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.
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.