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Challenged by Different Ways of Seeing, Part 2

This is the second part of a two-part blog on fear, shame, and guilt cultures. You can read part one here.

A Quick Review of Fear, Shame and Guilt Cultures

Guilt Culture

Guilt culture sees everything through the lens of right and wrong. It can be compared to a court, where guilt is determined and followed by the declaration of judgement and punishment. When we have committed sin, a wrong action, the right response is to confess and ask for forgiveness. (This can be done through actions, and not only by words.) We are very familiar with this, and how Jesus took sin upon himself and the punishment for sin by dying on the cross, to make us righteous.

Shame Culture

Shame culture is all about relationships. The actions we do and what we say affect the people around us and cause shame or honor. This is not about what we do, but who we are and what we are to each other. Adam and Eve shamed God by their actions; they also were shamed and afraid as they ran away. Jesus is the opposite; he was obedient to the cross and in this he honored his father. How men and women should honor God is a reoccurring theme in the Bible—that is by giving one’s heart to God and living for him; not by giving only sacrifices. Just look at the first three commandments which show us how to live in a way that honors God, to be only for him. We should not look at the commandments as just law, but what they point to, an honorable relationship.

The way out of shame and separation is acceptance and restoration to honor. Jesus shows this in the parable of the prodigal son. That the son is welcomed home  is clearly shown by many signs. He is also seated at a table of honor in front of neighbors and friends, just as we will be welcomed home to a feast as God’s honored children.

Fear Culture

Fear culture is harder to describe and understand. It is easy to think of it as how we relate to spirits, appeasing or opposing them resulting in outcomes of blessing or cursing. In this culture we cause harm, not by doing bad nor being bad but by being the cause of it. This kind of thinking connects to domain thinking, to belonging

We need restoration from all three—from guilt, shame, and fear. And that has been provided for us through Jesus. Separation from God can still be maintained by shame, fear, and guilt and has the potential to shape our thinking and reasoning.

Fear culture in action

A friend of ours, a good brother for many years, was looking for a new job. This brother, let’s call him Dorji, had been helping in the fellowship and in different projects, but felt that he was unable to support his family and contribute financially to them as was needed. He had carried the shame of that inability for years and tried to cover it up with gifts from time to time, but he always felt that he was not doing enough. Worse yet, he was a believer, but his family members were not. They could not understand that he didn’t make much money even while living in the big city. As a child of God, he should be provided for, and not need to be ashamed.

A sister in the fellowship heard about a job and recommended that Dorji apply. The job he applied for, and got, was with a secular company selling photos of Buddhas online. I confess that when I heard this I was quite surprised but neither the sister who recommended the job nor Dorji had any second thoughts about it. It didn’t occur to them that this job promoting Buddhism might not be good, ethical, or even right for a Christian. They saw no need to be quiet about it, as saw nothing wrong or shameful.

Dorji took the job and started to take photos and delivered them to the company, working diligently to provide the photos on time. But one day he stopped without saying anything to the boss at the company. He just disappeared. The company asked the sister about Dorji, and as she had no clue she called Dorji to ask him what had happened.

Dorji told the sister that he had started work and taken the photos, but soon bad things happened. His phone stopped working and then a day later his iPad didn’t work. He couldn’t use it or send the photos. Then Dorji’s eyes got swollen and inflamed and he was barely able to see. Dorji understood these signs as all directly related to his new job and that they happened to tell him that this work was not good. God was telling him to stop and so he stopped immediately without even telling the company.

To read the signs is a natural part of a fear culture. There are always signs from the gods to tell you when you are accepted, on the right way, or when you have made them upset. This is a natural part of that culture. It is the way you know that you belong, are being protected, and a part of that domain. Or it tells you the opposite: when the gods are upset and cause you harm, not always directly to you but may impact the world around you.

This poses an interesting theological dilemma. Is something wrong only when bad things happen and always right when you are blessed? Of course not, but this is how things can easily be understood from a fear-culture perspective. Things could be seen as wrong if others saw them as embarrassing, shameful, or questionable, but they would not naturally see something as wrong due to ethics or rules. This becomes a dangerous theology if it is allowed to stand for itself. It is both easy and natural to set up rules to guide, and we can have some biblical guidelines, but what may give lasting effect is to stress the relationship we have as a family and with God. The good guide is still to honor God in all situations and be one who belongs to his kingdom.

The big challenge in this is that there is no real connection or logic between these various cultures, no right or wrong. The “right” thing is to respect and accept the feelings and reasons of those involved, and to deal with all three cultures as well as we can. Even those best practices will fail us, and we may lose heart and go back to relying on rules. But, they can still help us with some guidance.

In both illustrations, Dorji’s work situation above and relating to coworkers in online meetings in the previous post, acceptance and belonging are key to creating safe places where every person is accepted and able to express their thoughts and feelings. Acceptance and belonging define, and are defined by, how we should act as those who belong to God’s kingdom and want to honor him and respect our Christian family.

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Chris Gabriel

Chris Gabriel (pseudonym) is a dedicated networker and strategist deeply committed to serving God's people, especially those in the least reached regions. Over the past 25 years, he and his wife have tirelessly worked in Asia, empowering communities in various creative access areas. Today, their six grandchildren are doing their …View Full Bio

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