Thoughts from the Sukkah 2019/5780 Day 1

I have had a lot of focus in the past few months on the difference between guilt and shame and it seemed the perfect focus for the High Holy Days. I thought I would continue it in my ponderings this year from the comfort of my sukkah.

So here I sit and ponder the difference between guilt and shame. Because there doesn’t seem to be a difference in Scripture and when you read the writings from the Rabbi’s. But when you read the meanings of what is being discussed a very distinct difference emerges in our modern language.

View from my Sukkah
This is the beautiful view I have as I sit and ponder the meaning of life

It turns out what is translated as ‘shame’ is more akin to guilt but a little more than we might mean in our casual usage. It’s more like ‘guilt’ is the state of being guilty and ‘shame’ is the feeling that naturally accompanies knowing you did something wrong. It’s that feeling of regret – that awareness that you should have done differently that leads to a conviction to do differently next time. I think this is why there are no sacrifices for intentional sins . . . . in order to commit intentional sins you have to feel no guilt at all about what you’re doing and no regret. You knew it was wrong ahead of time and you made the choice to do it. It’s where we get sayings like “have you no shame?”

“Guilt is a good thing when it’s your conscious being aware of the damage you’ve done and driving the choice to make changes in your life and do differently going forward. “

Crystal Lutton

I made a point in parenting each of my children to highlight that feeling of guilt and use it to help develop empathy and teach repentance. Turns out it takes some years for a child to develop empathy – the awareness that others have feelings and they can impact them. If you’re paying attention, though, you see that lightbulb come on. You see that healthy shame hit them like a ton of bricks and turn their countenance downcast.

When I would see this I would take them aside and sit with them for a bit. Quietly, peacefully, non-judgmentally. I would validate their feelings. “I see you feel bad about how that went down.” Wait for their response – verbal or not. I would describe their feeling . . . “Does it feel like there’s a darkness on your heart that is heavy and sad? Does it make you want to slink away and not be seen?” Usually they would say yes, or add their own description for me. I would name their feeling. “That is guilt. It’s healthy. It means you know you did something wrong. God teaches us how to get rid of that feeling and it’s not always easy but it’s worth it.” I would teach, “When you feel that guilt you go to the person that you wronged and you own it. ‘I did X and it was wrong.’ Then you take responsibility for it. ‘I’m sorry.’ Then you commit to not doing it again. ‘I won’t do that again and I want the chance to earn back your trust.'” This moves you through repentance and into reconciliation and is a necessary step to really heal any damage you did.

Turns out the process is the same whether you do something big or something little so I took those opportunities when things were little to let them practice this. It’s a much harder lesson to learn when you get bigger. It’s also important to model and when I would realise that something I’d said or done had wounded my precious ones in any way I would step up and do the hard work myself.

Because when we talk about shame we’re talking about something different from the natural feeling that accompanies guilt. Somehow in our modern world we’ve managed to misunderstand this so terribly that we’ve created a type of shame that goes into a person and defines them as shameful. We’ve taken that dark heavy feeling in your heart you feel when you do something wrong and through punishment we have driven it deeper until it becomes the essence of their self awareness.

When we talk about shame today we’re talking about that feeling of worthlessness that overcomes us when we do something wrong – something simple, usually. It causes us to not be able to take correction or criticism in relationships or on the job. We no longer operate in that place of, “Oh, that was wrong, I feel badly about it and won’t do it again. Let me go take responsibility.” Instead we operate from a place of, “I am wrong, I always mess up. I hope no-one sees me for the horrible person I really am.”

The good news if you currently live in shame is that you can change this. You are more than what you do. Who you are is worthy. Learned behaviors can be unlearned and new behaviors can be learned. This is what I’m thinking about this week and what I want to talk about. I hope you’ll join me.

Suffer not the little children

I am asked quite often about how to talk to children about God, when to introduce the idea of sin, and these are really good questions. Many parents are concerned about scaring their children, or not sharing enough because of that concern.  I compiled this list in answer to the most recent very genuine and honest question on this topic and I wanted to be sure and save it in this form.

When I’m working with my children we generally follow this kind of age/stage path:

Babies, Toddlers and Alpha Waves

Babies and toddlers are told how much God loves them, how much God has done for them, that they love God, that we love God, that they are His children and born with a purpose – Truth is spoken over them in this stage. I was recently learning about alpha waves – they are the brain waves that have no filter, meaning your brain just accepts everything that is told to you and these things told to you become your Truth for the rest of your life unless you intentionally work to change those recordings. Until the age of about 5-7 you are pure alpha waves and everything you are told is received into you – and that eventually becomes your filter against which you compare everything new that comes to you after the fact. This is where those studies that talk about children succeeding or failing in agreement with what they were told about themselves and what they were labeled/called come into play.

I do not talk about sin, or hell, or anything negative theologically – unless they ask – and then I do the whole “where do babies come from?” “Mommy’s belly” answer. They do participate in Passover and every feast and festival and they experience the ideas, but they don’t get defined for them at this age.

Preschool – Kindergarten

Somewhere around 4.5 – 5 ish my children all start to pick up on the fact that when they ask questions like, “Where do we go when we die?” I answer, “The people who love God go to be with Him.” They then ask the question that shows some maturity, “What about those who don’t love Him?” And the idea of the “negatives” is introduced. I tell them, “They don’t love Him so they don’t want to be with Him and He honors that and they don’t have to be with Him.” Every time they then want assurance that they will be with Him and at this point I do lead them in a prayer of confession of faith – NOT because I believe such a prayer saves them  But because at this age they are very kinesthetic and *doing* this is a way that speaks to their body, mind and soul about their love for God. It has the same effect of doing a kitchen science experiment and it makes it real and tangible for them.

What if they feel guilty?

There are lots of times after this that I teach them, “God says those who love Him will do X,” or “God says when we love Him, His standard is Y,” and around 8 there is a developmental shift that has them reacting to a negative choice in a way that shows they are beginning to understand this. They react with sincere guilt to things. When I catch this I take them aside and talk to them. I point out that their heart feels dark and heavy and that this is guilt – it is our conscience telling us we did something wrong. I then explain that God put that into us so that we would know when we are on the wrong path. I also explain that there is a way to fix this and make our heart happy and light and that is to confess what we have done and make amends. So together we work out how they will go to the person they have wronged, apologize, ask forgiveness, and seek a way to make amends.  This is how/when the idea of “sin” is introduced.

What about the teenage years?

By the time my children are reaching Bar/Bat Mitzvah age they are excited and ready to make that more mature confession of faith where they stand before their friends and family and make a public confession of their love for God and His Word and we all celebrate with them. Two of my children sought baptism several years ago and we chose to do a family baptism. They are both comfortable with that and my younger children have asked if we can do one with them that they will remember – not that the first didn’t have meaning, but they want to remember theirs. Absolutely – I’ve suggested attaching them to this ceremony.

And now I’ve got my 14 and 16 yo who are truly reasoning together with us about things. They ask questions in service and make observations and ask about deeper things in the text, etc. They were taught to have great compassion for those who believe differently while still holding to their faith, and because I don’t believe I have all the answers, but that God does, they are very comfortable saying, “I don’t know,” when things come up. Creation? Some people believe X, some Y, some whatever, we believe ____ – and when we meet God we will know. Until then, don’t hold too tightly to our ideas that you make a fist towards others with them.”


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