SOURCE: Paul Maxwell/Desiring God
Whether it’s a laughable underwear-on-stage experience (laughable later), or a deeply unsettling loss of integrity, embarrassment is a besetting quality of human life. It lurks and stalks beneath the surface of our circumstances, waiting to sink its teeth into our every failing and loss — intentional or naive, serious or jovial, public or private, embarrassment is a trained hunter of human failure.
Getting Behind the Blush
As with any concept, it is best to begin with a clear definition. For our purposes, we will define embarrassment this way: The emotional experience of being judged by others, whether rightly or wrongly; perceived or real. This embarrassment has five basic components.
“I want to die.” “I want to fly away.” “I want to disappear.” “I want to stop existing.” “I want to go back in time.”
Naturally. We want to escape the people. Embarrassment is an experience of the reaction of others to our condition or experience.
And it’s nauseating. Our very bodies start running away from us, out of our control. Tears. Blush. Vomit. Embarrassment is an emotional nuclear meltdown — not a fit, but an uncontrollable and convulsive inside-out-ness. The structures that support us begin to fall — our operating system fails from overload, and we just. . . want. . . to. . . ugh. “Get me out of here.”
“I am unacceptable.” “I have defiled myself.” “People now see the worst of me.” “People see me as undesirable, dirty, disgusting.”
When embarrassed, we assume we have elicited the gag reflex in everyone around us. In that moment, we feel like a monstrosity at whom people tilt their heads, from whom parents hide their children’s eyes, whom adults only speak of in morbidly curious judgment. The embarrassed are self-professed psychics, hearing, “I didn’t know you were so creepy, gruesome, strange, icky, hideous, shameful.”
Choose your poison. It’s there. In the moment, in the emotion, embarrassment is laced with fatal doses of shame.
“Not only am I not okay. Everyone else is fine.” “I am the only one who would do something this stupid.” “I am the only one who would be this dumb.” The loneliness of embarrassment can take extreme forms. “I am the pure and full embodiment of failure.” “Others fail, but not like me.” “Others make mistakes, but not like an idiot, not like me.”
To be embarrassed is to feel alone. In whatever amount, loneliness is a universal ingredient in the embarrassment cocktail. Stigma. Social exile. Them over there … me over here. No matter the circumstances, in the moment and emotion of embarrassment, we are utterly isolated and distanced, banished from words like “normal,” “everyone,” and “belonging.” Embarrassment revokes our access to the word “us.”
“I deserve their scorn.” “I deserve to be laughed at.” “I deserve to be demoted to a lower social caste.” “I hate myself.” “Why did God even make me?”
Self-deprecation is more than shame. It is articulated and pointed. Shame is a blunt weight on our back. Self-hatred is a knife in our own hand. Self-deprecation is also more than loneliness; it is rationalized: “You should be alone. Who would want to associate with you?” Self-deprecation is our natural inclination to answer embarrassment’s “Why?” with a staunch “Because of me — obviously, again — because of me.”
“I could have prevented this if I had been better.” “I could have stopped this if I had done better.” “I have put myself here.” “It’s all my fault.” “It’s always my fault.”
Embarrassment remembers. It keeps a record of wrongs. When embarrassed, we feel the cutting edge of disapproval from God and neighbor. Embarrassment is the emotional experience of failed earthly justification — of failing to attain “righteousness of my own that comes from the law” (Philippians 3:9). “From the law.” Insert: the righteousness that comes from being wealthy, successful, morally upright, popular, stable, employed, and socially savvy. Now imagine all of the condemnation that can rip you to shreds when you drop a meatball in your lap at a business lunch. “Now there’s no hiding how stupid I am.”
Embracing God in Embarrassment
Embarrassment is an obnoxious suffering. It is not something of which we can repent. Embarrassment is an experience of losing control of one’s self and circumstances. Embarrassment is an emotional and spiritual reality in which it seems like God is either absent, laughing along with the crowd, or expecting us to just move on and get over it already. But God rushes in to offer several unexpected gifts for the embarrassed.
Perhaps surprisingly, God endorses our desire to escape — but he won’t let us escape him (John 10:28–29). The first embarrassing moment in history: Adam believes that God is coming against him as he hides in shame: “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself” (Genesis 3:10). God’s response? “Good. Run. Get out of here. We don’t want you here. Look at yourself: naked, shameful, sinful.” We expect it. But no. Never. “The Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden” (Genesis 3:23) “lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever” (Genesis 3:22).
God says, “Hey, let’s get you out of here. This place isn’t safe. What do you have there? Fig leaves? Here are some leather garments; you’re cold. Come with me.” Why? “Lest he. . . live forever.” Parsed simply: “I won’t let this be your life.” “I won’t let you be inside-out forever.” That feeling of ours is grievous and important to him (Isaiah 51:3).
