The Way of Shame and the Way of Thanksgiving

The language of “self-emptying” can have a sort of Buddhist ring. It sounds as we are referencing a move towards becoming a vessel without content – the non-self. Given our multicultural world, such a reference is understandable. It is, however, unfortunate and requires that we visit the true nature of Christian self-emptying. Our self-emptying is deeply tied to shame and the Crucified Christ. As a touchstone, I cite the primary passage (Philippians 2) that undergirds the notion of self-emptying:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled [emptied] himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

The passage is not a random choice. It is, as St. Paul states, a description of the very nature of the mind that should be in us. It describes how we are to live and think. Considering Christ, we can see that He emptied Himself of Divine Prerogatives and humbly accepted death on the Cross. But what is the “mind” of this self-emptying? What is it that we are emptying when we empty the self? And how is it an “emptying?”

There is nothing precise that we can identify as the “self” in such a manner that we “empty it.” We could identify desires, thoughts, plans, wealth, energy, and the like as things that we might choose to deny or give up. And this has been a well-worn path in asceticism and monastic life through the centuries. But it still concentrates our efforts on an absence, leaving us with nothing within. Such an absence is ultimately a misunderstanding of self-emptying.

Like many things in the Christian life, “emptying” is a paradoxical phrase. We do not and cannot “empty” the self without reference to another. Christ’s own offering on the Cross was not an act of isolated renunciation. It was profoundly an act of love in which He emptied Himself but also filled Himself in union with our brokenness. A key to understanding Christ’s self-emptying is found in Hebrews. In many ways the passage is a parallel to the Philippians passage.

[Christ], 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. (Heb 12:2)

Our own self-emptying has the same characteristic. Christ, who is our joy, is found in the union of the Cross, as we ourselves “despise the shame,” and sit with Him in His throne at the right hand of God. This “despising the shame” is the equivalent of “bearing shame,” in which we acknowledge the brokenness of our own selves, without turning away, uniting ourselves with the Crucified Christ.

Shame is the “unbearable” emotion. It is the deep pain we feel in association with “who we are.” It is an extreme vulnerability and nakedness. Our deepest instinct in the face of shame is to hide. That is precisely what Adam and Eve do after their sin in the Garden:

So the man said, “I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; and I hid myself.” (Gen 3:10)

God Himself does not shame the man and woman. Indeed, in the conversation with Adam, God directs Adam’s attention to what he has done (guilt): “Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat?” Adam’s attention is on his shame (nakedness). And his shame is a distraction.

God’s direct attention is to the action and the need to understand and deal with its consequences. But even when Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden, God covers their nakedness, providing them “tunics of skin.” God covers their shame.

This theme of “covering” continues throughout the stories of Scripture. Even our daily clothing is associated with shame. Shame is always about identity and character (“who I am”). We use clothing to hide vulnerable aspects of our lives, or to signal belonging, or competency, or beauty, all of the many things that hide who we are, the nakedness of our shame.

However, the Cross is a return to primordial nakedness. Christ is “naked and unashamed.” There is a shame associated with the Cross: the shame of humanity’s brokenness and sin. And it is this shame that Christ accepts in the self-empyting of the Cross, described by Hebrews as “despising the shame.” The word translated “despise” (καταφρονήσας) simply means to “have little consideration for.”

Stated positively, Christ “bears our shame.” Isaiah has this prophetic description:

I gave My back to those who struck Me, And My cheeks to those who plucked out the beard; I did not hide My face from shame and spitting. (Isa 50:6)

Our own self-emptying has a similar action. We “bear a little shame,” in the words of St. Sophrony. This is reflected in the language of beholding Christ “face to face.” For it is primarily in the face that we experience shame. When shamed, our instinctive reaction is to lower our eyes or hide our face. We can only see Christ face to face when we unite ourselves to him and “bear a little shame.”

In Revelation, the fear of shame is experienced as a judgment:

And the kings of the earth, the great men, the rich men, the commanders, the mighty men, every slave and every free man, hid themselves in the caves and in the rocks of the mountains, and said to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of Him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! “For the great day of His wrath has come, and who is able to stand?” (Rev 6:15-17)

So this “bearing a little shame” is one form of our self-emptying. Another takes a very positive, though equally difficult path. It is the giving of thanks – always and for all things. Its similarity to bearing a little shame comes particularly in the “always and for all things.” Everyone can give thanks for the things they enjoy and that give them pleasure. Even unbelievers are thankful in such situations despite their inability to figure out whom they should thank. But it is the “always and for all things” that brings us face to face with Christ, particularly at those points where we would rather turn our faces away.

