Self-Acceptance, Shame, Samson, and Grace 1

The Importance of Self-Acceptance

Today we will discuss look at the importance of self-acceptance, for us as individuals and as a society. By self-acceptance, I mean not just that we like and are comfortable with ourselves, but that the self we accept be as close as possible to who we really are. Until we understand our true nature, we cannot be healthy, generous, or free. We cannot love or respect what we do not understand.

Understanding ourselves has benefits beyond our own satisfaction, however, When we see and accept our own true self, we learn also to see, accept, love, and respect others. Thus self-acceptance is important for our communities.

This maybe more clear if we look at someone someone who did not understand himself. Instead, he felt an abiding and toxic shame that revealed itself as shamelessness. Because of this, he caused unrelenting misery for himself, his family, his people, and the neighboring tribes.

No, I’m not talking about our president, although perhaps I could be. I am talking about Samson, a judge and leader of his people, whose story is told in the Hebrew Bible.

Samson and Delilah, painting by Anton van Dyck - the shame of Samson being dragged away, his hair shorn

Samson’s Beginnings

Like many of the Bible’s special children, Samson was a miracle baby. His mother had not been able to conceive until one day an angel of the Lord visited her and told her that God would give her a son.

“Now be careful,” the angel warned her, “not to drink wine or strong drink, or to eat anything unclean, for you shall conceive and bear a son. No razor is to come on his head, for the boy shall be a nazirite to God from birth.” (Judg 13:4-5) [1]

Most nazirites are adults who have taken vows to serve the Lord for perhaps or, occasionally, a lifetime. The only other nazirite claimed by God before his birth was Samuel, another Bible figure. As we can see, nazirites may not eat unclean food, especially anything from the vine. Also, they must never touch a dead body and never cut their hair.

Exactly why Samson had to be a nazirite, I do not know. What is clear, is that God expected him to grow up to be a hero and deliver Israel from their latest oppressor, the Philistines. Like many of us who have had our lives planned out by someone else, however, Samson did a lousy job fulfilling God’s plan.

Types of Shame

In his book, Faithful Change: The Personal and Public Challenges of Postmodern Life, James W. Fowler explores the connection between shame, guilt, and our conscience. He identifies five types of shame that span a continuum from helpful to destructive.

We need the first shame Fowler lists. He calls it “healthy shame.” It warns us when we are about to do something disrespectful or disgraceful. From this shame arises our conscience. [2]

Second is “perfectionist shame.” Although it might not sound so bad, because the person who struggles with this form of shame achieves great things and produces impeccable work, still this shame distorts our inner being. It arises because when we learn that nothing we do can is good enough. No matter how hard we try, we can’t earn us the love we so desperately long for. Still, we keep trying. Desperately, we observe those we hope to impress in the belief that if we just figure out what they want, we can give it to them. The problem is that by focusing so much on the other person, we lose our inner being, our true heart. Through perfectionist shame, we develop a “false self.” [3]

“Isms” and Cultural Shame

The third shame is rarely discussed, but is no less important because of that. We feel this shame when we were born wrong, with a certain skin color, or gender, or disability, or different kind of mind. Fowler calls this the shame of “enforced minority status.” Because we cannot change this part of ourselves, we feel trapped. To heal that shame, we not only need to be heard and seen and cared for, but we also need our political, economic, and social systems to change. We are all responsible for helping to heal this shame by ending the divisiveness and stratification of our culture, and by embracing others, including the different, creating beloved community. [4]

Unfortunately, we bully and oppress others because of we all have shame of our own. Until a majority of individuals in this country find healing and wholeness from their shame, our systems will not change, at least not for any length of time.

Shame that Leads to Shamelessness

Two types of shame are intense and frightening.

“Toxic shame,” first named by Silvan Tomkins in the 1960s, causes deep rifts in our being, resulting in loathing and aggression toward ourselves and others. When a child grows up in a home where true feelings and emotions are derided, where rules are confusing and punishments severe, where boundaries are invaded and caregivers harsh and stern, and where abuse is common, the child’s heart is broken and she loses the capacity for love, joy, beauty, inner peace, and hope. [5]

Yet all is not lost for them. Those who grow up in a toxic family can learn, though counseling and spiritual growth and the kindness of others, to love and to laugh.

On the other hand, the fifth shame, that of “shamelessness,” shatters a person so completely, they almost never heal. Shamelessness breaks not just the heart, but also the soul.

