Shame is a topic that has recently come out of the shadows. Not too long ago, discussions about shame were relegated to therapists’ offices and jokes about religious guilt—it was something we all experienced but didn’t want to talk about. Now, we can’t seem to quit talking about it, especially in Christian circles. Is shame a legalistic hang-up that we need to set aside, or a lost virtue that we need to recover? Is shame a good thing or a bad thing, and what does God have to say about it?
The more time I spend talking with women and looking at what the Bible has to say about shame, the more convinced I become that shame is bad news, a paralyzing venom that makes us easy prey for the enemy. Shame is that nauseating knot in the pits of our stomachs that keeps us up at night counting our sins; it’s the monster that tempts us to lash out and shift blame when we are criticized; it’s the insidious impulse to cram another piece of cake down our throat to tamp down memories that are too painful to handle, drowning our feelings in sugar, alcohol, media, or even frantic do-gooding. Shame is a self-defeating emotion that buys into the lie that our identity rests in our failures instead of Christ’s victory. And therein lies the problem.
The Source of Our Shame
Dr. Brené Brown, a research professor who studies shame and vulnerability, defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” She explains that while everyone experiences shame, the cause varies from culture to culture. For Western women, shame tends to stem from our futile attempts to juggle conflicting expectations—to be all things to all people, and to do it without breaking a sweat. Somehow we’ve bought into the idea that if we can’t keep a Pinterest-perfect home while building a fulfilling career, raising Nobel Laureates, and looking like Jennifer Aniston, there is something deeply wrong with us. Christian women deal with an extra layer of shame.1