Although it is not readily apparent, we experience disappointments and hardships first as shame. It is only after the experience of shame that these experiences become occasions of anger and depression. We find the shame too hard to bear and so it is very quickly translated into anger or depression. We experience these things as shame because we feel in ourselves that disappointments and hardships declare our unworthiness, incompetence, inadequacy, etc. The same is true of the sins in our lives. It is not our guilt that is hard to bear – it is our shame – how our sins make us feel about ourselves.

St. Paul emphasizes that we are saved in our weakness rather than our strength. Our strength offers us no shame (quite the opposite), and, as such, offers us no solidarity with the self-emptying of Christ. We are not only saved from our sins, we are saved through our sins, as we thankfully behold Christ face to face.

The giving of thanks, always and for all things, brings us face to face with Christ. To give thanks in the middle of our shame, is a primary means of “bearing” our shame. It embraces the fullness of Christ’s offering on our behalf, and unites us with that same offering. It is in the giving of thanks always and for all things that we find self-emptying as fullness. It is there that the Cross of shame becomes the “joy set before us.”

It is essential that we understand that the bearing of shame must be voluntary and never coerced. Shame that is placed on us by others is generally toxic in nature. God never shames us. This is frequently misunderstood. Many experience Christianity as a deeply shaming way of life. This is a fundamental distortion and a spiritual poison.

A very good example can be found in the liturgical prayers offered in preparation for communion. This prayer of St. John Chrysostom is typical:

Lord and Master, I am not worthy or sufficiently pleasing for You enter under the roof of the house of my soul. Since You, the Lover of mankind, wish to dwell in me, I boldly approach. Command me, and I shall open the doors, which You yourself have made. In your constant love for mankind You may enter in and enlighten my darkened mind. I believe You will do this, for You did not send away the harlot who came to you in tears or the publican who repented. You did not refuse the thief who acknowledged Your kingdom, or the penitent persecutor, Paul, to continue in his ways. Rather, You numbered among Your friends all those who came to You in penitence, for You alone are blessed always, now and ever and to ages of ages. Amen.

Many (if not most) people misunderstand such prayers. What they hear is God saying, “You are not worthy or sufficiently pleasing for me to enter under the roof of your house…” But this is utterly false. His words are very much in opposition to this. The origin of this prayer is found in Christ’s encounter with a Centurion whose servant was sick. Christ made as to go to the Centurion’s home, but was told by the Centurion, “I am not worthy for you to enter under the roof of my house, but say the word only and my servant will be healed.” The Centurion bore a little shame. Christ recognizes in this the Centurion’s union with His own suffering and sees the Centurion as a friend. He announces, “I have not seen such faith in all of Israel!”

The language of prayer, often expressed in similar terms of self-emptying, is not the language of toxic shame. It is, or should be, the language of voluntary union with the shame-bearing self-emptying of Christ. It is, at its very heart, the balm that heals us from the wounds of our shame. We bear our nakedness – and Christ clothes us in His righteousness.

Archimandrite Zacharias of Essex makes this observation:

It was through the Cross of shame that He saved us; so, when we bear a little shame for His sake, in order to repent and come to confession, He considers it as a thanksgiving to Him, and in return He gives us the comfort of the “Comforter”. (The Enlargement of the Heart, Kindle 1712).

Like the Cross of Christ, this is a voluntary offering and cannot be otherwise.

Therefore My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This command I have received from My Father. (Joh 10:17-18)

The whole of this action, our grateful thanksgiving, always and for all things, in which we bear a little shame, unites us with the self-emptying life of Christ and becomes the gate of paradise and salvation. This is the very heart of repentance, and the secret of its joy. Chrysostom’s prayer, quoted earlier, reminds us of this joy:

You numbered among Your friends all those who came to You in penitence.

Friends of God in transfiguring joy, unashamed and unafraid, we behold Him face to face.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



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Comments

35 responses to “The Way of Shame and the Way of Thanksgiving”

  1. Michael Avatar
    Michael

    “The language of “self-emptying” can have a sort of Buddhist ring. It sounds as we are referencing a move towards becoming a vessel without content – the non-self.“

    Father, respectfully I’m not sure Buddhism (at least in its early forms) says this. There is actually a lot of debate in the Buddhist community re: not-self vs non-self or no-self. At minimum Buddhism is apophatic in terms of asking what is left of us in the absence of craving, aversion and delusion. Not that we seek to exist, just a very different existence.

