We love Jesus… so why are we still dealing with these issues? In this series, we address how the gospel frees us from the shame associated with our daily sins and struggles, and then helps us overcome them.
By Jeremy Nehf
It’s happened before. It happened again last night.
I reacted in a way that was shockingly inconsistent with how I normally behave. My wife was trying to lovingly encourage a different approach to a conflict I was having with one of our children. In my frustration, I already felt ashamed of my anger and her encouragement only highlighted my weakness and frailty. In the moment, I was not just frustrated by the conflict I was having with our child—I was ashamed of my lack of self-control. I had a choice to make. I could either acknowledge my weakness or harden myself in defense to keep from having to confront my unloving attitude. Sadly, I chose the latter. Forty-five minutes later I was still making apologies. An hour of our family’s time together was spent dealing with the effects of my attitude.
Shame is an insidious beast. It whispers to our hearts a condemning statement about our worth: You really suck at life. How can anyone really love or trust you?
I think the Apostle Paul describes this type of internal dialogue well in Romans 7:22-24 where he talks about the frustration of agreeing in his mind with everything God wants him to do, and finding another force pulling on his will and holding him hostage. He sums up the frustration of this feeling by saying, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom 7:24) Notice the statement that he makes is general and non-specific: “Wretched man that I am.” This is a summary of how the apostle feels about who he is and what he is worth in the light of his failings and weaknesses. It encompasses all of his being and negates the good that God has done and is doing in and through him. As a result it focuses the full weight of condemnation on his most recent failure or struggle. Perhaps you can relate?
Shame leaks into our external relationships as well as our internal relationship. Shame is a divider. We present our best parts to the people we love and hide the worst parts. We harden with defensiveness, make excuses, and dodge self-confrontation because to acknowledge it means exposure. We see our own “wretchedness” but fear that when others see it they will not esteem us as lovable. The thing that makes any important relationship so satisfying is the experience of being both known and loved. Finding that someone who can see all the parts of who you are and still find you lovable, brings a sense of freedom and depth to your connection. This is also the reason that those who have experienced betrayal are so devastated. It reinforces the internal narrative that they have always feared in the first place: “When you see who I really am, you won’t love me.”
On a biological level, shame creates a stress response in our bodies triggering feelings of fear and keeping us insulated and self-protected. We pursue safety by mere biological instinct. Relational interactions that do not make us feel threatened cause our bodies to release the “bonding hormone” oxytocin and the “feel-good hormone” dopamine. We naturally gravitate towards what does not cause the fear of exposure.
So the question remains, “If shame is that powerful, what can we do about it?”
Here are some ways that you can combat shame and create connection in the most valuable relationships in your life.
- Curiosity not Animosity
When there is a reaction that is not normative or you recognize defensiveness in yourself or others, try asking questions. Ask for the person who is reacting to explain why they felt that way. Being willing to hear their perspective enables them to feel understood. Even if their reaction is not logical and deeply emotional, they are reacting to something. Feeling understood lowers the need to defend and self protect and creates an experience of bonding. Curiosity expresses that we are still lovable despite whatever apparent weaknesses we may be exhibiting.
- Empathy not Sympathy
Mark Baer Esq. says it well in his notes on The Power of Empathy to Heal Shame, “Empathy is incompatible with shame and judgment… Empathy reduces shame, whereas sympathy exacerbates it. There is a huge difference between feeling with someone and feeling for someone. Shame causes a person to believe they’re alone. Through empathy, we cause them to realize that they are not alone, which is why it is the antidote to shame.”
Baer then quotes Dr. Brown in her book, I Thought It Was Just Me. She writes, “In most cases, when we provide sympathy we do not reach across to understand the world as others see it. We look at others from our world and feel sorry or sad for them. Inherent in sympathy is ‘I don’t understand your world, but from this view, things look pretty bad.’”
It’s interesting to note the roots of the word “compassion”. The prefix “com-“ means “with”. The suffix “passion” is a direct reference to the suffering of Jesus in our redemption. In other words, to have “compassion” is to “suffer with” someone. It is to allow their perspective to affect how you feel about a situation. We do for others in friendship what Christ has done for us when we show empathy.
- Grace-saving not Face-saving
Paul’s primer on shame from Romans 7 culminates in the frustrated question, “Who will set me free from this body of death?” When confronted with the inherent weakness and sin in his own life, he recognizes the need for relief from this type of condemning shame. This launches him right into the solution that is found in Christ. You can almost hear it bursting from his heart through the pen: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!… There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus!” (Romans 7:25-8:1) Paul recognizes that salvation from his shame will not come from trying harder or doing better. Paul’s freedom is found in a person, it is found in Jesus. Freedom from shame comes through recognizing that this is why God intervened by sending His Son to give us grace. Our weakness is the reason God gave us Jesus as our savior.
It is one thing to know as an intellectual factoid that you are forgiven, it is another to appropriate the grace of God in specific moments. Instead of hardening in defense of our self-worth or watching those we love withdraw out of the fear of exposure, we can apply God’s grace to those specific areas of weakness. Face-saving makes us hyper vigilant for anything that may expose our flaws. Allowing God’s grace to rescue us takes away the condemnation assessment, and reminds us that our most recent failings do not define our worth. So, when you or someone you love is reacting from a place of shame, remind them that God sees their flaws perfectly and sent His Son to take away our condemnation. Remind them that they are forgiven and loved even though they are imperfect. Apply the work of the cross in that moment.