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How to keep shame from winning

One of the challenges with listening to God’s heartbeat is that things keep getting in the way. Sometimes it’s things outside me; I know from my time as a doctor that it’s hard to clearly hear a heartbeat when there’s construction going on outside, or a quiet voice when a baby is crying in the same room. 

More often, it’s things within me. My sense of hurry, my compulsion to complete the do-list. Or, as I’ve been discovering with some surprise over the past few weeks, a hidden sense of shame that quietly clouds my view of the love in Jesus’ eyes. 

As I’ve read Dr. Curt Thompson’s book, The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About OurselvesI’ve tried the simple little exercise he calls a shame inventory.

I took a 3×5 card (or, Thompson says, “a stack of them, because you’ll need them”), and every time I noticed in myself a thought, feeling, memory, or behaviour that was rooted in shame, I made a mark on the card. Following his instructions, I didn’t write down what it was about or try to figure it out, I just made a mark. Try it for a week, he suggests. I lasted about two hours, in which I made a mark every thirty seconds or so. Point proven. I’ve known I experience anxiety and depression, but I hadn’t used the word shame for what underlies all that. 

Maybe I’d missed it because I learned to think of guilt and shame primarily in the context of sin, where guilt says, “I’ve done something bad,” and shame says, “I am bad.” Sadly, there are plenty of ways I turn away from God’s invitation to draw closer to him and live rooted in his love each day. But as I read Dr. Thompson’s words about shame, I realized that, for me, that sense of “I’m bad” often rises less in response to a specific sin (for which I can ask forgiveness), than a vague, underlying sense of not-enoughness.

“One way to approach [shame’s] essence is to understand it as an undercurrent of sensed emotion, of which we may have either a slight or robust impression that, should we put words to it, would declare some version of I am not enough; There is something wrong with me; I am bad; or I don’t matter.”

Curt Thompson, The Soul of Shame, p.24, bold mine.

There’s a lot of ground covered in those four simple statements! And some rise in me more often than others, along with the accompanying fear:

 “With shame, I not only sense that something is deeply wrong with me, but accompanying this is the naturally extended consequence that because of this profound flaw, you will eventually want nothing to do with me and will leave” (p. 72).

No wonder the feeling of shame is uncomfortable! We’re made for relationship and from birth we depend upon connection to survive and flourish. Is there anything more terrifying than the prospect of abandonment? 

The good news is that God never brings something into the light unless he wants to meet us there, and Dr. Thompson doesn’t leave us with just noticing the shame either. He shows that shame isn’t just a result of sin, it’s a powerful root of it, and he traces through Scripture the story of shame and of God coming to meet us in it. 

Shame, Dr. Thompson proposes, is at the heart of temptation, and was, in fact, at work in the garden even before the fall. The serpent uses a subtle form of shame to tempt Eve: You are not enough and God doesn’t really love you. Since God prohibited you from eating the fruit of this tree which would make you like God, God doesn’t want you to be like him. He doesn’t want you to be as close and connected to him as you think he does. And by implication, “you are not as important as you think. . . . You. Are Not. Enough” (p. 103). 

The snake plants the doubt and lets shame do its work. 

In other words, Dr. Thompson proposes that shame is not only a psychological phenomenon, but one that evil uses intentionally and effectively to keep us from what we’re made for: joyful, intimate relationships with God and other people (“naked and unashamed”), and participating in God’s creative work in the world.

This brings out the fight in me. If evil is using shame to keep me from deepening relationships with God and others, and from participating as fully as I’m meant to in God’s creative work in the world, I want to do everything I can to work with God to diminish the power shame has in my life!

But as much as I want to diminish shame’s power in my life, God wants it more. And that is such good news, because God knows that shame shuts us down neurologically and we can’t get out of it ourselves. We need someone to pursue us into the shame until we know that we are seen in all of our brokenness and the person isn’t going away. And so this God who longs to be known by us, and for us to know ourselves known by him, pursues us into this place of shame by coming to find us. “Where are you?” he asks.

He has compassion for us in our shame: He makes clothes of animal skins to replace Adam and Eve’s inadequate attempts to cover their nakedness with leaves, and He calls us out of hiding, determined not to let us shrivel in our shame. 

Until I read this book, I didn’t realize that the Romans crucified people completely naked – with no loin cloth. They intended not merely to kill but to humiliate. The thought of Jesus being shamed like this makes me cringe – and yet it also profoundly convinces me: Jesus knows exactly what it’s like to be me. He came all the way in to sharing my shame and he didn’t run away. He is not going to run away from me now in the moments I feel shame (p. 128-9).

How, then, do we work with Jesus to decrease the power of shame in our lives?

Dr. Thompson turns us to Hebrews 12:1-2.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honor beside God’s throne (Heb 12:1-2, NLT, bold mine).

He speaks of how we need that cloud of witnesses—not just the faithful believers who have gone before us, but people in our daily lives by whom we are completely known and with whom we can keep taking the risk of honesty without them running away. Though it may feel counterintuitive, shame flourishes in hiding and flees in the face of exposure to a welcoming presence.

We need others to welcome us in our shame and to help us to keep our eyes on Jesus, following his example of returning again and again to his Father, receiving those words spoken over Jesus as spoken over us too, “You are my dearly loved Son, and you bring me great joy” (Luke 3:22 NLT).

I need to listen to that daily, “You are my dearly loved daughter, and you bring me great joy.” (Here’s a link to one way to let that sink deep and rewire our brains from shame to knowing ourselves loved.)

We scorn or disregard the shame when we do as Jesus did: seek shame where it hides and turn back again and again to focus on the face of our Father instead of letting ourselves be derailed from enjoying his love and participating in his work in the world. 

Join me, will you, in choosing to notice the shame with the help of the Holy Spirit and those around us, and in turning back, again and again and again, to live in the love the Father pours out on us?

P.S. You can find lots of wonderful (and free) talks and reflections by Curt Thompson on his webpage here. I’ve listened to Hope and Healing in Hard Times at least four or five times. And here’s another link to The Soul of Shame in case you’re interested. I’ve given you a good taste above, but there’s SO much more beautiful, practical and freeing truth in the book!

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Beverly

    Carolyn, This is totally awesome! I read it after a session with my spiritual director. It helped me to put into words something I was feeling. I am an introverted contemplative, so I love just sitting in His presence for long periods of time. But the shame that crept in was, “There’s something wrong with you…” because I wasn’t doing the “usual Christian thing and reading a devotional or doing a Bible study. I know there are times for that, but in the season I’m in right now, beling still in His presence and seeing even His silence as His still small voice is what I need right now.

    Thanks so much for sharing this! I will not only save this, but pass it along to others!

    Blessings from Cyprus,

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