Morality, Shame, and the Acquisition of Virtue

“But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,” (Matthew 6:3)

The experience of shame has many dynamics, permeating the larger part of human behavior. Though some psychologists have dubbed it the “master emotion” it is often unacknowledged and unrecognized. It should come as no surprise that much that is described as “morality” has little to do with the acquisition of virtue, while having almost everything to do with avoiding the torment of shame.

Psychologist Joseph Burgo (Shame, 2019) has described four “paradigms of shame” that provide a simple way of thinking about these dynamics. They are: unrequited love; exclusion; unwanted exposure; disappointed expectation. Each of these experiences, in their many varieties, serves to initiate the painful feelings of shame. It is worth noting, in this regard, that shame is sometimes described as the “unbearable emotion.” Of all the things we feel, it is the one we seek to most avoid. As such, it is a deeply powerful force in shaping our personalities and behavior. Only a very conscious effort, with ample emotional support, is able to confront shame and move past its dominance. In Burgo’s list, it is the power of exclusion (and its contrary, inclusion) that carry the most weight in world of morality.

In 1905, Max Weber, one of the fathers of modern sociology, coined the phrase, “Protestant work ethic,” to describe a social phenomenon that had evolved within Protestant nations and cultures. There was no assertion that Protestantism taught people to work hard and save their money. Rather, it was a culture that came about in the absence of the Catholic medieval world that it had replaced. Famously, that Catholic world had presented a clear affirmation of good works. Prescribed prayers, the giving of alms, prayers for the departed, fasting, and such, were all seen as productive of the work of salvation. If you were anxious about your salvation, there was something to be done about it and a clear path to follow. Protestantism had swept all that aside, insisting that salvation was purely gratuitous and that human beings could contribute nothing towards that end. In the Calvinist form, which was far more dominant across the whole of the Protestant world than is today acknowledged, salvation was purely a matter of election. If God chose you, you were chosen. That can leave a great deal of unresolved anxiety.

That anxiety, Weber, opined, gave rise to a different set of “works.” No Protestant would have claimed that their hard work and frugal lifestyle earned anything from God. However, the result of such living, its prosperity and uprightness, were seen as outward tokens of one’s election. The anxiety of salvation was answered with the reward of belonging. Gone, however, were the ritual and ecclesiastical aspects of this salvation. Indeed, as the 20th century progressed, much of the religious connotations of this process had disappeared. What remained (and remains to this day) is the social dynamic. [note – some suggest that yesterday’s “elect” has become today’s “elite.”]

One way to describe this social dynamic as it functions in our own time is the strong “moral” sense that marks those who belong to the “elect.” The “work ethic” once had a strong moral component (and may still have for many). Working hard is something “good” people do. Those who are lazy or refuse to work clearly lack something. My mother had a condemning phrase to rebuke unwanted behavior, “They’ll think you’re some of Uncle Pick’s people.” I discovered late in life that my “Uncle Pick” had not done anything illegal or harbored bad sexual tendencies. Instead, he “didn’t want to better himself,” my mother said. Of course, no one “taught” my mother how to be “good” or to “better oneself.” It was learned in a society of shame. To not better oneself was to risk exclusion, to be numbered among the people of Uncle Pick. It must be borne in mind that my father was an auto mechanic and my mother had worked in a sewing room, hardly the stuff of the American middle class. We had little and we were never going to acquire much. It was not wealth that marked the belonging – it was our “moral sense” that mattered. The “morality” that marked this belonging in the 1950’s of my childhood, was so mild-mannered that it could easily have been mistaken for a tame version of Christianity. However, it was already the case that someone could be seen to “belong” to this moral class while holding no particular religion at all. In some quarters, the word “Christian” simply meant a “gentleman.”

