The Sneaky Snare of Shame

By Kevin Aron Wiebe

It is dangerous to discover who you are. Despite all the modern cultural notions we hear about people going on a quest to, “find themselves,” seeing the reflection of one’s identity is a difficult and dangerous prospect that’s fraught with pain. Ask any parent who has a tiny version of themselves walking around saying the same sassy things as Mom and Dad, revealing and amplifying the very traits their parents are ashamed of. Yet discovering a clear and sober minded picture of who we are—and who we ought to be—is important for Christians who wish to grow in faith.

The book of James talks about the word of God being like a mirror, something that shows us who we are (James 1:23). When we look into the word of God, we begin to see a vision of who we truly are, and we see the ways in which we do not align with God’s version of who we should be. In response to this, many of us feel shame and push those truths away. When we ignore those pieces of ourself we are ashamed of, however, we can repeat the same mistakes that we find so repulsive.

Jesus Saw Peter Clearly

I was reminded by this truth recently as I was reading through the Gospels. The night that Jesus was arrested, he predicted that Peter would deny him. Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, Peter—this very night, before the rooster crows, you will deny three times that you even know me.” Peter was quick to deny this. He retorted, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never deny you!” (Matthew 26:34-35). In Luke’s Gospel, it records the story of Peter’s three denials and then says, “And immediately, while he was still speaking, the rooster crowed. At that moment the Lord turned and looked at Peter. Suddenly, the Lord’s words flashed through Peter’s mind…And Peter left the courtyard, weeping bitterly” (Luke 22:60-62).

When Jesus revealed to Peter what he was about to do, Peter vehemently denied that he was capable of doing such a thing. He assured Jesus that he would stand with him even if it meant death. Jesus saw the weaknesses in Peter’s heart, but Peter was too ashamed to look at himself in that light. Jesus’ perspective, however, proves to be the much clearer estimation of Peter’s character and the sins that would result.

I wish I could have been there to witness the moment when Jesus locked eyes with Peter as the rooster crowed. I wish I could have known what was going through Jesus mind, and I wish I could hear the unspoken prayers of grief that were only expressed through Peter’s bitter tears. I also wonder if the look that Jesus gave to Peter is the same look he has for us when we come to God in our “Sunday best,” pretending that we are far more faithful than we are. Peter’s denial came as no surprise to Jesus.

So Peter did what comes so naturally to many of us: he ran away. He left the courtyard after coming face to face with his own sinful denial of Jesus. Now he saw what Jesus saw. Now he saw himself as he really was. He could no longer deny that he was capable of an act that cowardly.

Jesus, the living Word, revealed to Peter an accurate reflection of who he was, something that Peter initially declared was simply inaccurate and dismissed without another thought. Within hours, however, Peter would realize that Jesus was correct, and that he wasn’t nearly as brave and virtuous as he imagined.

We often like to look at our successes and better moments and construct a story about who we are based on all those good deeds, just like Peter did when Jesus prophesied what was to come. Have you, like Peter, experienced the shattering of your blissful illusion of yourself? How did you feel in that moment? I would suspect shame would be a very common emotion.

Shame and Chocolate Therapy

On a personal level, I have struggled with my weight for most of my life. I was always pudgier than my classmates growing up, and heard no shortage of fat jokes. I liked to think of myself as strong, which was accurate enough, but the truth was also that I was medically obese. I was ashamed of this, and my first few appointments with dieticians were so filled with shame that I came home feeling defeated and dove into a tub of Ben & Jerry’s. I felt emotionally wounded, and so bought my favourite flavour of ice cream, aptly named “Chocolate Therapy”. While I chuckle now as I write these words, at the time it was incredibly difficult. In those moments, my shame about my own gluttony led me to indulge that sin even more. While shame is potentially a helpful indicator that something was wrong, it was a terrible motivator as it led to more of the same negative behaviour.

I, like Peter, would have done well to acknowledge that there were, in fact sinful inclinations lurking within myself. Denying that fact led to even more negative behaviour. Only after coming to grips with the reality about myself—without wallowing in shame—was I able to start making better food choices. So how did this happen? I not only had to acknowledge my faults, but I had to have a vision for something better and a belief that it was possible. At this point I’ve lost more than 60 pounds in a slow, healthy, and sustainable way.

A Better Vision

Jesus also gave Peter a vision for what was to come after his denial. Before Jesus revealed to Peter his impending cowardice, he said this: “I have pleaded in prayer for you, Simon, that your faith should not fail. So when you have repented and turned to me again, strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22:32, emphasis added). Jesus saw that Peter was about to abandon and deny him. Jesus also saw, however, that Peter still had a purpose. Peter was not worthless. Just as Peter’s denial was no surprise to Jesus, neither is the fact that God can use people even though they fail.

Just as Jesus wasn’t surprised at the imperfections within Peter’s soul, neither is he surprised at ours. God has a plan and a purpose for each of us. When we remain in the realm of shame, we are far more likely to become more of what we despise. When we push past the shame and come to think of ourselves with sober judgment (Romans 12:3), we can repent and humbly begin to do the work that Jesus has for us. We discover grace, and we receive purpose.

As followers of Jesus, when we look into the Word and see our own reflection, let us not give way to the snares of shame and denial. Like the story of Peter, Jesus sees our flaws more clearly than we see them ourselves, and the Good Lord loves us even still. Instead of shame and denial, let’s take one more step into the Word to discover God’s beautiful vision for our lives. When we let Jesus take our shame, and in return, accept God’s perspective of us, we come to truly find ourselves—and so much more, because, “Anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Kevin Wiebe

Kevin Wiebe, BA, is the pastor of New Life Christian Fellowship (Stevenson/Tilbury, Ont.) and has held various administrative and educational roles in the EMC.

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