Shame plays an integral role in Middle Eastern culture. So much so, that since living here, it has been a daily (and sometimes hourly) battle to stand in my identity as a daughter of God: free from shame, forgiven and cleansed.
In Isaiah 61, we receive a mandate for loving and serving those in poverty in a way that brings honour and dignity. We’re told that the Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon us, that he has anointed us to proclaim good news to the poor (v1), and instructed us to bestow a crown of beauty instead of ashes, on those the rest of the world despises (v3).
This mandate to cast honour on the marginalised, instead of shame, is thoroughly counter-cultural in my city. Indeed, active and outright shaming is far more commonplace.
‘No honour!’, ‘Shame on you!’, ‘Shameful sin!’ are common verbal darts fired at someone who misses the mark. Even the slightest offense is rebutted in a way meant to drag down, dishonour and segregate. I’ve even seen a knife drawn on the street as a result of comments like these!
God Keeps my Head Held High
Friends of mine frequently heap shame on people verbally for things like wasting food, dissatisfaction with their child’s teacher, a man making too much eye contact with a woman on the street. The list goes on.
So it’s safe to say that I’ve done my fair share of inner heart-work with Jesus to accept that I am, as Tim Keller describes it, “more sinful than I ever dared believe, yet more loved than I ever dared hope.”*
To serve God in the Middle East has meant doing a deep dive into the concept of shame, while living in the heart of the gospel daily. Jesus’ whole mission was to destroy the shame that bound us. When I make a mistake and feel shame, I remember that that shame is no longer mine. God is the one who lifts my head, as Psalm 3:3 says:
“But you, Lord, are a shield around me, my glory, the One who lifts my head high. I call out to the Lord, and he answers me from his holy mountain.”
Break the Silence
During a recent podcast interview, Jubilee+ CEO Natalie Williams shared how God had worked powerfully in, and through, her sessions with a Christian therapist. Yet despite her openness in these appointments, shame would often rear its head again as she debriefed with a trusted friend afterwards, and was tempted to hold back. At that moment, however, her friend spoke straight to the shame she was experiencing, saying ‘You’re not weird. Many people struggle with the things you do – they just don’t talk about it.’
I’m also attending counselling at the moment, and I am convinced that so many people would benefit if we all talked about our need for help. Sadly, both in the UK and in the Middle East, there’s a stigma about needing help. It can be deemed weak to need support, and shame is a restrictive emotion that can hold us back from dealing with past pain, or accessing the support we need.
Tackling shame begins at home
If we want those we are serving to access help without feeling embarrassed about it, we as the church need to get comfortable talking about how WE need help and support.
Talking about our vulnerabilities lifts those around us out of shame. C. S. Lewis describes these moments of openness as the birth of true friendship:
“Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: “What! You too? I thought I was the only one.”**
Project leaders and service providers – indeed anyone reading this today – to make those we’re serving feel safe and dignified, we need to acknowledge and be open about our own needs and weaknesses, and to model true friendship within our teams.
Bridging the gap
Another barrier to honouring people can be our wealth and education. Where I live in the Middle East, there is an expectation from my community that I would have a certain (higher) standard of living as a foreigner and want the finer things in life. It is a mystery to them when my family’s priorities aren’t financial or material.
We try our best to live like those around us live. The inflation is terrible where I live right now, with the local currency sharply falling. I am learning what a joy it is to try and live simply, show honour, and build bridges with those in my community.
When Christmas comes round, I need to be sensitive in my gift-buying, to prevent this from becoming a barrier in my relationship with my Muslim friends whose family businesses are struggling.
In these daily, weekly, even annual interactions, how can we move away from labelling and excluding (however unintentionally) the ‘other’, and instead seek to bridge, include, mirror and become “all things to all people” (as modeled in 1 Corinthians 9:21-22)?
I remember hosting a mission week on a London estate as a teenager. My leader gently pulled me aside after introducing myself by referring to my A levels and plans for a university and gently reminded me that most of the youth I was addressing would not even finish school. I needed to choose topics that would bring us together instead of those that would drive the gap between us wider.
Whether planting a church in the Middle East or serving in the UK, before you head out of the door, will your outfit remind people of what they haven’t got? Are your topics of conversation going to bridge the gap or make it wider?
God, just as you have cleansed us from all our shame, help us honour those around us and show them how loved they are by You.
Isabella Hope is regular contributor for the Unreached Network. She is a Brit living in the Middle East working out what justice and mercy in the church look like both at home and abroad. This post first appeared for Jubilee Plus: https://jubilee-plus.org/blog/1116/shame-free-part-one/
*Tim Keller, The Meaning of Marriage, (Hodder & Stoughton, 2013)
**CS Lewis, The Four Loves, (William Collins, 2016), p. 78