Of course, public “morality” was gone through a number of radical shifts since my childhood. Time was that what could be described as moral could also be described as generally Biblical in nature. The relations between men and women that were considered proper were those that, in one manner or another, had existed for quite some time. The sexual revolution of the 60’s was not revolutionary in its activity. Rather, it was revolutionary in its morality. What had once been fornication, adultery, and the like, now just became “sex” – and sex was good. Those who criticized it were slowly marginalized into the “basket of deplorables.” More revolutions followed, creating new standards for the culture. The content of “morality” has changed, but not its dynamics. The cities of America’s Northwest are at least as “moral” as any New England Puritan could have imagined. Our gibbets, stocks, and scarlet letters simply have a more updated form.

The demands of contemporary morality, particularly in their swift and ever-evolving forms, reveal the character of the morality (both old and new) that has long governed American society. The morality of belonging is best described as “moral sentiment.” More than anything, it describes the set of opinions which we hold. I am certain that moral sentiment can serve in almost any political or social corner of the culture, so long as there are sufficient people who will serve to reinforce its shaming demands. Of course, this is a deeply disturbing thought to consider in a culture whose opinions are largely shaped by various media experiences. I have seen the entire country turn on a dime in a matter of less than three years with regard to several moral sentiments, a change that, for the life of me, does not seem to have happened as a result of new discoveries or carefully reasoned debate.

The nature of true morality does not consist in our sentiments – how we feel or imagine ourselves to think about right and wrong. It does not even consist in how we act. Rather, true morality consists in who we are. Another way of describing this is to understand true morality as the acquisition of virtue, the forming and shaping of our character in the image and likeness of Christ. Mere moral rules and norms in the hands of a person whose character is flawed is similar to a child with an AK-47. The outcome is always predictable.

In the strident chaos of our present time, morality has become a weapon of the streets and many of our public institutions. This, however, is not the formation of character and the acquisition of virtue. Instead, the dynamics of shame, of exclusion and inclusion, are wielded in the on-going battle for dominance in the culture’s cold war. The first casualty, unacknowledged and un-mourned, is the character of those who participate, or are caught up in this dynamic of shame. It is a battle in which certain sentiments, declared to be “good” and desirable, are used in a manner in which their acquisition, through the dynamic of shame, will, in fact, deform the character of the person who acquires them. It is a “moral” activity that makes its practitioners immoral.

The true acquisition of virtue is a long, slow process shaped in the practices of a lifetime. It is marked by the integrity of our inner life united with the actions of our outer life. The commandments of Christ direct us towards this fundamental integrity. For example, His commandments direct us in actions for those in need. They do not, however, enjoin us about moral sentiments for those in need. That you feel caring for the poor is a good thing may mean next to nothing. Indeed, action driven by moral sentiment may have no more value than an inner drive to avoid shame. That same inner drive will likely impel a person to judge and despise those who do not affirm their actions or oppose them. Their care for the poor becomes an engine of hatred towards others.

In Christ’s teaching, attention is given to the inner life: we are to love our neighbors, our enemies, and to do good even to those who hate us. What kind of person loves their enemies? That kind of person lives as a revelation of true virtue? Shame studies show that rather than enduring the experience of shame, people most often transform their shame into anger or sadness. Both of these responses are an accurate description of our public mood. We have become the kind of people dominated by anger and sadness: we have become the kind of people who inhabit and perpetuate a shame-based culture.

Repentance and the acquisition of virtue requires that we disengage from the dynamics of shame (both creating and reacting) and take up, intentionally, the practice of the gospel as received from Christ. That means intentionally observing the commandments of Christ, both inwardly and outwardly, with simplicity and humility. To a great extent, we overcome the culture of shame by willingly bearing the shame directed towards us. For Christ’s sake, we become fools, freely accepting the condemnation of the world that we might be approved by Christ.

