“They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.” ~~ Genesis 3:8
None of us have ever grown up in the Garden of Eden: we grew up in our families of origin. Our parents are generations away from Adam and Eve, but the shame and guilt of these primal ancestors still operate in our family histories today. My own family operated on a shame culture: the honor of the family’s name and our place in society was very important. Often we children were punished in a group: as the oldest, I should have known better and prevented my two brothers from being trouble makers; the boys were punished because one started the fight and the other finished it, or he came back to tattle.
“Wait till your Father gets home!” was a promise of a second round of punishments, which was always meted out from oldest to youngest. I was glad to be the oldest at this time, for I wouldn’t have enjoyed anticipating my turn: I was relieved to get it over with. I was trained early not to get into trouble, or to hide my duplicity well. My brothers were slower to learn.
In our family, guilt didn’t operate as in the criminal justice system, in that the individual was held accountable for his own actions. My parents figured all of us had a hand in the pie of corporate corruption and our behavior, either inside or outside the home, brought dishonor to the family name. “No child of ours is going outside dressed like that! Go change your clothes!” This meant, “what will others think of us if you go out looking like a tramp, or in rags, or mismatched, or like a hippy, or without makeup, or (heaven forbid) wearing white after Labor Day?” Boys brought honor to the family by working after school because they had to learn how to earn a living, but girls who worked an afternoon job brought shame: “people will think your father can’t earn enough money to take care of this family.”
Some of us learn from classes, others from experience. and still others of us learn from stories. Our ancestors were great storytellers. The sum of human nature they could wrap up in just a few sentences: “Once upon a time, the Lord God walked with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden each evening when the cool breezes broke the day’s heat.” We don’t know the form or aspect of the Lord, but we know he was present daily and intimate with his whole creation. This must have been a time of joy and wonder, and a privilege to look forward to at the end of the day.
Yet the man and the woman wanted more, “to be like God knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:5). Deciding to become wise, they ate of the tree and their eyes were opened: “they knew that they were naked and they sewed fig leaves together and made loin cloths for themselves” (Gen 3:7). Biblical writers do have a sense of humor, for if these first people were truly “wise” they wouldn’t have chosen fig leaves for their garments, since figs give off an itchy sap. They may have “hid their nakedness,” but they were also “scratching their nakedness” at the same time.
When the Lord God came for his evening walk, they hid themselves. Do they feel guilt or shame? Our modern, individualist point of view says they feel guilt, but the Bible is written from an ancient Middle Eastern Shame & Honor Culture. They feel shame for breaking ties with the Lord God and not listening to his words, but to the words of his creation (the snake, Gen 3:1-5). Their nakedness is a symbol of their new vulnerability before God: before they were free to be themselves, but now they hide behind inadequate clothing and behind the trees of the garden. They are afraid to reveal their wrongdoing out of the shame they feel. They have dishonored the one who gave them life. Their consequence is to lose their former intimacy with God and be banished from the garden, but God puts protective clothing on them.
Even today, God asks his people, “Where are you?” and we think we can hide behind our false fronts: our happy faces, our spiritual posts on Facebook, our meticulously groomed bodies, our 100% attendance ribbon at religious events, and our other outward evidence of our faith lives. Or we might be hiding in our “caves/homes” hoping that God won’t see that our once well-constructed lives are falling apart like some Bangladeshi garment factory. God is all knowing, however (Psm 147:5), so there is no place we can hide. We can try to coverup our shameful past or our guilty present from God, but to no avail. These things are not important to the God who knows all that we are and all that we can be. Accepting responsibility and returning to a relationship is what God wants from us.
One thing Adam and Eve failed to do was take personal responsibility for their deeds. Adam blamed it on God: “you gave me the Woman & she gave me the fruit,” while Eve blamed it on the Snake: “he talked me into it” (Gen 3:12-13). There must be some terrible and overwhelming experience in the discovery of our true selves, for we have had it hidden under our parents’ expectations, our society’s expectations, our religions’ expectations, and our community’s expectations. When we begin to strip these extraneous layers off to reveal the true self and the child of God, we find the individual who used to walk freely with the Lord God in the garden when the evening winds were blowing.
For some of us, our secret pasts bring us shame and dishonor. We need to remember that guilt is for something that we have done wrong, and we can atone for. We can pay a penalty for it, make amends, and make it right where it was once wrong, or we can do a right act in replacement for a past wrong. Time we heal the pain of guilt. We can confess the guilt and receive release from its stain. This is the hope of justice, or righteousness in Christ.
For shame and dishonor, we need to understand that these are deeper issues: feeling that we will not measure up no matter how hard we try, that we will never be good enough, and our suffering will not ever end. We who hide behind our frozen smiles and our itchy fig leaves need to stand under the flooding shower of pure grace and hear the words from the Lord God: “You are my Son, You are my Daughter! With you I am well-pleased!” (Mark 1:11)
There are many great artists’ works of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Google these images. Notice how the artists handle the nudity over the years and how the body image changes. Think about your own body image.
Do you have shame thoughts when you observe your own body? Listen to the words you hear in your mind.
Ladies—Are you trying to be a size 0 runway model when your body frame is really a 16—and is that a healthy goal? Is this a goal of society or your own goal?
Men—does your trainer want you to look like a magazine photo or do you just want to be healthier? Do you want to workout 8 hours a day or 1 hour daily? Is focusing on an ideal body image healthy, or is focusing on your whole life a better choice?
I recommend you “like a Facebook page” I host:
Cornie’s Kitchen: Whole Foods for Whole People. http://www.facebook.com/pages/Cornies-Kitchen/411859538836606
Read more: Shame-Culture and Guilt-Culture
Atherton J S (2011) Doceo; Shame-Culture and Guilt-Culture [On-line: UK] retrieved 22 April 2013 from http://www.doceo.co.uk/background/shame_guilt.html
Under Creative Commons License: Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives