Chewing the Cud of Shame
If there’s one common theme I see most frequently in struggles with depression and anxiety, including my own, it’s the tendency toward self-contempt. Anyone in the grip of depression is probably in the grip of self-imposed slander, character assassination, and vilification which would make angry Twitter-mobs blush. In his book The Depression Cure, Stephen Ilardi outlines a 6-part self-treatment program for depression, one component of which is combating rumination. Rumination is one of those interesting cross-over words from the animal kingdom. Ruminating animals are those, such as cows, which ruminate, that is, chew their food over and over. So when we humans ruminate, we do it with thoughts, not cud. But animals get energy from ruminating, whereas rumination consumes our energy, like trying to operate a solar powered industrial grade floodlight in perpetual darkness. Ruminating thoughts, especially for the depressed and anxious, are always negative. This negativity could have any number of things in view: a strained relationship, joblessness, poor health, a wayward child, trials and temptations of various kinds. But by far the most debilitating form of rumination is self-contempt.
Another word for rumination and self-contempt is shame. The Bible actually has a lot to say about shame, a fact which has received exemplary treatment in books such Shame Interrupted, by Ed Welch, and The Soul of Shame, by Curt Thompson. The beauty of the way in which God addresses shame in the Bible, in contrast to modern psychology, is how it acknowledges both legitimate and illegitimate shame. There is a kind of shame which is objective and true, signaling the spiritual uncleanness of human sinfulness before the pure and holy God. “Let us lie down in our shame, and let our dishonor cover us. For we have sinned against the LORD our God, we and our fathers, from our youth even to this day, and we have not obeyed the voice of the LORD our God” (Jeremiah 3:25). There is also a kind of illegitimate, or uncalled for shame: “And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming” (1 John 2:28).
By addressing both kinds of shame, Scripture shows us how God covers and provides for each. The solution to shame, of either kind, will not be found in mere talking it away, “don’t beat yourself up” sentimentality (as appropriate as that exhortation can be for those who seem to walk around with a whip that only swings backward). The treatment for shame is displayed in the very beginning of the Bible, where “the LORD God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them” (Genesis 3:21). Rather than requiring sinners to cover the shameful nakedness of their disobedience, nor leaving men and women to wage war against the lies of self-contempt by self-effort, God provides the sacrifice which clothes and covers our fallen brokenness. “I will greatly rejoice in the LORD; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels” (Isaiah 61:10). The “robe of righteousness” is nothing and no one less than the Son of God, Jesus himself: “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:27).
There is often a grain of truth in depression’s punitive onslaught, and it can be healing to acknowledge, in simplicity and without defensiveness, our shortcomings, weaknesses, and failures. And when our conscience accuses us without cause, we can fly to Christ, in whom we abide and have no need to be ashamed. When we are clothed with Christ, all manner of shame is put to naught.