Freedom From Pleasing and Perfecting.
I’ve been carrying an unnamed gremlin around for most of my adult life, it was 3 years ago that I finally gave it a name. It was called “Shame” and by calling it out, I’ve seen its wreckage and how it has reduced the good news of Jesus and its impact on my life.
When we think about shame in the Bible, we think of the way Jesus took shame away from marginalised members of society. The prostitute, the taxman, the bleeding woman and the lepers all came to Jesus. He paid honour to those that were considered dirty and sinful in their societies producing a shame-free zone for more people to freely come to him.
Our understanding of shame, however, needs to go beyond this as there is another less obvious but prevalent form of shame which exists today that camouflages itself in clean living Christians. Shame showed itself in my life in the form of Perfectionism.
Am I Good Enough?
Outwardly, the behaviours and works of those affected by shame look exactly the same as another Christian. Only, the one who is driven by God’s grace is inwardly energised and serves from a place of worthiness. But the other is driven by shame and is gripped by a paralysing feeling of “I’m not good enough”. Which leads to performing, conforming and striving, none of which honours God. And the main reason why it doesn’t honour God is that the feeling of shame seeks to find honour from our ourselves, from our group’s view of us, from our results. Rather than accepting the place of honour that God gives us and wants to give us.
The Blessing Of Guilt.
Firstly an important distinction we need to make between “guilt” and “shame”. Guilt is a strong emotion we feel when we do something wrong. It’s related to our behaviours. Shame, however, is wrapped up in our identity and rather than saying I have done something wrong, it says that “I am not enough”. It beats itself up over tiny things, plays them over in their head and flagellates herself. Constantly compares its performance to its neighbours and works harder in order to numb these negative emotions.
Guilt, however, is a healthy response to sin. It moves us towards repentance by taking responsibility for what we have done wrong and trusting that God takes away our sin. Putting our confidence squarely on Jesus and crediting him for bestowing the righteousness that we cannot earn. It’s from that place that grace energises us to turn away from sin and live our lives for Jesus. The Apostle Paul’s demonstrates clearly through his life how much he understood grace “It’s not I that work harder than the rest of them but the grace within me” (1 Corinthians 15:10).
Are You Living In Shame?
Shame, however, doesn’t move us towards finding rest and security in Jesus. Shame moves us towards finding rest and security in the works of our hands. Its self-worth is tied up to our performance. Its yardstick is self-constructed as we appraise ourselves according to our works, goals, and targets. It ends up trying hard to conform to the expectations of other and doesn’t give itself the freedom to fall short. It, therefore, becomes judgemental of others too which leads to constant disappointment.
Shame also asks the question “Am I worthy of belonging?”. When our worth is tied to our group’s view of us, we draw significant pride from our good reputation. Consequently, we can arrive at confused or poor decisions about where God is leading us when there’s a strong fear of social disconnection. As Psychologist Brene Brown puts it in her book ‘The Gift Of Imperfection’ – Shame loves perfectionists because they are always thinking “what do I have to do in order to be approved and accepted?”
How important are other people’s view of you? How important is it to faithfully obey God? Sometimes spiritual decisions we make causes us to sacrifice one for the other. When these two questions conflict, it can expose our identity and where we find value from.
When Good Reputations Are Good.
Having a good reputation is not a bad thing, Christians ought to be recognised for their good deeds and service. One of the characteristics of being an elder is that you are above reproach (1 Timothy 2) and have a good reputation with outsiders (1 Timothy 7). To be above approach means that no criticism or charge can be laid against you, making your role as a leader effective as you gain the respect of people. The bible says that a good name is better than gold or silver (Proverbs 22:1) and we find many examples of people in the bible who spoken well of. Including Ananias of Damascus (Acts 22:12) and Cornelius (Acts 10:22).
Are You A People Pleaser?
However here is the problem. When we go to great lengths to chase the approval of others, we can trade in faithfully following Christ. Since our relationship with God is connected to our joy, freedom, and direction in life. We can give this up and become enslaved to what others think of us and subtlety drown out the voice of the holy spirit and its leading in our lives.
Paul in the bible was so gospel-centred that other people’s opinions didn’t matter as much to him. This produced in him an ability to make clear judgement calls when people were steering away from the gospel. Listen to the way he speaks here. “Even if we I am now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10)
This had come about because the Jews tried to bind certain rules onto the Christians in order for them to be viewed as complete Christian (Galatians 2:4-5). The Jew’s personal views moved into the public sphere. Their internal legalism drove them to become emphatic that others should live this way too. That’s why shame love leaders who are perfectionists. They get things done, want to be certain about everything and insist on perfection from their group.