  2. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Michael,
    I meant no more than to reference popular understandings of Buddhism – likely subject to all kinds of misunderstandings. I thought it worth mentioning lest anyone be confused by the language of “self-emptying.”

  3. Michael Avatar
    Michael

    Understandable Father, but a popular understanding of Buddhism is deeply problematic in our Orthodox community, just as a popular understanding of Christianity lumps alol Orthodox with Protestants (at best). Sorry to be so pointed. I’m very grateful for this article and all your work. Forgive me

  4. Tom Avatar
    Tom

    Thank you for pointing out the meaning of “despise” in Phil 2! The Hebrew word translated “despise” also doesn’t mean “hate”.
    Esau didn’t hate his birthright; he merely wanted food more at the moment. Isaiah’s Suffering Servant was not hated; he wasn’t recognized as being the one who heals, forgives, and frees.
    I don’t hate vanilla ice cream, but I will despise it when presented with chocolate ice cream!
    🙂

  5. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Michael,
    I appreciate your caveat (other readers might find it helpful as well). However, I said nothing more than “can have a sort of Buddhist ring” to it. It’s a vague reference, not a definitive discussion of Buddhism. There are many things that might “have a sort of Christian ring” to them – which is far and away not a discussion of precise docrtines of Christianity. Thank you.

  6. Michael Avatar
    Michael

    Understood Father, my apologies for taking this beyond your meaning and creating unnecessary thread drift.

  7. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, what is the interrelationship between shame and contrition?

  8. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Michael,
    Contrition normally would be describing the sorrow we have for our sins. No doubt, there might be some element of shame within that.

  9. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    If contrition is sorrow, what is the opening of one’s heart to receive His mercy given to us all through the Cross and Resurrection?
    Is it possible to submit to His mercy without a specific awareness of one’s shame.

  10. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    There are many, many things I have done that if I am any kind of man at all I should always be ashamed of those things. Talk of guilt is entirely unhelpful. But I should abhor the thought of being relieved of the shame of those things. That shame I hope is salvific.

  11. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Michael,
    It’s hard to put a name on every subtle emotion we might experience. Many emotions, such as embarrassment, awkwardness, feelings of inadequacy, feelings of not belonging, etc., all belong to the “shame” family of emotions. Shame has a clear biological trigger, but is experienced in a wide range. It might not be the word we use to describe a particular emotions (for various reasons) and yet still be there.

  12. Sue Avatar
    Sue

    Was the use of electroshock therapy to destroy memory in order to eradicate the emotional pain/shame an okay alternative for some? or a demonic counterfeit of repentance? or what? Refusing to bear shame would be refusal to repent wouldn’t it? Isn’t Repentance a foreign concept to a Buddhist? No emotion, no thinking, no problem [kind of like electroshock therapy]. Thank you for this article! Off to order your book, NOW and get thisall straighter.

  13. Drewster2000 Avatar
    Drewster2000

    Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you for this article. As always I appreciate your gift of taking seemingly lofty and nonsensical phrases like “self-emptying” and explaining them for the simpletons in the crowd like myself. It’s one of those situations where no one really knows what it means but feels like they would be found out as spiritual dolts if they ever raised their hand and asked.

    Please continue to translate as much as possible for the modern ear so that more of us might be saved. Thanks again for the way you do God’s work with the talents He’s given you. May they return a profit to you of a thousand fold.

  14. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Sue,
    I don’t know enough about electro-shock therapy to answer that question. I pray you find the book useful!

  15. Nicola Avatar
    Nicola

    Thankyou. This was incredibly helpful.

  16. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Hi Sue,

    I am no expert on ECT either, although my brother at one point received two such treatments. I do not think it is intended to induce memory loss, but some (perhaps temporary) memory loss can occur as a side effect. The exact mechanism by which ECT is effective is still not understood, as best as I can determine.

    Proposed theories include:

    [Quoted]
    Neurotransmitter changes: ECT is believed to cause changes in the levels of certain neurotransmitters in the brain, particularly serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. These neurotransmitters play a crucial role in regulating mood, and altering their levels may help alleviate symptoms of depression or other mental disorders.

    Brainwave activity: ECT induces a controlled seizure in the brain, and it is thought that the electrical stimulation may reset abnormal brainwave patterns associated with certain mental disorders. This “reset” may help the brain to function more normally.

