Yesterday, I found myself lying facedown in some dirt while talking to a group of guys about shame.
We were meeting to explore the various reasons we are resistant to authentic spiritual connection. I expected answers of disbelief or over-complicating prayer or simply not knowing how to connect with a higher power.
But the almost unanimous reason for avoiding connection with the Divine was surprising:
Shame—the snaky, suffocating belief that we’re not good enough. Shame is the hopeless sense that we aren’t valuable, worthy, or even spiritual enough to be capable of love, freedom or connection.
The problem is, our beliefs on self-worth are based on a cultural system of punishment and reward. It’s a black hole created out of humanity’s attempts to make sense of right and wrong. When you do good things, you deserve to be loved and rewarded. When you do bad things, you deserve to be ostracized and punished.
Unconditional love, unmerited acceptance, and unearned forgiveness are counter to the human constructs in which we’ve often lived.So we get stuck in questions.
“How am I supposed to believe in unconditional love and forgiveness and acceptance when I know what I’ve done?”
But spiritual connection is different than other connections. The Source of love doesn’t operate on a reward/punishment system because unconditional love by definition has nothing to do with behavior.
Shame may give us a sense of control and a cheap motivation to change, but it can’t lead us to freedom. Instead, shame leads to hiding, fear, anxiety, rebellion and feelings of worthlessness.
Shame tries to steal our happiness and destroy our recovery.
As the circle of guys spoke more and more about how they didn’t deserve love or connection with a higher power, I finally stood up from my chair. We were meeting outside, circled together around the smoke pit—arguably the grossest gathering place we could have chosen.
I got facedown on the ground under my chair. I could feel the group’s anxiety begin to rise.
“This is what shame looks like. What can I do from under this chair? How can I interact with others from this place? How can I practice recovery or perform well at my job or love my family or repair relationships?”
At this point, a guy stood up, shouting, “Chris! Get up! It’s disgusting down there! The dirt is covered in spit and ashes and ants and cigarette butts! Stand up!!!”
I stayed on my face in the dusty ground.
“I don’t deserve to get up,” I said. “I don’t deserve forgiveness. I’m not worthy to get out of this place of shame. I’ll get up when I’ve earned it.”
The group stared in silence.
Love, compassion and forgiveness are accessible and extended to us at every moment. Yet how often do we say no to new beginnings and second chances because we feel unworthy?
But, forgiveness and love are vehemently opposed to the concept of “deserve.” “Deserve” is a human concept. And the human systems we use often have no place in divine interactions.
Love and forgiveness offer change, but we have to be willing to take it. We have to be willing to get up.
We’re free to take the gifts of fresh starts and belonging and comfort. Shutting ourselves off from love and being facedown in shame is our choice.
As I live in forgiveness and love, I will be able to repair relationships, grieve the past, and choose to thrive in recovery—things I can’t do facedown in spit and ashes.
Know that no matter what your failures say, the voice of the Divine is always calling you out of the place of despair: “Get up! Shame has nothing for you! You can be free!”
And in faith and hope, stand up, brush off the dirt, and learn how to live in the insensible, inexplicable, unconditional love of God.
-Chris Gibson, MDiv