It is a life well-described by St. Paul:

“by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love; by truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; through honor and dishonor, through slander and praise. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything.”(2 Corinthians 6:4–10)

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



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44 responses to “Morality, Shame, and the Acquisition of Virtue”

  1. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, thanks to you I have been thinking a lot and dealing with shame as regards racial matters. It is profound: both the shame of exclusion and the shame of inclusion. They seem to mirror each other. I have also seen in two long time black friends who are Orthodox what the mystery of Christ does to that shame. It simply overcomes it. Not easily (as it is an ongoing work) but it does overcome it. Interestingly enough as they overcome, by God’s grace, the shame of exclusion, I, in their presence overcome the shame of inclusion which also helps others overcome their shame of exclusion. It is quite a grace.

    Going deeper into the experience has led me to the belief that Jesus’ words on the Cross: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” if entered into eradicate all shame. Repentance, real repentance in humility seems to be the way to do that. That at first glance seems counter-intuitive as repentance is often associated with being ashamed. That is a great block for many I would suspect. Plus, if I am excluded, it is unjust for me to have to repent because I am the injured party. And their the overt pride steps in.

    Am I right?

  2. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I am looking forward to you presentation at the “Vision and Virtue” conference of The Fellowship of St. Moses the Black Saturday. Still time to register folks:

    Fellowship of St. Moses the Black
    linking Ancient African Christianity and the African ¬American Experience

    2020 Conference

    Our 27th annual conference: October 9-10, 2020
    “Where there is no vision, the people perish:
    but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.”

    Join us via Zoom for the 27th Annual Ancient Christianity and African American Conference.
    Register Here:
    Full Conference fee: $20 (covers all Zoom webinars and the pre-conference fellowship)

  3. Arnold Karr Avatar
    Arnold Karr

    A very engaging piece, Friend Stephen. I have a question and an observation:
    -Do you use virtue in the general sense of excellence or right conduct specifically? Having posed the question, I think I know the answer, but I hope you will tell me anyway.
    -Do the four paradigms of shame you mentioned, I can only say I relate to unwanted exposure as shame. The others are unpleasant to be sure, but I don’t necessarily blame myself .
    My love and best wishes to you, Beth, and all your tribe.

  4. Arnold Karr Avatar
    Arnold Karr

    That should have read, “Of the four,” etc. My texting skills lack virtue.

  5. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I mean by virtue – the character of Christ Himself. To love as Christ. To give as Christ. To forgive as Christ. etc. My assumption (following Orthodox Tradition) is that Jesus intends in His commandments, the sacraments, and the life of the Church, to work in us towards that end. And, by virtue and character, I mean something that is ontological – truly myself – and not just “behavioral.”

  6. Harold Avatar

    Dear Fr Stephen,

    You wrote “To a great extent, we overcome the culture of shame by willingly bearing the shame directed towards us.”

    Can we say that Jesus has overcome, by willingly bearing shame? Hebrews chapter 2 comes to mind “…Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” And Isaiah 50 “I did not hide My face from shame and spitting.” It is powerfully humbling to think He bore shame on behalf of us. I think it is powerful enough to destroy something bad in us.

  7. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Indeed. We are able, ultimately, to bear our shame because we discover that when we allow ourselves to go there, we find Jesus already there, bearing it with us. This is the way of the Cross.

  8. Allen Avatar

    You remind me of a funny story. I am from the Appalachians of East Tennessee also, so you will understand the background. As a Baptist growing up in the 70s, the height of shame and morality was drinking alcoholic beverages. It was reserved for those shameful people who went down to the Elks lodge. But as micro-breweries became the rage a few years ago, they were faced with a dilemma. They wanted to be ‘cool’ but how did they make being ‘cool’ match with being at a micro-brewery. This was the answer “It is OK to drink good beer but a sin to drink mass produced industrial beer”. It wasn’t a joke, they were serious. I wanted to fall in the floor laughing when I heard that.