    Neuroplasticity: ECT has been suggested to induce changes in brain plasticity, the brain’s ability to reorganize and form new neural connections. By promoting neuroplasticity, ECT could potentially help the brain adapt and recover from dysfunctional states.

    Stress hormone regulation: ECT has been shown to affect the release and regulation of stress hormones, such as cortisol. Altered cortisol levels may influence mood and cognitive functions, potentially contributing to the therapeutic effects of ECT.

    Inflammatory response: Some researchers have proposed that ECT might influence the body’s inflammatory response, which has been implicated in various mental disorders. By modulating inflammation, ECT could have an impact on psychiatric symptoms.
    [End quote]

    As an aside since Dostoevsky comes up often on Father Stephen’s blog, I like the “reset” theory because it reminds me of how Dostoevsky described epilepsy and the feeling of mental refreshment he experienced after an epileptic episode.

  17. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Mark, not all seizure disorders are epilepsy As a former and following my sons similar problems: refreshment is the last thing that happens. I always was drawn out and wanted to sleep. My son the same.
    Forgive the digression.

  18. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Father,
    Was removing Adam and Eve from paradise God’s chastisement?

    I ask for clarification mainly because western Christian influences are still with us Orthodox. And such interpretations have been drummed so well into secular ethics.

    What is God doing if He is not punishing or shaming Adam and Eve—did He remove them to shake them up and/or to motivate or to make them repent of their sins?

  19. Sue Avatar
    Sue

    Mark, (and Michael)
    Thank you for the information, and both of you for the comments. I didn’t realize there were so many theories on how ECT might work. Two things make one suspicious. It’s violent and takes the person by force. And it uses electricity to that end, which associates with the ‘Prince of the power of the air’, the OT ‘god’ Baal, SS insignia, death by electrocution or lightning … those things — abuse of power, potential counterfeits. Am not saying it is! And If it helped your brother, I am very super glad. As for the Michael’s post, my dad was an epileptic and his experience agrees with Michael’s accounts. No refreshing reset there. One wouldn’t discount Dostoevsky, of course. So, till more light (the good kind, like in Fr. Stephen’s books), will not be rendering anything unto seizure.

  20. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Dee,
    A common patristic treatment of the expulsion from the Garden (into this world) is seen less as a punishment, and more as a proper arena for repentance and salvation. Having severed their communion with God (in its fullest sense), Adam and Eve become subject to death (as they had been warned). They could no longer live in paradise (where death has no place) and are instead placed in a world where “death reigns.” Under the hard hand of death (decay, corruption, etc.) we learn repentance – to turn again to communion and life.

    If the narrative of the fall and redemption is told in “ontological” terms – such as communion, etc. – rather than in juridical terms – such as punishment, payment, etc. – the story comes out differently at many points. I think that the ontological account is more of a piece with Orthodox thought. The West eventually developed a very heavy juridical narrative resulting in abberations like Calvinism and such. It is not the case, of course, that there is no use of juridical metaphors in Orthodoxy, nor of ontological imagery in the West. But, as dominant themes, we can make these generalizations. The dominance and power of the Western imagery has made it a powerful presence in much of Christianity since around the time of the Reformation. Orthodox thinkers and writers (and hierarchs) were not always as suspicious or questioning of Western treatments as they, perhaps, should have been. This produced what Fr. Georges Florovsky famously called the “Western Captivity” of the Orthodox Church. It’s very possible to overplay that problem (so the West is all evil – which is not true), but I think his general take on Orthodox thought over the past few centuries is correct.

  21. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    I’ve been reading a very compelling book on rationalization (reason giving). There is evidence that suggests that when it comes to judgment and decision making we pronounce judgments first, almost reflexively, and then create elaborate justifications about why our knee jerks are right. In other words, our values come first–which have a strong emotional component–then comes the gymnastics.
    If I could I would put all that work down and never pick it up again. Simply because you can only see with your own eyes. Justification isn’t the same as seeing.

  22. Aric Avatar
    Aric

    Father, could you clear something up for me? When we say, “I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof”, how can this be true if God *does* deem us worthy? Are we worthy, or are we not?

    If we say, “we aren’t worthy” – aren’t we saying that God is a liar, that he doesn’t beckon us to come? But if we say, “we are worthy”, don’t we deny the fact of our sin and the sickness and ugliness of our very selves due to sin?

    I guess what you’re saying is that our “selves” aren’t ugly or sick, but that something attached to them are, and so it’s that attached thing that makes us unworthy. But then how could we ever really repent? If what’s causing us separation from God is something *external* to our selves, then we are victims, not trespassers.

