Is Shame Ever Healthy?

I work with students: middle school through college. I love it. I could not imagine applying my life's work to anything else. The goodness and idealism of teenagers serves as a constant reminder for me of the grace and redemption of God. I have grown to love my students as if they were part of my own family. I value them. Many of them inspire me and spurn me on.

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Yet, serving adolescents is a costly vocation. It demands my time and patience and always tests the boundaries of my marriage and emotional health. As one who assumes responsibility in conjunction with the Parent and the Holy Spirit for the faith formation of adolescents, I am often one of the few who regularly witnesses their self-destruction, and the subsequent shame and guilt that follows their devastating decisions.

Some while ago, I met with a student who told me another story — the content was the same. It's always the same irresponsible, selfish decision that leads them to the same situation with the same consequence. The setting and context may change. But the tears are always the same.

And no matter how many times I hear these stories, my heart still breaks. I am always left with a tension between feeling deep loss and Spirit-filled empathy for my students.

During this conversation, however, my student shared with me a poignant and disturbing thought - one to which I had hardly given any credit. This student said,

"This time, I need to remember the shame… I need to remember what it feels like when I do this — the guilt, the pain, and the shame."

Simultaneously, I thought: "Yikes! and... Yes!" When I heard this, I felt pins prickle my back and a feeling of "this student got it!" I don't wish for my students to sulk in the shame of their mistakes. Furthermore, does Jesus not beckon us to rid ourselves of such emotion?

True, but my student recognized in a moment of clarity and maturity the essence and function of shame. Though Jesus takes away our shame and brings peace in place of it, remembering our shame reminds us of our pain. Our unhealthy choices not only bear the weight of our consequences but also the junk that ultimately distracts our attention from God, who desires for us to live without such consequence! A healthy reminder of our shame and guilt cautions us. It is the yellow light of our emotions warning us not to proceed. Shame is the pointer on our compass calling us back. It is our internal safety device that advises us not to touch the hot stove.

And for what purpose? So that you and I may live our lives to the fullest extent! Healthy shame slows us way down and reminds us that our lives are John 10:10 lives!

I am not advocating that we wear our shame like a badge of honor. This would do injustice to the life of Jesus and the Good News of the Gospel. I am suggesting, however, that we let ourselves feel it, understand why we are experiencing it, and then let Jesus redeem it for good works later.

After my student shared this with me, I thought for a moment and said, "Yes, remember your shame. Remember this moment right now and how you feel in regard to the consequences of your decision. In fact, hold onto it… but very loosely. It is a pointer, not a defining life marker. You have been forgiven of your mistake."

Question: What role, if any, do you think shame has in the process of faith formation?