Shame: Fuel in the Engine of Christian Mission

I was recently watching a webcast hosted by the Center for Action and Contemplation called “Imagining Another Way.” The speakers were Father Richard Rohr, one of the founders of the center, and Dr. Christena Cleveland, a renown social psychologist. Much of the conversation centered on questions about how we can collectively imagine a new way forward in the face of social evil and injustice. The reality is that much of the church’s current level or form of engagement with social problems is either ineffective, self-serving, or non-existent. There is a growing body of research showing that Christian mission - especially when it’s short-term and based on handouts - is largely detrimental in the ultimate cause of addressing long-term, systemic social ills.

So why do we still do it?

Great question.

There are many reasons that we keep engaging in service projects that are harmful to communities in the long run: ego, fear, the ease of fundraising for a mission trip, the fuzzies we get from feeling needed and important. But I want to put my finger on an intriguing idea that came up in the previously mentioned webcast – and that idea is shame.

Conversations on shame resonate with me because it’s a pain that I deal with all of the time. Many of us probably do. It’s the feeling of never being good enough and of never having worked hard enough. It’s beyond the impulse that says, “I did a bad thing,” and its echo in our souls sounds more like “I am a bad thing.” The way this plays out in our service is that we end up doing ministry simply to silence that echo. We hope that if we serve enough, give enough, and go on enough mission trips, we will feel better about who we are. And once we start to feel better about ourselves, we are unable to receive the truthful possibility that our service isn’t actually helping fix the problems that are affecting the lives of the marginalized in our midst.

In modern Christian culture, this belief that “I am a bad thing,” is pretty much foundational. We’re taught this all of the time. “You were born in sin,” and “Your heart is deceitful and wicked above all things.” We’re taught that we are inherently bad and that God is so repulsed by us that he had to kill his own kid to feel better about receiving us into his presence. While I understand how we arrived at this conclusion, its largely incomplete and it doesn’t lead to the transformation of our hearts or our communities.

But what if we chose a different way? What if we believed that we are fearfully and wonderfully made? What if we believed that we were born of love into a divine family? What if we were free from shame and could serve our brothers and sisters out of the overflow of how we’ve been unconditionally loved and accepted by God?

John Ortberg says it like this:

“We all — men and women — were created in the image of God. Fearfully and wonderfully made, fashioned as living icons of the bravest, wisest, most stunning Person who ever lived. Those who have ever seen him fell to their knees without even thinking about it… We’ve heard a bit about original sin, but not nearly enough about original glory, which comes before sin and is deeper to our nature. We were crowned with glory and honor.”

Imago Dei. Image of God.

We are more like God than we know. Therefore we must wrestle this sanctified theology of self-hatred to the ground if we are ever going to learn how to love and honor our neighbors as ourselves.

We are called to be on mission with Jesus to establish his kingdom here on earth. But we will never be able to design programs, organize ministries, and build churches that honor the dignity of the poor and the marginalized if we don’t deal with our shame. We must release this core belief – theologically and practically – that we are not good, because in my Bible, God’s exclamation after his creation of mankind declares just the opposite. According to scripture, we are very good indeed!

So how to we work this out in our real lives?

  1. Ask yourself what is motivating you to do good? Why are you doing the work that you’re doing? Be honest. 
  2. Pray for God to expose and heal your shame. Confess it and walk through it in community.
  3. Create space for God to tell you who you are. This may mean reading Psalm 139 every day for a year. This may mean writing a list of the God-like things about yourself, the good things. Celebrate those. Know who you are and how loved you are.
  4. Practice humility and be willing to hear that your plans for short-term mission trips and for running a free clothes closet may not be the best possible investment in the community that you’re trying to serve. This is hard. But it won’t kill you. It’s an invitation to a better way.

There are numerous resources that further, and more explicitly unpack this idea of “Toxic Charity,” or charity that hurts more than it helps. Check our FCS Ministries, the Chalmers Center, or Polis Institute for more information.