People are secretly preoccupied with the topic of shame. Sometimes it is a secret even to themselves until someone confronts them with it! 25 years ago in Christian circles, John Bradshaw wrote Healing the Shame That Binds You and sold over a million copies. [Well-known PBS speech]. Now Brené Brown comes out with Daring Greatly, sells a million copies, and is #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. [Famous TED talk]. One would think we’ve never heard of this topic before! In 25 years, someone will probably discover it again for the first time.
The pastors have been reading The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves by Curt Thompson, whose hand I was pleased to shake after a great presentation a few years ago [A summary video]. Thompson is a psychiatrist interested in the intersection of neurobiology and Christian spiritual formation who has studied how the brain reacts to shame—and why we struggle to move on from it. His favorite verse of the Bible is probably Hebrews 12:2: [We must fix] our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
Jesus “disregarded, scorned, thought nothing of the disgrace of” the shame of being stripped naked and killed in the most brutal, public way the powers-that-be could devise. At that moment, God effected the ultimate turnaround in history, and humankind’s future was reopened to its past, in which Adam and Eve were “naked and unashamed.” The Trinity performs the ultimate remix when Jesus scorned the scorn of the Cross.
What is shame?
Most of us probably think of shame associated with that embarrassing public event, the humiliation of which lived on — like the time I lost my prized baseball cap down the outhouse and, with tears, pleaded with my Mom to retrieve it. The truth is, most shame takes place inside our heads dozens of times every day, not in the public events we fear. It’s silent, subtle, and characterized by the quiet self-condemning conversation that we’ve learned since we were kids. It even crops up in our dreams. For instance, my final dream of last night had me climbing up a wall of some kind and perilously walking on top of it toward an important destination only to look back after I had made it to notice someone going out a gate. I felt a little embarrassed even in my dream!
Thompson has some fascinating research to describe how shame activates the parts of our brain at the deepest level: the flight or fight system. Stress tells our system to slow down. Shame does that even better, activating circuits in the right hemisphere and temporal lobes, where we perceive emotion. That’s why a simple roll of the eyes can have such a powerful impact on us whether our intimate says anything or not. The smallest communication might shut us right down! Shame dis-integrates us from others. When our connective systems go offline, they are often quite difficult to reboot. [I wrote about this]
We all experience this disintegration. It is probably the experience we fear most deeply: our horrible, deserved aloneness. Evil promotes our temptation to take that feeling to its horrible end, until we are devoured by it. That is why it is so significant that Jesus scorned the shame, was again naked and unashamed in the face of the most contemptuous way he could be treated, and demonstrated how a new creation could begin.
What can we do to allow God to heal our shame?
Ultimately, we must learned to scorn the shame with Jesus. Taking up our cross daily means talking back to the stories shame nurtures in our head about our flawed, despicable selves who are unloveable. For instance, I often encounter people in counseling of one sort or another who deflect a compliment. Sometimes I stop the dialogue and ask, “What just happened?” My friends can often identify a “scorn monitor” in their head who rejected the compliment because it did not correlate with their low opinion of themselves. I often take the place of the rest of humanity by affirming that “we” don’t agree with the scorn monitor and Jesus undoubtedly doesn’t. We have to at least doubt the shame, if we cannot stop it from talking.
The best way to break the power of cancelled sin is by telling our stories, including our shameful ones, in community. The first verse of Hebrews 12 alludes to that “great cloud of witnesses” from chapter 11 that allows us to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” Who is this “great cloud?” It is not only the great examples from the transhistorical body, it is the people in my cell and the trusted friends in Christ I develop.
If we name things we can tame things. Shame makes us feel an array of emotions we don’t like to acknowledge, let alone put words to in others’ presence. But when we do, we reduce our anxiety and open up the possibility of feeling love, joy and hope. Real community helps my true self get out of shame prison. I allow others to say, “Pay attention to this. You are the beloved of God.” This is not an easy process. But every story helps convince me that God loves me. Every time I expose my shame and the worst does not happen, I believe salvation is possible a little more.
It is what we do about shame that matters
The real issue is not whether we experience shame or whether we can stop it. We can alleviate our suffering with understanding and new behavior. But we are always going to experience shame, on some level. The question is what will we do in response before it leads us to disintegration?
We need to stay vulnerable. Evil is given no oxygen to breathe where vulnerability has the opportunity to live in a safe, predictable space. That’s why we long for Circle of Hope to be a “safe place to explore and express God’s love.” The cell is a shameless attempt to learn how to share ourselves without fear. I wish each meeting were like a magic pill so people would not flee back to their aloneness. But, over time, the discipline of building community fends off the reactions that deprive us of giving and receiving love. A cell even prepares us to overturn the shame that Jesus scorned on the cross! We often scorn the cells capacity to do that even when someone tells us it just succeeded! The church has a shame monitor too!
Shame’s nature is to divide, separate, isolate, just as evil intends. The healing of shame is not first about healing shame, but about becoming more integrated, more connected, move loving of one another; shame’s healing is the byproduct. In this healing and increased connection, we allow for greater, even more powerful creativity through connecting in community. We need others in order for our shame to be healed and for us to have the chance to move past it—and we can move past it, even if some remnant follows along behind.
See an interview with Thompson in Christianity Today
Read his book: The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe about Ourselves by Curt Thompson [Goodreads]