  9. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Love it! I was never much of a beer or wine snob. I was in England some years ago with a friend, and at the end of the day we went into a small pub in the village we were visiting. He was perusing the beer listings, and I ordered a Budweiser. He looked at me with disgust. I explained to him that Bud was my usual beer, that I had endured a long day, and simply wanted “my” beer. “After all,” I noted, “It’s an import!”

    All of this, of course, is under the heading of simply wanting the “usual” thing when you’re tired and not wanting any surprises. I think it was Chesterton who once said that there is more virtue in the man who can eat caviar without pretense than the one who eats lentils as a matter of principle. My wife thinks I’m a very boring guy in a restaurant. I confess that she’s right.

    In my childhood, if we were going to a restaurant (quite a rare thing), my Dad was clearly thinking “steak.” Otherwise, stay home.

  10. Dean Avatar

    My parents were pentecostal and teetotalers. But if they were sick they were not averse to drinking a hot toddy!
    Not from east Tennessee but the Missouri Ozarks. 😊

  11. Innocent Green Avatar
    Innocent Green

    “In some quarters, the word “Christian” simply meant a “gentleman.””

    Indeed what C.S. Lewis feared.

    Excellent article. Or at least, if not actually excellent certainly not worthy of any shame! ☺️🙏

    Thank you, Father.

  12. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Dear Father, your beer story is a delightful example of selfless humility. In the sphere I’m in it seems everyone wants to demonstrate their preciousness. Quite the contrast —a way more stressful life, if it can be called that. I think I need a Budweiser.

  13. Nes Avatar

    I’m probably just too dense to understand, but for the dozens of times you’ve mentioned “bearing shame”, I still don’t know what it really means. Does it have to do with feeling a certain emotion? Shame is a *feeling*, is it not? I don’t know how to conjure it or even transform it—consciously at least. If shame is transmuted to anger or sadness, it is not something I think about or will.

    As far as shame “directed towards us”, I’ve never understood how this functions in light of Christ’s teachings, at least not in America. Who would shame us for feeding the hungry, sheltering the needy, having “gentleness as self control, which against these things there is no law”? It *seems* that the more we obey Christ, the more we would be lauded by our countrymen… precisely because we live in a culture that is so deeply rooted in a Christian tradition of charity, even if we’ve forgotten those roots.

    Anyway I may be way off base. Maybe some of y’all have been “shamed” for being a charitable person, but it’s never happened to me. My struggle has always been actually *being that charitable person*, actually developing the virtue—regardless of what other people think. It’s hard to give of oneself not because there is shame involved, but because it requires the giving up of personal pleasure and comfort.

    I hope someone can help me with my lack of understanding here!

  14. Alan Avatar

    I’m with you Nes. As a long time reader of this outstanding blog, I still don’t get what it means to “bear a little shame.” Although I think Father’s story of the beer is helpful, if I’m understanding it correctly.

  15. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Nes, Alan,
    “To bear a little shame” means to actually experience the emotion and not react on the basis of it. Not to retaliate. Not to defend. Not to excuse.

    The transformation of shame into anger or sadness is, in fact, largely an unconscious thing, happening so suddenly that the will is not really involved. Instead, we have to intervene with the will for shame not to transform into anger or sadness. Chances are, the last time something made you angry, the actual mechanism was that you were shamed. Recognizing that is a bit of a learning curve.

    We are not generally shamed for obeying Christ’s commandments – that’s true. However, in the world of “moral sentiment” we are shamed for not caring, or not saying the right things, not giving voice to the right sentiments. So, people get their mind’s right and get in line, saying and thinking the “right” things – but generally not doing anything about it.

    A classic example is that so-called religious conservatives in America give far more money to charitable causes (including those outside the Church) than do so-called liberal Christians, though the latter make far more noise about caring, etc. Moral sentiment generally doesn’t result in a lot of action.

  16. Nes Avatar

    Fr, this helps: “To experience the emotion, but not to react to it.”

