Posted by: Mark Nielsen | February 26, 2009

Shame & Confession: “Yes, We Have No Power”

 Part 3 in a 7-Part Series on Spirituality, Self-Image & World Religions


Anxiety is the greatest evil that can befall a soul,
except sin.
God commands you to pray,
but He forbids you to worry.

.St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622)


On the other hand… no human being ever has complete control over his or her own circumstances. Which tends to make one anxious, or so the psychologists tell me.

So the spiritual struggle is often about both finding one’s inner strength (your own slice of the Holy Spirit) to deal with life, and yet at the same time about surrendering, not being anxious, letting go, and trusting God to handle it all for us, and through us.

We are not in this struggle alone, however. We have not been abandoned to some cruel, solitary fate by an uncaring God or (hopefully not) a self-involved church. We have Scripture, prayer, meditative practice, family, fellowship, and good work to do in Christ’s name, all of which remind us we have partners in this life.

Nevertheless, we do also have to come back around to some harsh realities at times, in that classic cyclical way. Real life, faced head-on, forces us to confront real sin,  real evil, real conflict, and genuine limitations in our ability to relate to one another.

An honest appraisal of the implications of sin leads to the conclusion that most people and systems are broken, at least in part; that we are imperfect; and that yes, life really is hard, even with God in our corner and friends nearby.

The problem is that this admission, while necessary, also has the tendency to make us anxious again. When is the next breakdown or painful “sin event” going to happen? Our trust of God, others, and ourselves tends to break down when something goes wrong in our relationships, or our work. Stuck in our patterns of fear or anger, we forget about the forgiveness part of our spiritual inheritance. We don’t offer it to each other. We don’t feel it within ourselves.

Often due to a fundamental anger or fear over that lack of forgiveness –the same root causes of anxiety, depression and lack of motivation — I can personally attest to the reality that my own relationships tend to want to fall apart. Or perhaps break apart. Or blow themselves to smithereens.

“I do the very thing I didn’t want to do,” says the Apostle Paul, or something to that effect.

We even undermine our own desires for deeper relationship, don’t we?  We do it with humans, and we do it with God. We self-sabotage, because to move forward requires facing our past, and our present brokenness: our resentments, or fears, or whatever else is keeping that relationship “stuck”.

Eventually –unless we are working hard just to maintain that relationship, to let Christ be at the center of it– we can begin to grow apart. It’s almost inevitable. We may hurt each other, both intentionally and unintentionally.

“Hurt people hurt people,” a counselor once told me.

We’d like to believe it’s somebody else’s fault, and it certainly is in some situations. But that’s beside the point. We often hold onto that blame and gnaw on it, like a dog at a bone. Meanwhile, for most folks, we tend to deny our own brokenness. We deny our own role in the breakdown of the relationship, or the failure of a team when working at some task. We are scared to confess, for the other(s) will certainly heap more blame upon us, in their need to unload their own burden of guilt.

The only exception to this is Jesus, who took on our burdens on himself, on the cross. Better still, He continues to do so whenever we come back to the cross and lay our sin and shame and brokenness at his feet. It would be best if we all did this together, in community, to share responsibility for our common brokenness. But that dynamic does not often happen, at the same time, for each member of the relationship or the community.

For some unfortunate people that confession and unburdening, and the resulting freedom, never happens. We sometimes call them “toxic” people, because their attitudes about themselves and the world only serve to pollute, instead of promoting the love and cooperation needed to stay sane and productive as a community. Toxic people stay stuck, and usually don’t even know how stuck they are in their negative attitudes and hopeless sense of self-worth. They have hardened themselves to reality, and the True God, and often try impose some false personal view of reality on everyone they come in contact with. They try to control or avoid what is, instead of just accepting it in both its beauty and its brokenness.

Yet we still all have to get along somewhow. Most of us still hover around that 5% productivity range (remember my original premise from two days ago: life is typically 95% maintenance, 5% productive or new behaviors). So when it comes to building up or actively improving our relationships, or working effectively as part of a team, it often comes down to a simple but implied question: whose 5% or 10% carries more weight? 

I can’t speak for others, but much of my own self image has been formed by the “power” relationships in my life: who had power over me, who shared power, who granted power to me, who praised or blamed or ignored me, and of course, who have I had power over, and how well or poorly did I exercise it.

Real power, in that real world we were discussing above, may have to do with a person’s training, or their formal authority within a given role. It might have to do with social perception of their expertise (i.e. how well they have “worked the system”). Or their authority might even be arbitrary, or arbitrarily applied (which can lead one back to that frustration which first caused us to hold back, or refuse to trust the other with our contribution). In all cases, we have feelings and perceptions about the legitimacy of our own power or abilities, and the power of those both above and below us. It is one thing to claim authority (on the basis of scripture, or job title, or training, or physical and psychological strength). But it is entirely another thing — a more difficult thing — to wield it wisely, humbly, and honestly (in other words, in a Christ-like way).

We must remember, though, that when it comes to giving to others and actually increasing the resources of the entire community, our measly little 5% is like the humble widow’s mite from Jesus’ parable. Even though it is small, it is what we have to offer, and in our offering it, God will surely bless it, grow it and increase it, …whether or not our fellow givers (some of whom may be functioning in that legendary 20% range of generative behavior) recognize the sincerity or validity of our contribution.

I’m constantly confronted with the challenge of accepting the status quo, imperfect though it may seem to me. I bemoan my place, or my relative powerlessness, in various systems and relationships.  But I’ve got to learn to relax, and just deal with whatever comes my way. Many behaviors are just cyclical and necessary, and I’ve gotta find that “groove” where I’m checking and chucking the mail, and the email, and calling to fix the broken photocopier, and checking in with a client about a delivery, and replacing Junior’s worn-out winter coat, and getting my homework done… all of which have to be done on time, so the “maintenance” problem doesn’t get any worse, or so the work does not stack up to an alarming height that makes me want to run in the other direction. 

Nevertheless, try as we might, because we are broken or subject to sin, each day is going to have its small failures. We can let things “fall apart”, and let ourselves do so, because that’s just how life is. It’s okay to fall apart, and let God and other people help put the pieces back together. So we must implicitly or explicitly confess and be freed from these failures whenever possible, even if no one was harmed by the failure itself. We confess first and always to God, and in doing so, to ourselves at the same time. And we absolutely must remember to claim the forgiveness at that time, too. Don’t forget: forgiveness has been promised all along, and is never withheld (by God, at least… I don’t know how good you are at forgiving yourself… I’m pretty awful at it, which is the crux of the “shame” problem).

Human society has lots of pithy sayings that try to remind us of life’s imperfections and the need to “get over” them, of the frequency of breakdowns and our need to accept them. Nothing lasts forever, we say. Nothing ever goes as plannned. The best laid plans of mice and men… Don’t sweat the small stuff. Pick your battles. Frankie say Relax. One Day At a Time.

All that Chicken Soup for the Soul stuff.

Oh, and then there’s this week’s purely religious, Ash Wednesday reminder:

Dust you are, and to dust you shall return.

That’s the best of the bunch. (And no, I’m not being ironic or morbid. I’m trying to accept that death and rebirth have always been doing this strange, lovely dance.)

These sayings (and other cultural material that we can read, watch, listen to or participate in) are useful, like the quote from St. Francis de Sales above. They remind us in a handy way, again, that the human struggle to maintain, or to be “better” today than we were yesterday, is eternal. It is a process that civilized people are working on all over the world, and have done so throughout the course of history. And it is a PROCESS. There is NO DESTINATION, or at least no moment of arrival this side of Paradise.

So you’re not alone in your failure to figure it all out in one lifetime. Therefore, forgive and forget, to use another of those old truisms.

Chances are, you’ve done nothing to be ashamed of, and even if you did, you still need to let it go, as does anyone who was offended. And as for what was done to you in the past, it need not continue to hurt you. The grudges you hold are probably eating you up on the inside, but in bringing them to the cross, you can move forward in freedom.


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