It seems to me that we have acquired the spiritual habit of making our salvation into an abstraction. We speak of being “crucified with Christ,” or of being “baptized into his death,” language that holds a prominent place in the lexicon of the New Testament, but we tend to treat these as though they were happening in a manner somehow distinct from our experience. Neither crucifixion nor death should have an association with things that seem pleasant. Christ himself constantly makes reference to very unpleasant things: forgiving injustice towards the self, the loss of what is rightfully due, giving what is not deserved or merited. These are all things that we seem to instinctively loathe. The shame we encounter through such acts of self-emptying is invariably painful—but this is the Gospel.
It is in this vein that the Elder Sophrony speaks from within the Tradition saying that we must learn to “bear a little shame.” There is much that must be said in this regard. First, bearing shame can only be voluntary; involuntary shaming is always toxic and leaves very deep wounds. The experience of such wounds, which underlies and provides the vast source of pain associated with forgiveness, surrounds the entire experience of forgiveness. To be told, “You must forgive…” in such circumstances is tantamount to saying, “You must endure the shame.” This can easily be nothing more than an invitation to more toxicity. So, the “moral” use of the commandment, “You must forgive,” can inadvertently be another tool in the hands of others to drive the pain and burden of shame ever deeper....
In our communion with Christ, and in the bosom of the Church, it is possible to know the safety sufficient for forgiveness and bearing its shame, but, again, it needs to be voluntary, the acceptance of Christ’s Cross, in union with his own joyful acceptance and not through some moral compulsion. One enemy at a time, we make our way into the love of God, learning step-by-step the joyful way of Christ’s self-emptying.
St. John of the Ladder wrote, “You cannot escape shame except by shame.” It is one of the great paradoxes of the faith, a paradox resolved only in the Cross of Christ.
Fr. Stephen Freeman. “Justice, Forgiveness, and Bearing a Little Shame” [podcast] (May 31, 2017). Retrieved from transcript available at Ancient Faith.