No one likes to feel shame, even if it is such a regular part of their existence that they are “used” to it. Shame is one of those things we don’t like to talk about unless we are trying to put it on others: “you should be ashamed of yourself” or “have you no shame?”.
I’m sure a book on shame is a hard sell. I mean, who wants to think about their shame? But Shame Interrupted is about “how God lifts the pain of worthlessness and rejection.” This is a worthwhile goal. This is a worthwhile, if uneven book.
At its best this book does two things. First, it gets you to think about your life. Many times I thought of instances where shame was put on me, or lifted from me or I struggled with my shame. Second, it gets you to look at Christ who bore our shame so we don’t have to bear it any more.
Years ago, for a counseling course, I’d compared and contrasted two different books on dealing with sexual abuse. Both were good at describing the ways in which it affects us, but only one really focused on the gospel and its implications for the sexually abused. If I’d had time this week, I would have gone back to another book I read years ago on shame to compare & contrast. I may yet do this very thing. But Ed Welch focuses on the gospel and its implications for your shame.
“Shame is the deep sense that you are unacceptable because of something you did, something done to you, or something associated with you. You feel exposed and humiliated.”
There you have it. Welch begins by explaining shame and giving examples from the lives of his counseling clients. Some people just give in to the shame allowing it to define and control who they are. Others fight the shame, often with the wrong weapons. Good grades, a nice car, attractive spouse or celebrity status won’t remove our shame. Shame is like acid, and unless you place a base on it the acid will continue to burn you.
He also compares and contrasts guilt and shame. They are often produced by the same events yet they are quite different. Guilt has to do with the language of the courtroom. It says “you have done something wrong, and you must pay.” Shame has to do with the language of the community. It says “there is something wrong about you and we don’t want anything to do with you.” Guilt is about the wrongness of an action while shame is about the wrongness of a person. When we sin we often feel both guilt and shame. We have done wrong and there is something profoundly wrong with us. As a result we withdraw, feeling unworthy of the love of another.
When someone does something wrong to us we may feel guilt, false or illegitimate guilt. We didn’t do anything wrong. But we will feel shame. Victims may falsely blame themselves, but the guilt lies with the victimizer. Shame, however, now belongs to both. Shame, therefore, is even more commonplace than guilt. It is powerful, often like solitary confinement, above and beyond the general population prison cell of guilt.
Shame can often lead to greater sin. Addicts, who are often buckets of shame, often continue to sin because they “deserve it.” I do not mean entitlement but a sense of I am a pig and belong in the mud. Addictions can relieve the pain of shame, but also function as the validation or just consequences. We think “I am a horrible person, and I don’t deserve happiness.” In this way we see the self-destructiveness of shame as a person ruins whatever good there is in their lives. In some cases, profound shame can drive someone to suicide, the ultimate in self-destruction. So ministry to them should include both guilt AND shame, not one or the other.
Welch writes of how the Bible talks about shame under the term uncleanness. This is the idea that sin pollutes us. Disease also pollutes us, and the unclean person is isolated from the rest of the community so no one “gets it.” This is a frequent subject in Scripture and we often overlook it as some antiquated idea when it really is just about our frequent, persistent experience of shame.
Christ, the sin bearer, not only removed our guilt but our shame. Part of the promise of the new covenant in Ezekiel 36 is that we would be sprinkled clean, our pollution would be removed. The blood of Christ deals with our guilt and shame, not one or the other.
Since shame is about association too, Welch brings us to our union with Christ. Associated with Him, we receive His glory. Our identity shifts in Christ so the shame associated with the old man in Adam has been lifted and we’ve been given alien honor just as we have received alien righteousness.
In the Gospels we see that Jesus often touched unclean people. This is exactly what you were not supposed to do because it made any mere mortal unclean. But Jesus was not a mere mortal. As the God-man Jesus was not overcome by their uncleanness but their uncleanness was removed. Everything was upside down because Jesus came to reverse the curse.
This is a lengthy book at about 300 pages. Not all of it connected to me, particularly in the middle. However, in light of the pervasiveness and power of shame this is a very important book. Even if you don’t struggle with shame your spouse, kids or congregants will. We should want to understand their struggle and be able to point them to the One who can break the self-destructive cycle of shame. In the process, however, you might find that shame plays a bigger role in your life than you ever realized.
One of the rare aspects of Welch’s work is that he sometimes includes discussion of the sacraments as how God changes us. This book is no different. I wish he’d gone deeper into the subject. It is unfortunate that we don’t see many discussions of the sacraments from a Reformed perspective, as means of grace meant for our growth in Christ. So we have to take it when we can.
One word of caution, I suppose. People struggling with shame may not want to read this until they are ready. We are odd people. The right medicine at the wrong time can magnify the problem by hardening hearts. So be gentle with those struggling with shame. Learn to recognize and respect what boundaries they do have because those boundaries may be all that keeps them in relationship to you.