Those of you who know me well, know that I have struggled with guilt most of my life. A friend and prayer partner recently told me that I suffer from more Calvinist guilt than anyone he knows. Guilt says, "I'm not doing enough." The response to guilt is to do more - to fix it.
Guilt gets a pretty bad rap. We hear people say, "Don't make me feel guilty!" But guilt is actually a pretty useful emotion. We are created to be social beings and guilt informs us of how our behavior and actions impact others as well as ourselves. Guilt encourages us to examine those behaviors and make amends or fix where necessary. Because of guilt, we may make better decisions in the future, and experience more joy in ourselves and as well as with the people around us.
But shame is another matter. In shame, we drop the word "doing" from, "I'm not doing enough" to simply, "I'm not enough." In shame, there is no longer a behavior to be fixed but a deeply flawed person who stands at the center, seemingly unfixable.
I have realized that a large part of what happened to me that led to my burnout was flipping from guilt to shame. With guilt, I still had the potential to fix by simply working harder and doing more. But with shame, there was a hopelessness - I am not enough and I can't fix it no matter how hard I work. I'm not enough as a step-mother, as a new wife, as an Executive Director, as a fundraiser, as a writer, as a ministry leader, and so on. I am failing and the problem is me.
This has been an important realization for me. Going from such a high note of being so passionate about my ministry in September, all the way down to feeling nothing in December, had a few people (including myself) wondering about a spiritual warfare component to this. I do believe that is/was the case; Satan has tried to use guilt most of my life, and it didn't take too much for me to allow shame to incapacitate me.
But as I've pondered this over the past few weeks, I'm wondering if shame really is such a bad thing? The truth is, I am not enough. The truth is, I've been blessed with gifts and talents that have allowed me to have impacts; and as those impacts grew, I rested more on what the Father gave me as tools, then on the Father himself. But I am not enough. It's only through Christ that I can have the courage to stand and do anything in His name on any given day.
My head "knew" this. I had mouthed these words all my life. I "knew" that God didn't need my help - that it was a privilege to join Him in His work. But my heart just received a serious wake up call. I really can't be all things to all people. I really do have to rest and lean and cling to Him. I am not enough.
The important thing with shame is to recognize the truth of who we are with all of our vulnerabilities and flaws, but not stay in that helpless and hopeless state. We need to move from the recognition of shame to the celebration of who we are in Christ. That's not an easy move but it's one that I'm beginning to make, which is making me appreciate the role of shame. In some ways I want to hold on to it in order to be more humble and more God-reliant than ever before.
Mary Oliver writes a poem called "The Journey" in which she describes what sounds like a journey from burnout. She describes the need and the challenge of turning away from crying voices who say they need you, and as you do, this happens:
The new voice that I am recognizing is the voice of a made-in-the-image-of-God-yet-sinful-and-fallen-and-saved Renita who better understands herself and her shortfalls, but also understands and appreciates better that she is not enough. The new voice recognizes the importance of dependence on Christ for my salvation.The Journey
One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you kept shouting their bad advice -
though the whole house began to tremble and you felt the old tug at your ankles.
"Mend my life!" each voice cried.
But you didn't stop. You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried with its stiff fingers at the very foundations -
though their melancholy was terrible.
It was already late enough, and a wild night, and the road full of fallen branches and stones.
But little by little, as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn through the sheets of clouds
and there was a new voice which you slowly recognized as your own
that kept you company as you strode deeper and deeper into the world,
determined to do the only thing you could do - determined to save the only life you could save.
If you are experiencing anything of what I am expressing, you may want to check out some of these resources: