My voice came out braver than I felt, startling me.
“I need you to explain what you mean by God-centered shame.”
The entire class turned and looked in my direction. A guy sitting at our table cleared his throat and shifted in his seat. I didn’t realize the tension in the room until I spoke up. But it was clear: they are the leaders; we are the students. They know more than we do. They speak; we inhale.
I couldn’t ignore my gut any longer – the small voice telling me to speak! - and so I did. I raised my hand, and when my hand was ignored, I interrupted the greeting to ask my question.
The response to my question was mediocre and confusing at best, and so I pushed a little more. “But, I still don’t understand. How can shame exist within His kingdom if Christ went to the cross despising the shame? Shame cannot coexist with grace. It can’t.”
And they told me that it came down to the Greek roots of words, and in 2 Corinthians 7:10, the godly sorrow leading to repentance is really an offshoot of godly shame. We’re faced with our sin, and so ashamed, we’re moved to repent.
People joined in the discussion. I still wasn’t willing to let it go, but my words were starting to trip over themselves because of the almost robotic-like responses of those around me. Phrases like “Well, I think what he means is this…” and “we can definitely feel shame over our sin and it lead to repentance” and “I can totally see how shame, in this context, would be beneficial to our salvation” were said.
And friends, I swear I saw red.
“I still don’t see how they relate.” I said. “Grief is not shame. Sorrow is not shame. When I feel shame, I believe lies. Grief and sorrow are healthy emotions. Shame is not. Shame is negative. Shame speaks lies.”
I felt as if I were a broken record, near tears and shaking. I kept hearing the words of my therapist, reminding me of my worth in Christ, telling me there is no shame in Christ, Elora. None. You’re free from it’s embrace!
This was more than my love for words and how these people simply weren’t understanding definitions. This was deeper and felt more insidious. It scared me.
The teacher glanced at his partner, an older man in leadership, and he stepped forward. Looking right at me, he smiled.
“I think it’s important to make the distinction that in Gospel counseling, you would need to take care with how you word this - especially if the person you’re counseling has suffered from something like sexual abuse.”
And just like that, I was silenced. This wasn’t the safe place I’d grown to love. In a few seconds, it turned into a place where I felt the need to be wary.
You see, it wasn’t that I felt personally attacked by the teacher. I won’t assume he knows my story. But, paired with the crazy-making reaction of those in the class with a reminder that oh yeah – I digest things differently than others, I felt as if my voice didn’t count because I fit into a category they saw as an exception, and therefore unimportant.
After that, my thoughts went something like -
I’m making a big deal out of this, because I suffer from shame.
I can’t see the truth of this, because I suffer from shame.
I won’t be able to read Scripture correctly, or hear the Holy Ghost, because I suffer from shame.
I ended up leaving the class early, too upset to function and too confused to pay attention.
The other evening, we spoke with a friend who is taking the class now. I raised an eyebrow and took a sip of my water before bombarding her with questions. Apparently, the shame week was this past Sunday and they opened the class with a caveat:
“We need to lay some groundwork before we discuss God-centered shame.”
“They opened up the class with an explanation? Before they even talked about it? Kind of like saying we know you’ll have questions so to avoid them, we’ll answer them beforehand.“
She nodded, and I could feel my pulse strengthening to the rhythm I know well – This is wrong. These are lies. You need to say something.
My friend glanced down at her phone, “apparently grief and sorrow come from the same Greek root as shame - at least, that’s what we were told in relation to 2 Corinthians 7:10.” She looked back at me and continued. “But I’ve looked. Those two words mean different things. Every source I find shows different words – not the same one.”
And my stomach twisted at the thought of those in the class who now believe in God-centered shame simply because of a caveat and an explanation of incorrect linguistics.
There are a few things that concern me in this story.
One: when churches build atmospheres of trust so thick-walled and sure that those in attendance walk around sedated and hungry – taking in everything that’s said as truth. Aside from my husband and friends who took the class with me, there wasn’t anyone else who spoke up about the negative connotation of shame. When I pushed for clarification, the sighs and looks of condemnation were enough to silence even the most outspoken person in the room. Even though I don’t feel as if this situation was an explicit form of spiritual abuse, there’s something very cautionary in handing out explanations of Scripture as if you are the only one in the room privy to such information. The lack of dialogue here concerns me. When I came in with a different perspective and began questioning, those present immediately jumped to defend the leadership.
I was shaking in my boots by speaking out in the first place. There was no animosity on my end. At least, not until I felt attacked by the class and silenced by the mentioning of abuse.
Second: the issue of words. They mean things. I keep running into these situations where people are hurt or misunderstood because of a lack of clarity or inability to right a wrong. It’s not hard to issue an apology or shift and edit word choice. We live in an imperfect world with insufficient language. It happens. But choosing the right word is worth it.
When I approached the leadership of the class about the phrase God-centered shame, I asked why they didn’t just use sorrow or grief - like the verse says. They told me the Greek root produces a stronger emotion than just the sorrow or grief we know – something more akin to shame. I responded that I’ve experienced grief before and can attest to it being sufficiently suffocating and paralyzing. “Grief, as I’ve experienced it, serves as an incredibly intense emotion. Why can’t we just say grief? Why do we have to say shame? Those two words, within context, mean two completely different things.”
They shrugged and said something about “seeing my point” but that within Scripture, it says what it says and so that’s that – we’ll stick to “shame.”
But here’s the thing. Those words don’t mean the same thing – not even in Greek.
In Greek, αἰσχύνη (shame) is a painful feeling due to the consciousness of having done or experienced something disgraceful. λυπεω (grief) means to be sad, be distressed, or grieve. Two different words.
And so we’re left with two words with two different meanings yet often used interchangeably within our culture.
We need to fix this, Church. We should be the ones spearheading campaigns against shame. Those who struggle should feel safe within our walls – not silenced with a pat on the head because they react differently. This is a dangerous and often abusive method of maintaining power. I love the Church – both locally and universally – but we know better. We can do better.
We should know enough of the Gospel to understand that shame has no place within redemption. We need to be able to look our brothers and sisters in the eye and remind them shame whispers the lie of what our sin has created within us but grief and conviction point us to the truth of who we are in Christ. And at no point and in no way does shame lead us to restoration.