God is urgently involved in protecting the embarrassed — but he won’t let us run away from hard experiences either. In the moment of embarrassment, let the words of Genesis 3 show us God’s disposition toward the embarrassed: Notlaughing in agreement, but rushing to your aid. “Surely God is my help; the Lord is the one who sustains me” (Psalm 54:4). You want to escape? God is helping you to do just that — but you won’t escape him, and you won’t run away. He will rush into your embarrassment, break you out of hopelessness by strengthening your feeble arms (Colossians 1:11; 2 Thessalonians 3:3), and stand with you as your honor no matter your circumstances (Psalm 62:7). He does not mock. He does not forsake (Deuteronomy 31:8; Psalm 37:28).
“In your embarrassment, God is not laughing in agreement, but rushing to your aid.”
A moment of embarrassment is like a moment of severe pain — all of our attention is on the bruise, the sprain, the break, the gash. Most often, we are powerless before embarrassment. It is locomotive, overpowering, controlling. But as we spin into our emotional tornado, God gives us relational grips to reach for. However embarrassed we feel, this moment will not last in the minds of others around us. Remember: embarrassment isn’t about the thing — embarrassment is about our experience of how other people experience us.
So let’s split up the opinion of others into unbelievers and believers. (1) To the unsanctified, the sinful heart is too self-involved to indulge in the downfall of others for long — they “seek their own desire” (Proverbs 18:1), “set their minds on the things of the flesh” (Romans 8:5), and are only bent on their own universe, even to their detriment — they “immediately forget what [they look] like” (James 1:24). And (2), to the sanctified, there is grace (Colossians 4:6), tenderheartedness (Ephesians 4:32), and even protection to be received. People do not have the energy to harbor such sadistic scorn for long. And if they do, it certainly does not reflect the attitude of the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 6:6; cf. 2 Corinthians 6:3–8).
People can be cruel to us, but often not as treacherous as we are to ourselves.
4. Communal Acceptance
Christians are often the first people to have a reason to qualify love, “Yes, God forgives them. . . . but they should be ashamed.” “. . . but let’s be real.” “. . . but they should know better.” “. . . but they should do/be better.” This is a failure to “rid [ourselves] of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from [our] lips” (Colossians 3:8). Embarrassed people already know that they have not made ideal choices or been placed in ideal circumstances. They need Jesus Christ, not a qualified personal Christian opinion (Hebrews 13:20–21).
We should “make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification” (Romans 14:19), we “should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up” (Romans 15:2), and we should “encourage one another and build each other up” (1 Thessalonians 5:11).
The embarrassed need to receive Christ through real flesh and blood people (2 Corinthians 7:6). Because embarrassment is primarily an emotional experience ofother people, then the church, as other people, is in the perfect place to dispel the myth that they are under judgment, shame, or worthy of self-hatred. The church needs to find an “us” with the embarrassed. “Hey, I know you probably have tons of emotions swirling around. . . but this one time I messed up big, and was so embarrassed. Let me tell you my story.” “. . . but my spouse left me as well, and I’m here to talk if you ever want to.” “. . . but by the way, nobody is gossiping about this. We all just love you and hope you’re okay.”
Acceptance “from God” is real, and perhaps helpful long-term. But very often, what we need is acceptance from God in the form of fellow brothers and sisters in Christ (Romans 15:7). In this way, the people of God combat both loneliness and shame.
The last place the embarrassed will go is Scripture. Why would we go to a book that shames us? “Be holy, because I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16). The embarrassed are not a holy people. Or are they? Where would we fit in Scripture? It’s obvious. Out. Out where? Probably “the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 13:42). Yes, there.
Well, maybe not. Scripture doesn’t cast us out. There are more fitting and redemptive roles to play for the embarrassed. God wrote embarrassment into the script of redemptive history, and therefore the Christian life — it’s part of the plan. For those who have sinned, God gives the words, “The Lord has forsaken me; my Lord has forgotten me” (Isaiah 49:14). For those who have suffered, “Let the day perish on which I was born, and the night that said, ‘A man is conceived’” (Job 3:3).
Okay, so there are words for the embarrassed, but are there any positive words? Yes. Look to the crucified criminal. Publicly displayed, without excuse, exiled, punished, ashamed, naked, utterly embarrassed, interjecting into Jesus’s cry of dereliction, “Remember me” (Luke 23:42). The criminal is “crucified with Christ” (Galatians 2:20), who cries “Why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).
Embarrassment, rejection, exile, shame, and loneliness are all real. And so the embarrassed are a people who cry “Why have you forsaken me?” with Jesus, who says to them, “You will be with me” (Luke 23:43), and “Can a woman forget her nursing child. . . ? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands” (Isaiah 49:15–16). To the embarrassed, Jesus is not just with us. He is one of us. Not embarrassed of us, but standingwith us. He calls us his own.
In moments of embarrassed shame, loneliness, self-hatred, and failure, God gives the embarrassed his very Son (Romans 8:32), protection, perspective, acceptance, and words to say when (not if) embarrassment comes. The Redeemer is not surprised by our embarrassment, and he is not unprepared for it either.
“Jesus is not embarrassed of you, but stands with you as your crucified, humiliated Savior.”