I often write about the power of shame in the context of recovery. But shame is a human problem, and long-time Christians are in no ways immune. I was a Christian—and a slave to shame—for more than a decade before I became a slave to alcohol.
Like many, I began my spiritual journey of faith with high hopes. After accepting Christ in my late teens, I was starry-eyed about the free gift of salvation, anxious to spread the good news. But once the hallelujahs passed, I learned much more was required of me. I got busy with spiritual disciplines and a long list of do's and don'ts.
Meanwhile, I learned in church,"Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come. The old has gone, the new is here!"( 2 Corinthians 5:17)
But I didn't feel new, at least not for long. Instead, my capacity for sin seemed just as great as before I became a Christian. And the harder I tried to become more holy, the more guilty, burdened, and ashamed I felt.
In shame's shadow, I grew cynical and disillusioned. I decided that my "old man" had faked his death or my new self had gotten mangled in the spiritual birth canal. Either way, I was a failure and a fraud.
The depths of my spiritual crisis came clear to me one night when I realized that I didn't share the gospel with others because I wouldn't wish what I had on anyone.
How sad is that?
I can't say what happened next—a lot of drinking—was the direct result of my spiritual discontent. But I do think a shame-based faith was fertile soil for the seeds of addiction.
Fortunately, I believe something different today. I think my "old man"—my ego-based, carnal self—will never die in the literal sense I once imagined that Paul was promising. Otherwise, why would New Testament writers so often remind us to walk, "according to the Spirit, not the flesh?"
After I got into recovery, I came to understand that God's intention in sending Jesus was never to eliminate my sin nature, but to forgive me for having one. As long as I'm alive, my "old man" or "false self" will never die, reform, or even go on vacation.
This small shift in how I think is slowly reshaping my spiritual life. I aim not to sin, of course. But I don't waste precious energy trying to conquer my capacity for sin beyond the present moment. I'm no longer shocked when my ego hounds me, or when I wake up with a voice in my head that declares me queen of all I see.
These days, I try to focus most of my spiritual energies on nurturing and calling forward what I like to think of as my real self, my beloved self, the self that was made in God's image and can't be tainted or diminished by sin. This is the self that is always saying yes to God and whose face is never covered with shame.
Meanwhile, I've noticed that people who believe that the goodness of God actually dwells within them are more likely to see and serve God in others. I've noticed that people who know that they are not their sin are less likely to live in shame and more likely to fall with great relief into God's arms.
Today, that's me. And I wish what I have on everyone.