The child who experiences this deepest of shames becomes a sociopath, a psychopath, a person without a conscience or empathy. Fowler noticed that three despotic leaders – Saddam Hussein, Joseph Stalin, and Adolf Hitler – had similar childhoods. They grew up in brutal, abusive, ruthless, humiliating homes. No adult provided mirroring for them. Not even a single ally eased their suffering. They learned nothing, absolutely nothing, about love or compassion. [6]

The scars of people like Hussein, Stalin, and Hitler are more than can be born by the human soul.These men lost the ability to feel and see and know. To survive emotionally, they had to maintain a fiction of invincibility and magnificence. They had to project onto everyone and everything around them the hurts they could not face. How devastating to be them; how devastating to live in the world they created.

Samson Falls in Lust

Though perhaps not as abusive as these three men, Samson was a selfish, impulsive, arrogant, and destructive leader. All we know of his childhood is that “the boy grew, and the Lord blessed him.” (Judg 13:24) We are told he served Israel for twenty years as a judge, but we never see him adjudicate.

The first story we hear about him is that one day while traveling in Timnah, he sees Philistine woman and decides to marry her. “I saw a Philistine woman at Timnah; now get her for me as my wife,” he tells his parents. (Judg 14:2)

A bit taken aback, his parents urge caution. After all, he doesn’t even know this woman. Besides, she’s a foreigner. But Samson insists. (Judg 14:3)

Like many shameless men, Samson will get what he wants. In the meantime, on his journeys back and forth between Timnah and home, he is attacked by a lion. With the “spirit of the Lord” upon him, he tears the lion apart with his bare hands. Finished with that, he goes about his business. At some point, he sees the lion carcass again. Bees have built a hive in the skin, and Samson scoops up some of the honey, bringing it home with him and sharing it with his parents. Yet he doesn’t tell anyone about killing the lion, nor does he let his parents know where the honey came from.

Because of this secrecy, he is able to use this information to manipulate the Philistines, who have brought thirty companions to be with Samson during the celebration of his marriage. Samson present a wager to them. If they can answer his riddle within seven days, he will give them each of them garments. If they fail, however, they must give thirty garments to him.

The Riddle and Its Consequences

They agree. The riddle Samson gives them is this: “Out of the eater came something to eat. Out of the strong came something sweet.”

Of course no one can answer it, because only Samson knows to what it refers, yet he seems not the least bit ashamed to have set up an unfair contest. Unaware of his deviousness, the Philistines do their best to figure it out.

Finally, on the fourth day, they grow impatient, so they go to Samson’s wife and tell her that if she does not find out the answer for them, they will set both her and her father’s house on fire.

Desperate, Samson’s wife “nags him” so much that he finally tells her. When she explains the riddle to the Philistine men, and they give Samson the correct answer, he is furious. All he can see is how he has been betrayed and abused. He has no insight into how he created the situation, nor does he feel empathy for his wife who’d been put into an impossible situation by his greed. Of course, the other men, willing to murder this woman to save themselves the loss of a single suit of clothing, are hardly innocent.

Nonetheless, Samson’s response is petulant and abusive. Again, feeling “the spirit of the Lord,” he runs to a nearby town, kills thirty men, and steals their garments, giving those the clothes to the men who had won the bet. Afterwards, he gives his wife to his best man and goes back to his father’s house.

Samson as a Tall Tale Hero

Samson’s story continues. For some reason, he decides he wants his wife back. With what seems like some wisdom, the woman’s father refuses to let him see her. Assuming Samson had left her, she has now married someone else.

What is Samson’s response? Does he accept what he has done to create this situation? Does he examine his motives?

Of course not. He says, “This time, when I do mischief to the Philistines, I will be without blame.” (Judg 15:3)

This section of the Bible has many of the qualities of a tall tale. There’s great exaggeration. For instance, enraged at his wife’s father for keeping the woman from him, he captures 300 foxes, sets fire to their tails, and looses in the Philistines’ fields. When the Philistines then kill his ex-wife and father-in-law, Samson threatens to slaughter them all.

Worried, they in turn threaten the Judaens until 3,000 of their men convince Samson to let them bind him and take him to the Philistines. When Samson arrives there, however, the ropes tying him up “became like flax that has caught fire, and his bonds melted off his hands.” Then, armed with nothing but a donkey’s jawbone, Samson kills 1,000 men. (Judg 15:14-16)

We humans have always loved stories of strong or witty people who prevail against enormous odds. However, the best of these heroes use their prowess to right wrongs, not create them.

