring. He will strike your head, and you will strike his heel” (Gen. 3:15). This is often called the protoevangelium, or the first glimmer of the Gospel, the Good News that God would send an offspring of Eve who defeat evil, even though He would be mortally wounded in the process.

That offspring would come centuries in the future when a poor, unmarried teenager named Mary gave birth to a baby boy in Bethlehem. Years later, her son, named Jesus, would defeat all evil by sacrificing His life on a wooden cross on a hill outside Jerusalem.  With His resurrection on the third day that followed, the process of unraveling the consequences of evil began.

Everyone who trusts in Jesus as their Lord and Saviour is immediately given new life. Nurtured by God’s Word and the Sacraments that new life grows, even as our body grows old and continues its inevitable decay. When we die, our physical decay and our spiritual corruption is removed by Jesus and we wait with Him for the Day of Resurrection. That’s when the overturning of all the consequences of sin will be complete, for Jesus, on that Day, will restore and renew our physical bodies so that they will never grow old, never get sick and never die. And we will live with Jesus in our resurrection bodies forever in God’s creation, which will also be renewed, restored and renamed the New Heavens and Earth. We will see Jesus face to face, and He will wipe every tear from our eyes (see Revelation 21:1-4).

The key to this whole passage of Scripture is this: As Adam sat with his shame and fear in the presence of God, God brought a new realization to Adam which changed his story from a story of shame to a story of hope.

In her book Rising Strong, Brené Brown tells a story about a conversation that she and her husband while swimming in Lake Travis during a summer holiday. [1] Brené was feeling an immense about of love and connection toward her husband, but when she twice tried to express her feelings to him, he reacted as if they were no big deal. This rejection triggered what Brené calls a shame story within her. She already had within her head of movie of what was going to happen when she and her husband got out of the water after the swim and how she was going to blast him for his disregard of her. And she played that movie over and over in her mind as she and her husband swam back to the dock.

And that is exactly how things would have played out. Except, except, Brené asked her husband to stay with her in the water at the end of the dock to have a conversation. And she persevered in inviting him to share what was really going on inside of him. After being rebuffed a few times, her husband finally shared with her what was on his mind. The night before, he had experienced a dream that triggered fear and inadequacy in him, which he was still feeling that morning while on that swim. As Brené listened to her husband, she realized that her shame story was false, and she had made assumptions about her husband that were not true.  Her husband realized that he also had been believing things about Brené that were not true. It was a transformative experience for both of them. Brené writes:

That morning was a turning point in our relationship. There we were, both us completely engulfed in our shame stories.  I was stuck in appearance and body-image fear—the most common shame trigger for women. He was afraid I would think he was weak—the most common shame trigger for men. Both of us were scared to embrace our own vulnerabilities, even knowing full well that vulnerability is the only path out of the shame storm and back to each other. Somehow, we managed to find the courage to trust ourselves and each other, avoiding both the hot sting of words we would never be able to take back and the withheld affection of a cold war.  That morning revolutionized how we thought about our marriage. It wasn’t a subtle evolution: It forever shifted our relationship. And that was a good thing. [2]

Brené has identified a three-part process that can help people evaluate their own shame stories and experience transformation. It begins with what she calls “The Reckoning: Walking Into Our Own Story,” which involves recognizing and becoming curious about our emotions so that we can see how they connect with what we think and do.  Part two is “The Rumble: Owning Our Story.” In this stage of the process, we gather the courage we need to look at our shame story and be honest about which parts of it are false and need to change if we are going to live an authentic life. The final stage of Brené’s process is “The Revolution” in which we live out a new story with a new ending and use this story to change the way that we engage with the world as “…we live, love, parent, and lead.”[3]

Brené’s process of the Reckoning, the Rumble, and the Revolution is very helpful, but it is not really new. It is as old as the account of Adam and Eve. God graciously invited our first parents into a Reckoning where Adam and Eve’s emotions revealed the assumptions and beliefs they had made about God. Then came the Rumble, when God lovingly challenged those false beliefs and assumptions they had made about Him and what He was going to do when He found out about their sin. Adam and Eve thought that God was going to punish them in anger. What they discovered is that God lovingly promised to give them forgiveness, life and restoration through a future Messiah. In light of God’s love, they realized that those lies about shame and condemnation had to go, and they experienced a Revolution in how they were going to live life in the future. Their old shame story was gone and they would go forward into the future with confidence. Yes, sadness and grief would now be a big part of their lives. Yes, they would be leaving the Paradise of Eden. Yes, they would be going into a broken and hurting world. But Adam and Eve were going into that world with the truth of God’s love and the promise of His salvation, and that transformed the story that they were going to live.

My challenge for you this week is to take some time and think about a recent experience when you felt some strong emotions.  As you reflect on that incident, here are some questions that I am asking you to think about and answer to God and yourself:

The Reckoning:

  1. What emotions were you feeling?
  2. Based on the emotions you were feeling, what must have been your beliefs and assumptions?

The Rumble

  1. In the light of God’s love and what He tells us in the Bible, are those beliefs and assumptions true or false?
  2. What are the true beliefs and assumptions from God that will replace your false ones?

The Revolution

  1. How will your life be different going forward now that you are living a new story of hope and life from God?

God made a way where there was no way for Adam and Eve to live a broken life in a broken world, but without shame. The promise of restoration and renewal from Jesus changed everything for Adam and Eve, and it will change everything for you, too.  My hope and my prayer is that, with God’s help, you will have the courage to be okay with being vulnerable with God and with the people God has placed around you. As you rest in God’s gracious love, I pray that you will believe that it is okay to take the risk of trusting God with your shame, your fears and your life.  As we read in Romans 8:1, So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus.”

God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is a loving and faithful God, and He wants to give you a new story where you are a beacon of light and hope for the people around you. You can be that beacon because the Light of the World, Jesus, lives in you and He is with you, and He will help you to live your life without shame.  Amen.

(This message was shared at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church in Langley BC on October 6, 2019. It is based on Genesis 3:8-24.)

[1] This story and Brené’s analysis of it is recounted in Chapter 2, “Civilization Stops at the Waterline,” of Rising Strong (New York: Random House, 2017), 13-37.

[2] Brown, 23-24.

[3] Brown, 37.

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