    I guess the question is—if the transformation of shame into other emotions is an automatic, sub-conscious thing, how do we even know what “raw” shame feels like anymore? I guess next time I get angry, or sad, I can retroactively think, “shame is present somewhere here…” but by then, it’s too late. And I don’t know how to return to primal feeling to bear it.

    Besides, even if I was able to somehow navigate that emotional obstacle course, is the end goal really the experience of an emotion anyway? It seems to me our *focus* should be rather on, as you were saying Fr, the actions itself, not the emotion. Emotions be damned: We have a job to do. In this sense, we are soldiers.

  17. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    To the extent that our emotions shape our actions – and certainly drive the passions – they are worth paying attention to. To heal anger, to forgive another, etc., may very well require retracing our emotional footsteps back to a place of shame and consider it – perhaps even “bear” it for a few minutes. It is, I think, an important part of confession when possible.

  18. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Nes, I am not much good at it but in repentance with a good guide and a lot of prayer it is possible sometimes to revisit the shame, even deep shame and bear it in Christ. Just enough. It will still resurface because shame is, in some cases, generational. I am fully convinced though I have no proof that some generational shame is in our DNA somehow somewhere. I read a short piece awhile back that there seems to be some evidence emerging that acquired traits do modify DNA and are therefore passed on.

    Jesus Incarnation in a physical human body would seem to cover that aspect too.
    The burning of anger is quite close to the burning of shame.
    Just my 2 cents

  19. Byron Avatar

    A concrete example (which I hope is accurate): people indeed will rarely judge one for feeding the hungry but I have heard many people say things such as “they shouldn’t have to listen to a sermon or a choir sing when they receive a meal”–a critique of some protestant food kitchens, I believe. The inference is that, if Christians wish to feed the hungry, then revealing Christ should have nothing to do with it. It is a humanist endeavor, not a Christian one.

    My first reaction to hearing someone state this–and do so in a clearly disparaging manner–was annoyance, not true anger. But it was rooted in shame; the idea that we were “doing it wrong”. These things take root in our hearts, if we are not careful. Like any sore or wound, they fester if not cleaned. My understanding of bearing this shame is to not react but to look to the accuser and see the Image of God in them. Forgiveness and humility in the face of spiteful accusation, not annoyance and anger at being accused.

  20. Nes Avatar

    That’s a good example, Byron. The scary part (ironically, a fear rooted in shame) for me is not being sure whether I’m “doing it wrong” or not. Shame functions as a way to create social cohesion. It seems that shame can actually correct aberrant (and truly immoral) behavior. It follows that there are instances where we are shamed into correct behavior, and such shaming has a net positive effect.

    Perhaps, then, sometimes it’s not us who should be forgiving our accusers, but our accusers who need to forgive us. We have a safeguard from this uncertainty in the concrete words of Christ, but the ambivalence about *how* to enact what Christ asks of us keeps us open to a shaming critique. I suppose it is in this position where we must ask the Holy Spirit to grant us discernment.

  21. Mark Northey Avatar
    Mark Northey

    I think Father’s words on the acquisition of virtue being a long-term process speaks to the first steps of beginning to bear shame.
    For example, I am an angry man. I have lacerated myself again and again in the way I speak to my wife and children. Thank God for my good confessors, I started to see the profound shame at root of this behaviour over a decade ago. With great exertion- two steps forward, one step falling flat on my face- I have made a little progress in bearing this underlying shame rather than reacting with anger. (In my case there seems to be a lot here to do with early relational patterns of proving myself worthy to my biological father (nothing explicit from him by the way; very hidden). I mention this only in case it might be helpful to other angry men out there).

