Sunday, April 28, 2013

Kicking Shame in the Teeth

A few weeks ago, I discovered Brené Brown and liked her so much I posted her TED talk. I have since ordered her book, Daring Greatly, and I'm reading it faster than I've read anything in a while. I know I've got some things to write in response, but I was trying really hard to wait until I'd actually finished the book.

Except today I was angry in church.

I'm a thinker, so in the relatively rare case when my emotions hijack my mind, I know I'd better pay attention. Here's the upshot of my attention-paying, unfinished book notwithstanding:

A Shame-Prone Culture

Brené has a Ph.D. in social work and has devoted her research to studying shame. Yep, shame. I know—huge downer. You should hear the irony when she talks about it herself.

Very simply, shame is the message—from within or outside—that says "I am bad," or "You are bad." (As opposed to guilt, which might tell us, "You did something bad"—a critical distinction.)

Basically, she started out studying relationships and how people connect to each other, but it didn't take long for people to start telling her stories of disconnection, and brokenness and shame instead. Brené decided to go there. And what she discovered is a hideously fascinating tale of how shame drives so much of what we do. She finds it so pandemic that she describes us as a "shame-prone culture."

Shame = Control 

Brené's research subjects identified 12 major sources of shame in their lives. Appearance and body image. Addiction. Sex. Money and Work. Religion. 


I read that last night and thought, "OK, I can see how that would be true." But then sitting in church this morning, I got fighting mad about it. (Not because of anything that happened in church. Just because that's where I happened to be sitting when all of this was happening in my head and heart.)

As it turns out, shame is a pretty effective way of controlling people. And religion, when it goes bad, is often the nastiest example of what happens when control freaks get some power and proceed to use shame (and/or fear) to control everyone they can get their hands on.

I know way too many people for whom this has been their predominant experience with Christianity. And that makes me angry. Why?

Because shame IS. NOT. IN. THE. BIBLE.

OK, that's a lie. Shame is in the Bible. But not in the way most people think it is. You want to know how it's talked about?

[I have to preface this by saying that while Brené and other researchers make a point of drawing clear lines between shame, guilt, humiliation and embarrassment, the Bible uses them somewhat interchangeably. Call me on it if you find an exception, but it seems to me that every time the Bible identifies God as a source of shame, it's being used in the sense of "guilt." Even with that being the case, this is compelling...]

If this is what the Bible really says about shame, why do so many people experience shame as the driving force of Christianity? Something is very wrong here.

A Terrible Counterfeit

I've heard it said that the Devil can't create; he can just make really bad counterfeits of the things God has created. I'm pretty sure that's where shame came from.

God created guilt to lead us to himself. Try reading 2 Corinthians 7:10 and substituting "guilt" for "godly sorrow" and "shame" for "worldly sorrow."

Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.
And guess what Brené and other researchers have found:

Guilt is just as powerful as shame, but its influence is positive, while shame's is destructive. In fact, in my research, I found that shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we can change and do better.... Shame is highly correlated with addiction, violence, aggression, depression, eating disorders and bullying. Researchers don't find shame correlated with positive outcomes at all. (Daring Greatly, 72-73.)
Guilt might not be a pleasant feeling, but it's productive. Shame can seem so similar to guilt, but it's not the same thing. It's a terrible, dangerous, cancerous counterfeit. It keeps people from God, rather than bringing them to Him.

All of this makes me want to kick shame in the teeth. Who's with me?

Shame has wounded...or crippled...or alienated...too many people I love. And it doesn't have to be that way.

A Double Portion

God wants to do something a little different from what I want to do (thankfully so, 'cause I can be a little bit of a bull in a china shop sometimes). In place of our shame, God wants to give us a "double portion" (Isaiah 61:7). Maybe that's why this song has been rattling around in my head all day. 

If we give you our shame, God, what beautiful things will you give us in return?


  1. Have you been reading my mind?

  2. I love how your brain works stuff out. Looking forward to listening to the song when it isn't 1 am. Love you, girl!