Shame Impacts Identity
The first identity thief was not a lurking hacker in front of a computer screen in some dark basement, a sneaky criminal secretly recording your PIN, or a thug rummaging through your garbage. The first case of identity theft was committed by shame, and he took what rightfully belonged to humanity and has been exploiting it at considerable loss and harm to men and women ever since.
In the beginning, man and woman knew exactly who they were. They did not doubt themselves, compare themselves, or criticize one another. They did not wrestle with the question of whether they were equal in value. Humanity did not need affirmation, for it was deeply and perfectly confirmed in a harmonious relationship with the Creator.
This is a staggering thought. How different the story of the human race would have been had shame not stolen the value and confidence of the first man and woman. How different your story and mine might have been. How different the story might have been of women across the Muslim world.
Nadia Murad, a survivor of the Yazidi genocide and a Nobel Peace Prize recipient, understands shame’s impact on identity only too well. She was ripped from her village in the mountains of Iraq and made a sexual slave by ISIS insurgents. After bravely escaping her captors, she became a voice for her people, the gentle Yazidis. In a speech at the UN General Assembly opening sessionin September 2016 describing her horrific experience, Nadia said, “I became a slave la amal.”
La amaltranslated to English from Arabic means without hope.
When I first heard her words, I sat immobilized, unable to stop their terrible power from crushing my heart. When the young Yazidi village girl, full of hopes and dreams for her future, was torn from her family and community, shame stole her identity. It also robbed her hope. This was never God’s intention for the people He lovingly created.
The Nadias of the world deserve to know there is hope for all whose identities have been stolen by shame.
Shame comes by many names. slavery, dishonor, disgrace, dirty, rejected, abandoned, failure.
Shame is much more than a negative emotion or exclusion from a group. In roughly one-third of the world, the part we call the Western world, shame is something we don’t want to talk about. We protect our children from it; we try to avoid disgrace at all costs. In such cultures, shame is forced into hiding, growing like black mold, unseen in the walls, but all the while making us increasingly ill.
The father with an addiction to pornography continues to hide his vice from his family as he grows heavier with secret shame, forgetting who he is. The young woman cutting her body in places her mother will not notice tries desperately to combat shame’s lies that she is not beautiful enough, not smart enough, not popular enough.
The one bearing secret shame can reach a point he or she believes she can never be anyone other than the name shame has given her.
In other parts of the world, where life is appraised and perceptions formed through the lenses of honor and shame, shame is a loss of position in one’s group, be it the family, community, tribe or nation. These regions of the world are generally collectivist societies, emphasizing the rights of the group over the individual. When one behaves in a manner acceptable to group norms, she maintains a position of honor. If she does not, she is relegated to a position of shame.
The young wife who cannot conceive a child is locked in her room and beaten each evening to punish her for bringing shame to her husband and his family. The father whose daughter was seen holding hands with a boy is pressured by his peers to kill her because she has shamed the family and community.
Women are the primary burden bearers of shame in such societies, tragic illustrations of shame’s impact on identity.
Shame is a fundamental weapon of the enemy to keep men and women from knowing their true identities as people loved and known by God.
With the inception of Original Sin, shame impacted human identity in two primary ways. (To learn more about how shame entered humanity, read the article "How Eve Got Her Shame.") The first ramification was manifested in Adam and Eve’s relationship with God.
Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:8-9)
Before Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, they walked with God in a perfect relationship. There was no barrier between them, no reason to hide. They were naked and knew no shame (Genesis 2:25).
With his lie, the serpent cast doubt on God’s character. Was He really good? Was He holding out on them, not fully generous and giving? Did He really love them?
Man and woman’s relationship with God was marred; their identity as fully loved and completely accepted by Him was now shrinking in the shadows of shame.
The second primary effect shame had on human identity was on her relationship with fellow humans.
And he said, “Who told you you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from? The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree and, and I ate it” (Genesis 3:11-12).
Before they sunk their teeth into that tempting fruit, Adam and Eve were complete in each other and enjoyed perfect unity. Equal in value, they were both made in the image of God. There was no bickering or comparison. But here we see the first blame-shifting, the first accusation, the first awareness of their separateness. They are no longer unified. They are at odds with one another.
Like Adam and Eve, our relationship to God and others is central to personal identity, and shame robs us of both.
There is hope for victims of identity theft. The Messiah Jesus has come to restore women and men to full relationship with God. He heals our relationships with others and empowers us to walk in unity and harmony together once again.
Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:2).
On the cross, Jesus defeated shame. He restored our identity with God and people. Through Him, we discover who we were created to be.