God as Enabler

Perhaps Samson is so aggressive and self-righteous because all his life he has been enabled. We know nothing of how his parents raised him, but I have to wonder if God didn’t overlook a lot of damaging behavior.

Indeed, God seems to approves of Samson’s murdering and pillaging. Certainly, he does not chastise Samson. He does not condemn him, nor even admonish him. For instance, Samson’s not a very good nazirite. He eats unclean honey, for instance, and if killing someone isn’t as bad as touching a dead body, it ought to be. The only vow he maintains is that he doesn’t cut his hair, and that’s because if he does, he’ll get weak. Getting weak is nothing something Samson would tolerate.

Samson does not tolerate consequences well, either. When he loses something he wants, such as his wife, he has no insight. He can’t accept the truth about himself. Instead, he projects blame onto everyone else, gets enraged, and takes revenge. Although he is a judge, not a single line of his story describes anything he does to lead or guide or serve his people.

Samson and Delilah

Instead, his story continues with more lust, greed, and violence. You probably know that Delilah cut his hair, making him vulnerable to the Philistines, who blinded him and chained him to a mill. This part of the story, in particular, has been used to caution us about manipulative women and warn us not to let lust get the better of us. Some scholars acknowledge that Samson had faults, but at least he loved the Lord. He wasn’t idolatrous.

Besides, he was a hero. He was serving the Lord. For years, the Israelites had suffered under Philistine rule. Finally, Samson came and started the efforts that would free his people. He eagerly destroyed the enemies of the Lord.

Yet even here, Samson killed them not for some political purpose, not to free anyone, but because they offended him personally. His only interest was in revenge. Did the “spirit of the Lord” really come upon him at those time? I shudder to think that a God like that truly exists.

Unfortunately, people like Samson, like Hussein, and Stalin, and Hitler think God approves of their atrocities. Even if they aren’t God-fearing, they can work up quite a fit of self-righteous indignation. They can justify any horror they do to another, and they will tolerate no such abuse done to them.

We All Experience Some Toxic Shame

To one degree or another, we have all been scarred by inept or cruel parents, teachers, strangers, neighborhoods, or societies. Our hearts have been broken and our souls wounded. We react from shame we recognize, and shame we don’t. Yet most of us have some idea when we’ve betrayed our values, and we try to make things right.

Others of us, on the other hand, cannot face the truth of shame. Samson had no idea how childish, spiteful, and impetuous he was. Hussein, Stalin, and Hitler hadn’t a clue they were warped, twisted, empty, almost inhuman. They didn’t dare look. Any confusion, failure, brokenness existed not within them, but in others. Anything that went wrong was blamed on someone. The fear of being discovered as worthless was greater than their rage, and that itself was huge. To see themselves as they really were would have shattered them completely.

So what do we do? How do we cope with the ravages of a shameful past?

Self-Acceptance and Healing Shame

Most of us can learn to recognize the ways shame interferes with our happiness. We can see the messages of worthlessness and disgrace that plague us, and we can create new stories that include purpose, integrity, and hope. This may mean healing traumas and managing addictions. It may mean becoming part of a community that sees us for who we truly are, as valuable human beings with flaws, yes, but also with great beauty and sacred tenderness. Perhaps we will find healing in scripture, in nature, in meditation, in prayer.

Regardless of the specific tools we use, the first things we must do to heal shame are to accept ourselves as we are, to forgive ourselves for being imperfect and sometimes cruel, and to learn to love.

Samson’s Hair

In their analysis of the Samson story, Liz Greene and Juliet Sharman-Burke explain that while hair can symbolize strength, it also symbolizes our ability to think, reflect, “perceive the world, and process it through our own consciousness.” [7] Samson thought his strength was in his muscles, yet if he had used what God had given him and realized the real reason he shouldn’t cut his locks, he could have been wise.

Th authors suggest that, in the end, blind and humiliated, Samson gains a bit of wisdom. Blindness is a metaphor for internal reflection, for the ability to see and know oneself. Also, while in prison, his hair grew. This meant he got his strength back, of course, yet if Greene and Sharman-Burke are correct, he also received a new ability to think. Perhaps his suffering cracked him open enough that he could listen to his wise mind.

I don’t see this growth reflected in scripture, but Samson must have been smarter than the Philistines who let his hair grow back in the first place. Because, you see, in the end, Samson won, if by winning we mean that our enemies die.