    Nes and Byron, while I agree that ingratitude is behind the reactions you note, I also must say that I resonate with the criticism cited. The “preachy-ness” is rooted in a Protestant Evangelical way of doing good works- it’s all about (explicitly) saving souls.
    Christ’s commandment though is simply to love our neighbour as our very self. This is at its highest when it requires or expects nothing of the other. Doing away then with the sermons and offering the bread in humble care for the other, may ultimately bear more spiritual fruit in the long run than the other patterns more explicitly trying to “influence” the needy, familiar in our societies.
    I think of efforts to do missions in an Orthodox manner, from St John the Compassionate Mission in Toronto. It will take several generations to become deeply Orthodox in our ‘outreach’, but we can make a start by being aware of these things. This Orthodox Mission is at least trying to be conscious of an Orthodox phronema in their acts of mercy.


  22. Dino Avatar

    I think by far the most ‘classic’ example of “bearing a little shame” healthily, (and seeing God’s grace flood our being – like the prodigal-as an almost immediate result), is in good confession. You utter the most shameful sin, expose your unworthiness, and the Father’s “best robe” embraces you palpably straight away.

  23. William Avatar

    Dear Father Stephen:
    Not with a religious prospective but the so called Asch conformity experiments are quite related to your article, Your statement “I have seen the entire country turn on a dime in a matter of less than three years with regard to several moral sentiments, a change that, for the life of me, does not seem to have happened as a result of new discoveries or carefully reasoned debate.” is easy to visualize. Shaming and ridiculing are well established practices for controlling and shaping public opinion e.g., “rules for radicals. ” As a result, “Christian” is becoming a derogatory word in many circles.

  24. Alan Avatar

    Thank you very much Father for the further explanation. Greatly appreciate it!

  25. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    If I may – I noted in the article that it is not nearly so much the question of what we do as it is who we are – what kind of person we are becoming. It is not about solving the problems of the poor, etc. Shame can, indeed, be a powerful motivator, but it does not serve to make us better or actually form character (not a healthy character). It’s why we have so many people who care so much and actually do so little.

    Shame, particularly in our post-Protestant culture, is a terrible master and is slowly turning us into what could become a nightmare culture. I’m not writing to solve the culture problem – but to address those of us who want to live faithful Orthodox lives surrounded by such a culture. It’s voices need to be tuned out – and that of the gospel tuned in. Keep the commandments – even in a small way – and do so intentionally. We should not ask whether we are good or bad persons. That belongs to God.

  26. Anonymo Avatar

    No-one mentioned it maybe because of its obviousness, but this article seems to be particularly relevant in understanding the problems of the political left.

    Emotions have the most power of us when we ignore them or suppress them. The only way out is through, hence one must bear a little shame so it doesn’t become suppressed and distorted into other emotional problems. I think bearing the shame might be an misleading phrase. Endure might be more precise, but in any case I think what is meant by Jesus despising the shame is that he recognised others condemnation as irrelevant or of little worth considering his Father’s view of him. Rather than merely ‘bearing the shame’ we should aim to be indifferent to it, by exercising the virtue of detachment. One must distinguish between the shaming of others and your own shaming of yourself, the later should be resolved not ignored.

    More and more I seem to recognise the interpenetration or interrelationships of the virtues and vices. I found humility to be Jesus’s most noticeable virtue and it seems to me that a significant part of it was his commitment to truth and his detachment or despising of the shame directed at him. I think our culture or anyone in it could learn a lot merely from how Jesus spoke, not what he spoke.

  27. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    I’m not sure I would describe Christ as detached or dispassionate. I think sometimes he let fly a few angry words. At the moment I’m thinking about that poor fig tree. I know we are supposed to see the fig tree as unfruitful and the Lord’s curse as just, but in my own shame I can’t help thinking of myself as that fig tree.

    But there are always lessons in both how and what the Lord says. And what he says is for our salvation and the saints assure us of His love.

    His love that took Him to the cross and death, voluntarily, lovingly, in deep pain and in silence for a time.

  28. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I agree viz. describing Christ as “detached.” Anger is an interesting thing. There is such a thing as dispassionate anger. It is short, strong, and to the point. It is an energy meant to enable to do something difficult – to right a wrong – for example. Anger that lasts longer is a passion and is rooted, quite likely, in shame, envy, etc. and is a destructive sin. In AA, they say, “Anger is like drinking poison expecting someone else to die.”

