Speaking on the Unspeakable: Shame & Student Ministry
What words come to mind when you think of “shame?”
While recently listening through a friend’s playlist, I was struck by the way Julien Baker captures the experience of shame in her song “Go Home.” In its closing verse, the singer belts out these words:
“And I know that my body is just dirty clothes;
I’m tired of washing my hands
God I want to go home.”
The song may be difficult to listen through as it explores feelings we would prefer to avoid. Yet in listening to those few closing words, one finds shame perfectly captured in all of its self-condemnation, as well as the lingering hope felt by those who so desperately long to escape its grip.
In his book Shame Interrupted, Edward Welch defines shame as a “deep sense that you are unacceptable because of something you did, something done to you, or something associated with you.” Throughout his book, Welch describes similar feelings of contamination expressed by Julien Baker and points to it as key to shame’s power. That feeling of contamination may sound dramatic when heard in a song, but its experience is universal. It is that inner voice each one of us has heard at times telling us we are unworthy, unlovable, and unredeemable. And yet despite that common experience, it remains something rarely discussed in the open and often misunderstood – especially when it comes to teenagers.
The Birth of Shame
Scripture teaches us that shame is nothing unique to today’s generation. Its roots can be traced back to the story of Creation and the Fall in Genesis 1-3. Prior to Man’s sin we are told that Adam and Eve were naked before one another and yet they felt no shame. At the moment they disobey God, however, their Paradise comes crashing down and all they experience is now marred by a newly formed sense of shame.
We see this shame exposed as Adam is suddenly driven to cover up his physical nakedness. This physical covering, however, points to a deeper sense of shame that characterizes Adam’s interaction with God. And it bleeds into every relationship experienced by Man post-Fall.
When retelling this story, we often focus our attention on Man’s guilt before God. Although our guilt is an essential concept to understanding the Fall and ultimately the Gospel, a proper understanding of this story must also include the role of shame. It is shame that speaks not simply to Man’s guilt but to his experience as a fallen creature. To gloss over the latter subject is not only a failure to fully present the story as told in Genesis, but also a failure to tap into an experience that is quickly understood by those we serve in student ministry and thus a powerful point of communicating the Gospel.
Shame & Youth
Those who have had little interaction with teenagers may wrongly assume that the youth of today have somehow avoided the grip of shame. They assume this, of course, because teenagers are great at faking confidence. Walk into any high school and you will see multitudes of teenagers who appear to be entirely confident, comfortable, and certain of their identities. The same outward appearance can be observed within the walls of any student ministry filled with constantly smiling teens who faithfully attend church, sign-up for mission trips, and can even speak of what God has been teaching them in their daily quiet times. With an exterior of complete confidence, many of our teens will speak of their God-given greatness and of the “sorrow” they feel when they observe the shameful ways of their fallen peers.
Yet if you dig beneath the surface just a little bit, of course, you will quickly discover that those constant smiles and those criticisms of others’ shame are often only thin veils quickly thrown over a deeply rooted sense of inadequacy and shame of their own.
One’s attempt to speak of their disgust they feel over the sexual immorality of their peers may very well be a covering of the shame they feel over their struggle with pornography. Another student who may go out of their way to speak of their joy in Christ may secretly be dealing with a sense of shame over their inner turmoil and doubts regarding their faith. Dig beneath the surface of any given student and odds are you will find a powerful sense of shame. Whether it is shame over something they have done or something they have experienced, the result is self-condemnation, a sense that they haven’t simply donewrong, but that they arewrong. This shame is characterized by an underlying belief that regardless of their efforts, they will always fail to doenough and to beenough for God.
There is a reason why songs like Baker’s “Go Home” (and the rest of her album Sprained Ankle) garner a following. So many can quickly relate to her experience. This is true for the teenagers who fill your local high school as well as for many who fill your weekly youth group meetings.
Understanding this underlying reality, we must consider the means of rightly addressing shame in ministry. This is where the conclusion of Baker’s song comes into play.
Shame & the Gospel
In the final seconds of “Go Home” we do not hear one final cry of condemnation, but instead the instrumental music for the worship song “In Christ Alone.” The choice to include this song is, according to Baker, simply a matter of nostalgia; something that brings her back to her childhood. Although we cannot be certain of Baker’s understanding of the Gospel, we as believers are able to understand the overwhelming and magnificent truth regarding the placement of that song. That truth, in short, is that the home Baker cries out for is, truly, found in Christ alone. In Christ alone, not only are we able to find our only hope, but we are able to find the message that conquers all sense of shame and condemnation. To that teenager who feels unredeemable because of something that they have done, the Gospel tells them:
“While we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
While you were still a guilty, shameful sinner, Christ died for you and has made you clean.
To that teenager who feels stained by a cruel action of another person and who thinks themselves to now be unlovable in their present state, that same Gospel says:
“…both He who sanctifies and those who are sanctified are all from one Father; for which reason He is not ashamed to call them brethren” (Hebrews 2:11).
Having been washed clean by Jesus you who were formerly alienated from God are now sanctified, redeemed.
And to your student who looks to their remaining years of high school and college as an endless gauntlet of potential shame, the Gospel of Christ brings the guarantee of a shame-free eternity:
“…that (Christ) might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless” (Ephesians 5:27).
There is nothing more freeing than this Gospel. Nothing else that not only removes our guilt as sinners before God but removes the stain of shame that our sin brings upon us.
May we who minister to students not only speak of Man’s guilt before God, but also the ongoing reality of shame that is often battled even by those of us who are in Christ. We must be careful in never assuming that the confidence we observe on the outside of a student tells their complete story. We must delicately seek out ways to peel back those layers, to ask difficult questions, and to be a constant reflection not of a self-righteous Pharisee, but of a sinner saved entirely by grace who is also daily striving to see the love of Christ at work in their own hearts.
The message of the Gospel is far greater than a message of being declared “not-guilty” in God’s court. It is also the story of formerly shame-filled orphans once alienated from the watching world who have finally been brought home in Christ.
It is a tragedy that so many teens can so quickly identify with Baker’s self-condemnation: “I know that my body is just dirty clothes.” But thanks be to God that those tragic words are not the Gospel’s conclusion. Let us remember that truth for our own encouragement and daily remind our students that home is not an impossible, far off dream – it is the present gift of the Gospel.