Another way to win is to learn from our defeat, to make alliances, to communicate, to be in relationship. Perhaps Samson learned something from his blinding and his new locks of hair, but he didn’t lose his lust for vengeance. As he trudged round the mill, heckled by the Philistines, he prayed to God for the strength to destroy them, even if it meant he himself would die. And God agreed. Samson broke his chains, smashed the pillars that held up the roof, and it crashed down, killing everyone in the room, including himself.

Bringing Shame to the Shameless

At times, I think people just need to die. How do we stop a Samson, a Hussein or Stalin or Hitler? Even prison is risky. Capitol punishment harms the executioner as well as the executed, yet is it sometimes the better of two evils?

I would love to see such men heal. I would love to tell you of a therapy, a certain voice from God, a machine that could concentrate the love of thousands so it might mend such a tortured soul. Unfortunately, I have no such remedy at hand.

Most of us, thank God, are not so wounded. We can heal. We can learn to accept ourselves as we are and move forward in forgiveness and love.

Not that this is easy. We fear to look inside in case we loathe what we find, but we’re not so shy about looking at others. Unfortunately, our shame obscures our vision. We see ugliness and brutality and worthlessness where there is none. Not that everyone’s perfect, sweet, and kind. But when we accept our own true nature and learn to care for and love that nature, we we tend to accept others in the same way. So when we feel disgusted by others, it’s a clue that we’re really disgusted with ourselves.

Accepting Grace

But how do we look inside at the self we cannot tolerate? Peering too starkly at our own natures can overwhelm us. Our frightened egos will fight back. They will protect our integrity by rationalizing and manipulating the truth.

The antidote, then, is not to force ourselves or others to acknowledge how bad we are. The antidote is grace.

Grace is an essential part of the Christian message. Fowler writes that “Jesus offers a quality of really seeing each of these persons and conveying such acceptance and regard that they find a new relation to him, to God, and to the communities of which they are a part.” [8]

Acceptance and regard. Even when Jesus denounces the actions of the Pharisees, Fowler writes, “He is careful to appeal to their capacity for an appropriate recognition of guilt, which could lead to repentance.” [9] He does not judge, label, or shame them. Rather than condemning their inner being, their personhood, he condemns their actions.

This is important for us to remember as we strive to heal ourselves and our country. When we humiliate and shame each other, we increase resistance. We encourage anger and revenge. Grace, on the other hand, encourages openness and healing.

Courage, Determination, and Self-Acceptance

Christianity is not the only religion that invites grace. So does Buddhism, such as by teaching us to be curious, to look, to notice without judgment or censure. Pema Chodron, for instance, invites us to start where we are. Acknowledge our thoughts, yes, and know that we all have messy, ugly, evil, distorted ones. These thoughts simply happen. So find the courage to look, and then to let them go. “Start now,” she writes, “just as you are.” [10]

Self-acceptance takes courage and determination. We must struggle against the shame we learned as children, and that continues to humiliate us as adults. Let us be wiser than Samson. Certainly, let us be kinder than Hussein, Stalin, Hitler, or our current president. Definitely, let us be gentle with our true selves.

May We Extend Grace to Others

Like Samson, we are born to be nazirites, ones set aside as holy and anointed by God. Grace is our birthright, and grace will heal. Whether we find that grace in Jesus, in friends, in Buddhist teachings, in the sky and sea and wind, or in all these things and more, grace can teach us to accept ourselves, to love who we really are, and in this way, to learn to love others.

Therefore, may we extend that grace to those who are wounded and suffering, and may we pass on healthy shame, not toxic shame, to the world’s children. By reaching out and touching one person after another, we can fill our world with so much healing, that someday, God willing, no child will experience the shame that steals one’s soul.


  1. All Bible verses from the NRSV.
  2. Fowler, James W., Faithful Change: The personal and Public Challenges of Postmodern Life,” Nashville: Abingdon, 1996, 114.
  3. Ibid 114.
  4. Ibid 118-121.
  5. Ibid 122-125.
  6. Ibid 127-128.
  7. Greene, Liz and Juliet Sharman-Burke, Mythic Journey: The Meaning of Myth As a Guide for Life, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000, 136-7.
  8. Fowler, 144.
  9. Ibid 144.
  10. Chodron, Pema, Comfortable with Uncertainty, Boston: Shambhala, 2002, 91.

Photo Credits: Painting by Anthony van Dyck, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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