    I don’t mean to muddy the waters, and I understand the primacy of paradox in Christianity, but it’s hard to understand what it means when we say that we are both unworthy and worthy at the same time!

  23. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Aric,
    In truth, no one is worthy of God. He alone is worthy (as it says in Revelation). But, He makes us worthy through our participation in Him. The language of worship, which involves and uses the language of shame, is somewhat poetic – it is the language of love. I am not worthy of God – but God is worthy of everything I can give Him, and in His generosity, He makes us worthy to be Him and in His presence, etc. Does that help?

  24. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    It’s funny. I say to my wife all the time “My son deserves a better dad than me.” Love makes us feel “unworthy” of the one loved.

  25. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Regarding self-emptying…

    There is an interesting succession of self-emptying (or, kenosis) events that you can see in the Scriptures if you squint and hold your tongue right. In Colossians it says, “For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him.” That could imply a kenosis of the Father in behalf of the Son. Because of Christ’s kenosis the apostle says that “you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” In both of these instances there is a kenosis of the “fullness of God” in behalf of another. The Father under goes kenosis that the fullness of God may dwell in the Son, the Son under goes kenosis that the fullness of God may dwell in Creation. I don’t know how we self-empty. I feel empty already. It seems that the kenosis, or self-emptying, of God’s fullness is for the fullness to be shared. We become the fullness of Christ, Christ becomes the fullness of God so that God might become all in all.

  26. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I have never liked the idea that the worthiness of people has anything to do with receiving blessings.
    As I investigate the meaning of ‘worthy’, I am struck by the deep subjectivity of the word and that whatever ‘worthy’ means it is not I who determines my worth, it is any other person interacting with me who determines my worth.

    The Ordination Sacrament makes that clear as we cry out in our chant ,(following the Bishop); “He is worthy!, He is worthy!, He is worthy!

  27. Byron Avatar
    Byron

    But, He makes us worthy through our participation in Him.

    This makes wonderful sense when we remember that our salvation is in union with Christ. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me”.

  28. Sue Avatar
    Sue

    Love wouldn’t toss pearls before swine, but if a swine is caught in a ditch, love would help it out. As a pig, I’m taking that as a most beautiful blessing. Worthy looks like it might be one of those weird Greek words with a negative ‘a’ prefix. Mysterious if so. Human evaluations, often a currency and trap. Praise on one side of the coin, shame on the other. True shame, that’s different, and what calls for more reading here.

  29. SC Avatar
    SC

    Fr Stephen, thanks for your post. Have you read much of Theology of the Body by Pope St John Paul II? He makes use of the term “original nakedness”, which is very similar to your discussion of primordial nakedness, and focuses on the absence of shame in that state, e.g.:
    https://www.thecatholictelegraph.com/original-nakedness-seeing-as-god-sees/79880#:~:text=ponder%3A%20original%20nakedness.-,Pope%20St.,another%20and%20even%20to%20God.
    What do you think is the relationship between shame the fracturing of the relationship between body and soul or between appearance and reality? I can’t remember the post, but I recall one of you posts earlier this year focused on Christ’s resurrection and the healing of shame, and would love to hear more about this, as I find it all fascinating.

  30. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    SC,
    I’ve not read works by John Paul II. The themes viz. primordial nakedness is quite ancient in the fathers – shame has been too neglected, I think.

  31. Michaela Robinson Avatar
    Michaela Robinson

    Father,

    Your book on shame meant so much to me. I have some questions about it but they come from a vulnerable and confused place. Is there a way I can contact you by email or anything?

  32. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Michaela,
    My email is: email hidden; JavaScript is required

  33. Matt Avatar
    Matt

    Fr Stephen,
    I don’t think I have a question. I just wanted to thank you immensely for both of your books. As a new enquirer, I read “Everywhere Present” twice, and it helped me in my struggle to move beyond the tiny little prison of my lifelong atheist Scientism.
    And now, just this moment, I just finished “Face to Face”, and am just letting it settle in.
    Thank you, Fr

  34. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Matt,
    May God give you grace in your journey!

  35. Matt Avatar
    Matt

    Oh, he has, as you of course know, Fr Stephen. In addition to being made a catechumen back in March (with plans to be baptized next Pascha), our family has been witness to mind-boggling miracles, both great and small, these last several months. Glory to God! May He bless you and keep you, Fr.

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