Paul did not give into their message because he understood their man-made rules were not aligned with gospel truths. He could foresee disunity down the line by the potential set up of two hostile camps with one group believing they were “holier” than the other. He understood the gospel message was under threat and spoke out clearly against this. For a season, this created relational disharmony but what was at stake was greater disunity in the church.
Barnabas, however, fell victim to the group’s error of thinking and was sucked into the elite group’s mentality and became prejudiced towards the Gentile Christians for fear of what the “others” might think (Galatians 2:12-13). The story sheds light on how easy it is, even for Barnabas – a great man and “son of encouragement” to allow relationships to cloud his ability to choose Gospel truths.
When We Idolise Church Traditions
Barnabas became full of self-doubt and a victim to “group shame” which caused him to act against his conviction and become someone else. “Group shame” exists when our group’s cultural norms, traditions, established ways of doing things are idolised to the degree that breaking them would be akin to breaking God’s law. We move away from owning a healthy sense of guilt about sin to feeling unnecessary guilt for breaking group norms which creates fear and causes us to act in ways which we normally wouldn’t.
When traditions and practices become iron-clad, they also become heavy burdens we have to carry to feel right with God that it removes our joy in Christ. We feel condemnation when we go against the grain and become torn over simple decisions instead of being filled with godly gratitude for the freedom we have in Christ to even have a choice.
But most of all it becomes a distraction to accepting Jesus’s main message, that righteousness is found only in him and not through rules we’ve designed for ourselves. Through this, we give away our joy from the gospel of Jesus. At worst it can distort our view of God as one who is punitive, desires to take away our joy and is always annoyed with us.
Are We Trying Too Hard To Fit In?
This dynamic is common in shame-honour cultural settings where values are group orientated and there are strong expectations of uniformity. Jayson in the book, 3D Gospel describes honour. Honour comes from your relationships and is measured by our social worth within the community. When others think highly of us, it results in a high social score. Shame is the other side of honour, it is having a negative social rating. Since morality is enforced eternally, we make choices by asking “What will others say?” or “Is this how things are done?”. Because of the culture of external regulation that Jayson describes, we can become prone to idolising our group more than God.
The sense of fitting in can become overpowering that we forsake God-given choices and convictions for the sake of maintaining the social status which leads to spiritual dis-engagement and the feeling of being trapped. In the long term deteriorates the levels of joy and fruit in the group.
Whose approval are you seeking? Some of us deal with shame by withdrawing and silencing ourselves whilst others seek to please and appease. Neither of these methods are helpful.
What do I wish I could have said to myself in my earlier years? Consider 3 spiritual strategies to overcome shame and let go of your need to please, perform and perfect.
1. Meditate On God’s Word Deeply
When we read God’s word and meditate on it deeply, we are unlikely to waver in the face of people’s mixed opinions. God’s word becomes the anchor for our souls that we become less outwardly governed and more inwardly charged because God’s voice has been written in our hearts (Hebrews 10:16). We know our Great Shepherd’s voice (John 10:14) and hear his whisper above the other fading voices. We don’t self-doubt but become filled with spiritual wisdom.
“The spiritual man makes judgement on all things, but he himself is not subject to anyone’s judgement. “For who has known the mind of the Lord, so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16).
This grounds our heart and gives us the godly confidence to follow his leading despite discouragement.
2. Let Go Of What Others Think
To think about God deeply is to feel for God more passionately, we cultivate a strong allegiance to God above all other things. When I finally had the courage to let go, my mind was awakened to all the possibilities with Christ that I normally would have limited myself to.
If we keep to the rules then the rules will keep us. It will keep us from expressing our gifts, talents, and ideas more freely. It’s usually the unexpressed ideas and thinking, godly convictions and insights that the world needs the most. So sacrificing our God-given identities for the sake of what others might think is simply not worth it.
3. Divine Honour Trumps Earned Honour
The final remedy to this would be to find complete security and contentment in the seat of honour that God wants to give us. In the Parable of the Guest (Luke 14:8) Jesus speaks of how many were hustling for the highest seat of honour, he tells them a parable of how God as the host of the banquet comes in and elevates them at the table and says “Friend, move up to a better place” (Luke 14:10).
Rather than hustle for our position at the table, we hold firmly onto God’s view of us. He is delighted with us because of what Jesus has done, he embraces us as a son and daughter. He looks at us and says “ You are my beloved child, with you, I am well pleased”. If we hold onto these truths deep down in our heart, it will stop us from searching for satisfaction elsewhere.
We can live our lives from a place of worthiness which says even if I fall short, even if I don’t live up to the standard. Because I am in Christ – I am holy in his sight and I can be free when others think low of me (Colossians 1:22) and also free when others think well of me.
Ann Ajet is the lead writer at Bread. When she’s not writing, she’s exploring street food markets in London with her husband and daughter.
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