Shame is powerful. Having begun writing on the topic, it is important to say more. The Tradition, particularly in the texts that discuss the spiritual life, contains many references to shame. In recent times, it has become a topic within the field of psychology and in the community surrounding recovery from drugs and alcohol. Strangely, it has been largely neglected in spiritual writing, even among the Orthodox. I am not surprised at this neglect. The centuries-long use of the legal/forensic model of the Christian spiritual life, not actually native to the Christian East, has a history of using shame as a means of moral engagement. The assumption has been that, if an individual feels sufficiently bad about something, they will be motivated to change. It seems to make sense. However, it’s not a true assumption, and the damage such an understanding can do is enormous. Thus, it is not surprising that many Christians in our contemporary world shy away from dealing with shame, assuming it to be nothing more than an artifact of a moralistic, censoring Christianity.
An added problem is that the legal/forensic worldview has so dominated the spiritual landscape (including several centuries within Orthodoxy itself) that many people assume a text to be using that worldview when it speaks of shame and the like. The criticism I have received from some Orthodox writers for my dismissal of the moralistic framework is a testimony to how prevalent this worldview remains. But it would be tragic to let several centuries of error destroy our ability to appropriate and understand the riches of our spiritual inheritance. Shame has not disappeared (and will not) even when moralistic thinking does. The sexual revolution and moral relativism within our culture have done nothing to remove shame. There are certainly public behaviors that appear “shameless” by earlier standards, but the existential and psychological problems of shame have not been altered in the least. Shame is not a cultural phenomenon – it is human and it is universal.
There are vast numbers of people who experience shame about how they look, even though not being “beautiful” is beyond their control. The mega-business of modern cosmetic surgery (some $10 billion annually in the US) is driven by shame. Many experience shame about things that have been done to them (sexual molestation, for example), when they were, in fact, helpless victims. Anything that touches our core experience of “who I am” is a candidate for producing shame.
Needless to say, any reflection on the sins we have committed will likely touch on places of shame. In an attempt to avoid this experience, we may reflect that the things we have done are “what everybody does.” But this is simply a life lived at the shallow end of the pool, a place where we are least likely to encounter God. Doubtless, the foolish thief who railed at Jesus on the Cross simply thought of himself as having done some things that weren’t really all that bad. He had hidden from his own heart and thus remained in the dark.
But what about those of us who carry a great burden of shame? Those whose experience of the toxic burden within them is almost unbearable? The nature of toxic shame is that it is involuntary. Any number of things can produce such an effect. Abuse, in all of its many forms, thrives on shame. To strike at a person’s core sense of “who they are” can reduce them to a point of such weakness that control and other abusive measures become easy. There are also those who have been shamed, not by others, but through the simple accidents of life itself. Handicaps, flaws in appearance, every conceivable failing of nature or nurture can yield an experience of shame. And, again, this shame can be so strong as to become unbearable.
We can also experience, at a toxic level, shame that is self-inflicted. Any number of sinful actions can yield that result. And it is here that I want to intervene in this article and drive home a point: we are not our sin.
No human being is evil by nature. We are created fundamentally good (even “very good” in the language of Genesis). And though we may do many things, and many things may be done to us, none of them change “who we are.” Sin is not a constitutive part of our existence. It is extra-human, and external to our nature.
I recently cited St. Gregory of Nyssa in this regard:
…In any and every case evil must be removed out of existence, so that, as we said above, the absolutely non-existent should cease to be at all. Since it is not in its nature that evil should exist outside the will, does it not follow that when it shall be that every will rests in God, evil will be reduced to complete annihilation, owing to no receptacle being left for it?
Regardless of how one views St. Gregory’s expectation of the final destruction of evil, his contention that evil exists only in an abuse of the will is a matter of dogma. Evil has no existence of its own. As such, evil does not constitute any part of our being.
Admittedly, the healing of the will can be extremely difficult. The efforts we bring – prayer, fasting, almsgiving, repentance and confession – are not without benefit. But we generally experience a persistence of sin. St. Gregory refers such persistent sin to a purgatorial fire (cf. 1 Cor. 3:13-15). Such fire should not be confused with the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory in which sinners undergo temporal punishment as a satisfaction for the damage caused by sin. St. Gregory sees this fire described by St. Paul as therapeutic – it is for our freedom and deliverance.
Within our conscience, it is important to make a distinction between sin and the self. The animus, anger, even hatred, that is properly directed toward sin becomes deeply destructive and harmful when directed towards the self. In many consciences, particularly among the young, these two are confused. The result becomes a very dark, toxic shame. Within that darkness, the good news of the gospel is easily perverted and taken to be nothing more than additional condemnation and shame.
Pascha (Christ’s death, descent into Hades and Resurrection) should always hold the center point of all Christian thought. That is true on the historical and the cosmic level, but it is also true on the personal level, as well. My sin holds the position of death and Hades within this personal understanding. It may even be likened to the devil himself. It is thus true that my sin crucifies Christ. But Christ descends into the depth of my sin (Hades), and acts to destroy it (trampling down death by death) and to rescue me from destruction. You are not your sin. Christ’s Pascha is a personal deliverance from the bondage of sin and death. God is utterly and totally on your side. He is not your enemy.
Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage. (Heb 2:14-15)
This image of bondage is consistent in St. Paul, used to describe the life under sin (and the life under the Law, as well). Sin is an oppressor. It is Pharaoh. It enslaves. But it does not adopt us and make us its own. It does not and cannot transform us into sin itself. We are not the enemy.
The modern concept of the Self has no room for these distinctions. The Self, with all of its actions and tendencies, is conceived as the product of choice. We are what we choose to be. It denies that there is such a thing as human nature, and therefore, unwittingly consigns us to an identity of our own making. In the modern world – you are your sin. It is little wonder that we have undergone persistent efforts to redefine various things as something other than sin. How else could we escape the burden of shame created by such a false consciousness?
This is the fundamental liberating message of Christ’s Pascha. We are not the enemy. By nature, we are created good. We are in bondage to sin and death, manifest in the evil that infects our lives and our world. But Christ has come to trample down sin and death, by becoming sin and entering death, destroying them both by the resurrection. This is the liberty that is promised to the children of God, and to all of creation as well. (Romans 8:21)
This is the liberty proclaimed each year at Pascha in St. John Chrysostom’s Paschal homily, read in all the Orthodox Churches of the world: “Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave.”