The Soul of Shame

You broke the bonds
And you loosed the chains
Carried the cross of my shame
Oh my shame, you know I believe it. But I still haven't found what I'm looking for.

U2 – "I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For"

We all know we need forgiveness. But there is also a deep longing for an existential reality of that forgiveness – to know that we are more than tolerated but welcomed and seen without any hint of not belonging or not measuring up. Is this even possible? Dare we hope that this is true and possible? This problem is called shame.

Christians are quite familiar with passages that provide assurance that when we trust in Christ, “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). We are also familiar with passages that provide ongoing encouragement as we fight sin on a daily basis. I John 1:9 is a trusted friend as we face failure on a daily basis. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive our sins…” In our daily lives, guilt seems to be a topic that is discussed quite a bit. We see it on the news everyday. Someone is convicted of a crime because they were found guilty of wrong-doing. We even talk a great deal about guilt within the context of the church. Glance at any typical liturgy and you will find a “Confession of Sin” element followed by an “Assurance of Pardon.”

But what about shame? What do we do with it? Does the Bible speak to the experience of shame?

Recently, I have been reading The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Tell About Ourselves by Curt Thompson. If you have not read it, you should. It’s a book that doesn’t make you feel ashamed when reading it. That is amazing all by itself. The book begins this way:

From our family at home to the one at church. From the bedroom to the boardroom. From school to work to play. From the art studio to the science and technology lab. It is a primal emotional pigment that colors the images of everything: our bodies, our marriages and our politics; our successes and failures; our friends and enemies, especially the God of the Bible, who may at times feel like both. It starts and (surprisingly) ends wars, only to start them again. It fuels injustice and creates our excuses for doing little if anything about it. It is a featured tool for motivating students, athletes and employees. It enables us to conveniently remain separate from those we disagree with and who make us feel uncomfortable, while keeping to those who will only tell us what we want to hear (Introduction).

Curt Thompson addresses shame from an interesting vantage point. His area of expertise is interpersonal neurobiology. In addition, he is a Christian and wants to understand shame and its cure within the framework of the Christian Gospel. He says this about his intentions:

However, while this book holds shame to be within the context of a grand story, and so takes its place and meaning, within that story’s purpose lie the mechanics of how shame works. Familiarity with those mechanisms, through the lens of interpersonal neurobiology, though now substantiating shames teleology, can open up ways for us to align ourselves with the purpose that God has for a world in which mercy and justice reign, a world teeming with goodness and beauty, and in which joy of true relationship is our destiny (Introduction).

Shame Has a Story to Tell

Before he introduces the interpersonal neurobiological perspective, he helps us see that shame is something that is unique to human beings because we are storytellers. We tell stories to make sense of what we do and why we do those things. Thompson contends that we all have a quiet narrator who interprets the story in which we live. This narrator can tell a true story or a false one. Shame can function as that narrator without us even knowing it. In various places in the introduction, Thompson says this;

I will examine shame in the context of the biblical narrative. And, as I will suggest more directly later, if shame is not understood in this context, it will become a powerful driving force in telling a different story…..This, then, is a book about the story of shame. The one we tell about it, the one it tells about us, and even more so the one God has been telling about all of us from the beginning. Most important, this book also examines how the story of the Bible offers us a way not only to understand shame but also to effectively put it to death, even if that takes a lifetime to accomplish. But putting shame to death is not simply about addressing it as a deeply destructive emotional and relational nuisance. For we cannot speak of shame without speaking of creation and God’s intention for it. From the beginning it has been God’s purpose for this world to be one of emerging goodness, beauty and joy. Evil has wielded shame as a primary weapon to see to it that that world never happens. Consequently, to combat shame is not merely to wrestle against something we detest. It is to do that very thing that provides the necessary space for each of us to live like God, become like Jesus and grow up to be who we were born to be (Introduction).

In other words, shame is used by the Evil One to break Shalom…Peace...Wholeness. It disintegrates us from God, our brain’s many parts, ourselves, others and God’s calling over our lives to advance his good and gracious redemption of this broken world.

Personal Reflection

As I read this book, I came to see what Thompson says is true of all of us. We all live with shame and we all shame others. We learn at an early age how to leverage shame for our own survival. And when we do, we become active players in disintegration. It shows up in casual interactions, the way we treat our spouses and children and how we seek to convince ourselves that we count, as Thompson says, “that we are enough.” It is with this backdrop that he spends nine chapters helping the reader confront shame and find ways to wage war against the Evil One who leverages shame. It is within this context that the Christian story of grace, mercy, and inclusion in Christ, shines most brightly.

Copyright © 2016 Timothy S. Lane


Tim Lane

Dr. Timothy S. Lane is the President of the Institute for Pastoral Care and has a counseling practice in Fayetteville, GA. He is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), having been ordained in 1991 and a member of Metro-Atlanta Presbytery. Tim has authored Living Without Worry: How to Replace Anxiety with Peace, and co-authored How People Change and Relationships: A Mess Worth Making. He has written several mini-books including PTSD, Forgiving Others, Sex Before Marriage, Family Feuds, Conflict, and Freedom From Guilt.

He has experience in both campus ministry (University of Georgia, 1984-1987) and pastoral ministry where he served as a pastor in Clemson, SC from 1991 until 2001. Beginning in 2001 until 2013, he served as a counselor and faculty at a counseling organization  in Philadelphia, PA. Beginning in 2007, he served as its Executive Director until 2013.

In 2014, Tim and his family re-located to his home state, Georgia, where he formed the non profit ministry the Institute for Pastoral Care. His primary desire and commitment is to help pastors and leaders create or improve their ability to care for the people who attend their churches. For more information about this aspect of Tim's work, please visit the section of this site for the Institute for Pastoral Care. He continues to write, speak and travel both nationally and internationally. Tim is adjunct professor of practical theology at several seminaries where he teaches about pastoral care in the local church.