The Monstrosity of Shame

Last night a monster came to call.  I had non-stop dreams that all centered on shaming me – episodes in which I came out worthless, useless, vile and beyond anything I could do to better anything.

I wish I could say that I ran to God for shelter.  I was shocked by the attack and I stumbled to my Prayer Book and Bible this morning.  God’s Word was waiting to provide cover in spite of my state of mind.

One of my offerings was Psalm 19, and here are various versions of verse 12, which stopped shame’s ringing in my ears and brought the comforting voice of Jesus:

Psalm 19_12 versions

And a couple more:

Who can detect trespasses?  Cleanse me from my inadvertent sins.  (NAB 19:13)

But who can detect their errors?  Clear me from hidden faults.  (NRSV)

I found two places of comfort in the verse.

First, none of us know all the bad stuff cooking away inside of us.  We’re a race of equals in that we can’t discern, know, understand or even detect all malign thoughts and emotions that warp our actions.

Sure, we can and do figure out and even correct some of them along the way.  And that’s what a healthy conscience allows.

Herakles and the Hydra, Greek vase circa 525 BC 

But none of us are perfect.  The evil within us abides throughout our life in the flesh, like a hydra  that keeps growing heads no matter how many we lop off.

Shame is a monster that devours us from the inside out.  Shame defines us by the universal human problem of sin, then expects us to do what none of our brothers and sisters on earth can do – overcome the problem by willing and muscling our way to “perfection.”  Those who try this either deceive themselves into an arrogant assumption that they are better than others, or set themselves up for despair as each failure only enlarges their shame.

The second insight follows the question mark in the verse.  There is a subject, a someone assumed, and that someone can do something about our shame.   Nobody can figure out all the evil within, but, in a seeming contradiction, there is one who can and who can do something about it – forgive, cleanse, acquit, clear.

It’s the Bible, after all, so there’s no mystery about God being the One to whom the Psalm points.  But as I looked at the verb I was surprised to find that it is the imperative – a command – of the Hebrew verb naqah.  Having called out in despair in the first part of the verse, in the second part we order God to do something about our shame.  There’s no “please” in the way this shows up in Hebrew.  It’s just, “Hey, God, fix me.”

Fix me how?  naqah is from a root meaning to be empty or clean.   So God can empty us of shame and give us back a healthy conscience that identifies and corrects faults without defining our lives by them.

And God can cleanse us, even as the evil of which we’re blissfully ignorant churns away in our hearts.  “Clean” was a moral category in Hebrew thought – to be “clean” was to stand redeemed from sin and righteous in the sight of God.  To be “unclean” was to be stained and required separation from the righteous lest the unclean person stain them (talk about shame).  Only specific sacrifices and ritual cleansing could restore an unclean person.

Christianity calls upon Jesus Christ as the hero who kills the hydra.  Washed by baptism in his name, we are cleansed of shame; feasting by faith on the perfect sacrifice of his body and blood, we are filled with his righteous life and shame has no room to live in us.

Need I tell you that is an uncomfortable way to pray, especially if you are prone to shame?  Flinging an imperative at God feels like it can only add to my shame.  But this is exactly what the person in Christ has freedom to do:

Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.  (Hebrews 4:16, KJV)

And he said to them, “Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; and he will answer from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything’? I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs. And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. (Luke 11:5-9 ESV)


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