    I take the story of the fig tree to be a parable-in-action. Israel is the fig tree, Scripturally. It should have borne fruit but it does not. Our healthy anger (non passion) is an icon of a Divine anger, I think. But, I know very little or nothing about the Divine anger. My own life was too early marred with the human anger to allow me very easy access to understanding its holy form. I don’t go there because I’m nowhere near able to stand in that place.

  29. Jordan Avatar

    I very often feel shame, in something close to its own form and also in the form of embarrassment.
    I think of it like I am walking across a plain trying to get somewhere, but I keep falling into deep pits. And I keep scrambling out of the pit so I can keep going to where I am trying to get to. I thought of this image because a part of me suggested that, if I was willing, I would find Jesus waiting for me at the bottom of the pit, not at the place that I was trying to go.
    The place I am trying to get to doesn’t seem bad – a better job, for one. But actually what I am looking for is a self that I can present to other people without shame. I don’t think there is anything wrong with wanting a better job or to not feel shame in the presence of others, but it is precisely that I want to be thought better of by other people that makes it an illusion. The strange dilemma of being human is that our self is mediated through the gaze of others, but only if that gaze bears the gaze of God.
    Falling into the pit would be to bear shame.. that is, to face my vulnerability, loneliness, and need. It would be to put myself under God’s loving gaze.

  30. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Very helpful images. Thanks!

  31. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    If I understand rightly anger is a perversion of our discursive power to order stubborn things rightly. That is, in accordance with God’s will. The. Fig Tree and cleansing of the Temple for instance. Perhaps even Jesus commanding the Evil one to get behind Him

    While shame is a big part of perverted anger, so is self will.
    To be angry and sin not is indeed a tall order. St. Paul’s instruction in Ephesians 4 is in the context of total obedience to God’s will.

  32. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Father it may have seemed that I was attempting to make anger a virtue. That was not my intent. But I am grateful for your elaboration on the distinction of the anger that you describe as dispassionate. To be honest I have no experience of such and likely because of that do not know how to comprehend it.

  33. NSP Avatar

    Dear Fr. Freeman,

    Once again, a great essay! I love reading your writings because they give me a glimmer of light in the darkness of my thoughts pointing me in the right spiritual direction, though the coin has not dropped fully for me yet.

    I was wondering, since you have in the past emphatically denied that there is such a thing as “Moral Progress,” could you explain how you distinguish the terms “moral progress” from “acquisition of virtue?” I could be wrong, but it seems to me that you define “moral” as something like ” the coping mechanisms we use to drug ourselves to escape from the bite of shame.” Am I correct? But this definition does not sit well with your essay titled, “You’re not Doing Better.” So I am still confused.

    On the other hand, if I am better able to “sit with my shame” today than I was five years ago, isn’t that a sort of “Moral Progress?”


  34. Senait Avatar

    “The true acquisition of virtue is a long, slow process shaped in the practices of a lifetime. It is marked by the integrity of our inner life united with the actions of our outer life.“
    Well said.

  35. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    I agree Senait!

  36. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    Please forgive me. I was away 3 weeks and came back to find 8 of your posts waiting on me with 150K responses to each of them of course (grin). So I’m just catching up and you may have already addressed my concerns.

    But my reaction is that this particular article is a 30,000ft view of shame and morality and how they interact. It’s a table of contents from which many great articles could be launched. It’s the stuff of shame theologians which is inaccessible to me and many of the common folk.

    There are of course probably multiple reasons for this: the confusing thought cloud of modernity which is the air we breathe, our short attention spans, the societal reliance on emotions, etc. But I’m hoping for more examples to what you wrote, like Allen’s story of microbreweries making drinking respectable or Jordan’s images of meeting Christ in shame pits along his journey.

