Overcoming the Culture of Shame
My wife and I looked so good together. We shared the same sense of humor. We came from families that each valued marriage and togetherness. We were also both Christians. But my addiction to pornography and infidelity led to our divorce. One night while I was caught in my porn-fueled trance, my wife saw the images I was staring at on my computer and shrieked with disgust. My body shook as I felt exposed, helpless, alone, afraid, and ashamed.
The feelings of loss, abandonment, and shame associated with my divorce were excruciating. Nothing was more important to me than maintaining an image of perfection in the Asian Christian community---not my career, not my family, not my relationship with God. Nothing was more important than my desire to uphold the Asian honor of a good marriage.
As a member of an Asian American congregation, the cultural shame I felt over my addiction and divorce was compounded by religious shame. Disillusionment with my faith quickly set in. I felt like a failure in the eyes of my immediate family, my grandparents, my deceased ancestors, my church, and the Asian community at large. The stigma within my Asian culture of both the divorce and the addiction pierced my soul. How had this happened? How could I be so weak? God must hate me.
Asians Don't Cry
Growing up in an immigrant Chinese household, the cultural values of harmony, collectivism, and family were embedded in our way of living. Emotionally, we were not encouraged to show any weakness. During my childhood I never had a conversation with my parents where I expressed feelings of anxiety, confusion, anger, disappointment, or hurt. Without permission to show emotions, I learned to bury such feelings.
In psychological circles we call this a "false self," because the reality and vitality of life is cut off from the person who refuses to acknowledge any feelings or thoughts deemed unacceptable to them or their culture. For millions of Asians, this false self is a defense and construct needed to protect the ego as we strive to earn approval and acceptance. Unless it is confronted and torn down, the individual will stay locked in a cycle of cultural shame that can stifle his soul that craves to be released from bondage.
Because of the Asian fixation on honor, we learn to pursue achievements as a means to "save face." Face is the equivalent of how one is seen or judged by another in the Asian culture. When people talk about how Asian cultures are shame-based, they're referring to the concern one has for what others think about him or her.
If someone has "lost face," he or she feels humiliation and embarrassment for letting down family, culture, and self. You can see Asian shame in action when someone commits suicide. In Japan and other Asian countries, taking your life is seen as an honorable way of atoning for public disgrace and expressing one's deep sense of shame.
It should also be noted the Chinese character or kanji for "face" is the same character for "mask." Since "saving face" is seen as bringing honor to oneself and one's culture, hiding one's true feelings carries a degree of honor. Hence, outward display of authentic emotions is shunned, since that would be viewed as losing face.
People often use the terms shame and guilt interchangeably, but there is a distinction between the two that needs to be recognized if we will understand the life-draining consequences of shame. Guilt can be healthy since it helps us acknowledge mistakes we need to correct and leads us to think of ways to rebuild ourselves and our relationships with others---including with God. Shame, by contrast, is a perverse and distorted belief that we are inherently unworthy of love. Consequently when you feel shame, instead of wanting to be corrected, you feel you deserve to be persecuted, punished, and tormented. A shame-based person doesn't know how to feel healthy guilt.
Freedom from Shame
But the gospel tells us that we do not have to live with secret hurts and hidden shame. Instead, the message of Christ's redemptive work brings hope, forgiveness, and healing. The apostle Paul told us:
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering (Romans 8: 1-3).
Because he is elevated above any nation, tribe, or ethnic identity that tries to hold us back spiritually, Christ offers forgiveness and mercy with the power to break the bonds of cultural shame. As Christians, then, we can live in authentic community that gives us the freedom to risk exposing our vulnerabilities to one another. Members of the body of Christ must be free to acknowledge our hurts and struggles so we can be known and healed.
We also need the freedom to acknowledge that we are foolish and weak in our human depravity and sinful nature. Again, Paul says:
God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things---and the things that are not ---to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him (1 Corinthians 1:27-29).
Whatever your cultural or social upbringing, Jesus can heal and change you. He can transform your heart and free you from the emotional or spiritual bondage. No matter how weak, defective, or incompetent you may feel, God can transform your shame for his glory. This good news needs to be shared among millions of Asians---some in our own churches---who are still suffering in shameful silence.