    I know there is wisdom in your posts but I only catch little snippets here and there, and those I get either because you’ve “come down from the mountain” for just a moment, or because you pull out a phrase you’ve often taught and repeated many times, like bearing a little shame.

    I only bother to mention this because a) most of your work is very approachable and b) your words are full of wisdom and I would very much like to understand what you’ve laid out here. May God have mercy.

  37. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    it’s interesting that your comment brought me back to this thread. I’ve been suffering this morning for reasons involving seeing my shortcomings as in a mirror. It’s been a difficult morning. But the remembrance of ‘bearing a little shame’ helps. Certainly it is ego that tells me that I ought to be better than I am. But on the other hand I should be open to the path of growth. The latter requires that I embrace where I am (in the pits) and take the Lord’s hand.

    Indeed Christ is in our midst.

    Thank you for your comment!

  38. Drewster2000 Avatar


    And your comment inspired me as well. I think Jordan’s onto something when he talks about us meeting Christ in the pits. Viewing from this perspective explains why Jesus is way: open to everyone and yet the narrow gate. But the gate is narrow not because He turns anyone away but because you have to be willing to spend time with that “pitiful” side of yourself in order to meet Him.

    Why? Because when you’re up top, then you’re striding down the path and don’t need any help. You’d be grateful to have Him as a companion but you don’t need Him like you do in the pit. And because of this when you are on the path, you aren’t open to listening, to change, to simply sitting and being.

    And by the way I also think that these dark times, these pits is where we’ll find each other, stumbling around in the dark. (The Green Mile) Because once again it is only in the place where we acknowledge our shame and our incredible inability to be self-sufficient that we’ll finally be willing to put aside our hate, our bigotry, our pettiness – and all the other passions.

    If falling into pits is the only way we’ll finally be willing to reach out and join hands in communion, then that’s where God will take us, because it is His will that we become one as He is. Be encouraged. In the pit you are closer to God and others – and to salvation – than at any other time.

  39. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Edifying words! Thank you Drewster!!

  40. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Drewster, perhaps the key lies in realizing that we are never self-sufficient and indeed, always in the pits. Perhaps a couple levels up where the pit is not quite as oppressive, but still here nonetheless and we can never get out of our own accord.

  41. Byron Avatar

    This conversation reminds me of Sabina Wurmbrand’s reply to the commission that was tasked to set her free from prison (in good communist fashion, they delayed it and threatened to keep her in prison):

    I see that your are powerful. And probably you have papers and documents there about me that I’ve never seen and can decide my fate. But God keeps records too and neither you nor I would have life without Him. So whether He keeps me here or sets me free, I’ll accept that as best for me.

    I think it is more important to find Jesus in the pit than to escape it. I’m of the thought that if we unite ourselves to Him, the pit will vomit us out on its own.

  42. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Byron, et al
    I like this image of the pit. My most recent post on Preaching the Gospel to the Poor, could be read as an expansion on that theme.

  43. Drewster2000 Avatar


    Yes, the key would be realizing that “we are never self-sufficient and indeed always in the pits.” The problem is that we are extremely forgetful and almost entirely unable to keep hold of what is real unless we are continuously reminded it. In fact I believe this is also why the smells and bells are so important to the Liturgy. They’re ugly baubles in comparison to what they represent, but over time they point the mind – and especially the heart – to see the deeper and more permanent reality.

    And now my day has been brightened by the news that Fr. Stephen “installed the expansion pack” for me in an upcoming post. God is so good.

  44. Nicole from VA Avatar
    Nicole from VA

    Father, I recently started the book The Dance of Anger. Have you read that one? It has a phrase I like about ‘staying in your own skin’ and I think that has a nice pausing effect, like you are saying, notice the moment of shame before it transforms into sadness or anger. I also noticed in Brene Brown’s book ‘The Gifts of Imperfection’ she says she has noticed her shame signals and learned to pause

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