Lesson 2 - A New Story for Shame

Shame's Evil Intent

Most literature about shame in the scientific community tends to treat shame as something that just randomly occurs in nature. It’s like a virus—an especially virulent virus—but not something that has an intention. But that’s not how the Bible sees it. From cover to cover, the biblical writers personify sin as a malignant power with agency and purposes. “Sin is crouching at the door,” God warns Cain in Genesis 4, “and its desire is to master you.” 

Evil wants to wield shame for the purpose of destroying me, and everything about the creation.Shame is the emotional state out of which everything that we do that we call ‘sin’ emerges. And its purpose in that story is not just to make you feel bad; evil’s mission is not just to give you a bad day. You happen to be part of the creation it’s trying to destroy.

Curt Thompson

Shame, we might say, is the neuro-biological manifestation of evil’s intention to undo God’s good creation, starting with our very selves.

Reflect:

  • How have you experienced shame’s evil intentions in your life? To put the question another way: what is shame trying to do to you?  

  • How would it change your experience of shame to understand that shame is not simply a random natural phenomenon, but part of evil’s scheme to undo what God has made?

Being Known Deeply

One of the problems, though, is that we’ve been deceived into inhabiting the story shame tells about us, when we ought to be living out the story that God tells about us.

There is therefore now no condemnation for those of us who are in Christ Jesus.

Romans 8:1

It’s one thing to know intellectually that we are no longer condemned, but, Curt tells us, we won’t overcome shame through intellectual knowledge. It’s no use telling ourselves or each other, “You don’t have to be ashamed about that,” because shame is not primarily a rational response. Rather, Curt argues, the solution to shame lies in the dreadful experience of being deeply known by someone else:

If we really want to address shame, the biblical narrative gives us some ways to do this. And it does not begin, first, by knowing facts. It begins, first, by being in a community of people by whom you are going to be known deeply.

Curt Thompson

We’re at our most beautiful and most creative when we are vulnerable, when we are “naked and not ashamed” (Genesis 2:25). According to theologian Rowan Williams, however, that’s easier said than done because we’re afraid of the vulnerability that comes with intimacy: “If we’re afraid of being known by others, so too we’re afraid of knowing ourselves, because we don’t and can’t know whether we’ll be able to love what we find and live with what we find.”

Reflect:

  • The antidote to shame, according to Curt, is not more intellectual information, but the experience of knowing and being known. Spend a moment taking a quick inventory of the state of your relationships. Do you know your spouse, your friends, your church community deeply? Are you deeply known? If not, why not?  

  • We don’t like to be vulnerable, but, as Curt explains, we don’t have a choice. We simply are vulnerable—that’s why we wear clothes and seatbelts. Why are we afraid of intimacy and vulnerability? Think about the people you love the most. Sometimes, it’s almost easier to not be vulnerable with them because they know you too well. Why do we resist the experience of being deeply known by another person? 

Great Cloud of Witnesses

Does Anyone Know You?

But it’s not just true at a theological level. As Curt shows us here, the act of knowing and being known in community actually has the power to rewrite our brain circuitry. In other words, scientifically speaking, vulnerability and intimacy in community literally change our neurological experience of shame. When we “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2), we diffuse the pressure and intensity of having to cope with our shame by ourselves. 

Reflect:

  • The Christian life simply cannot be lived in isolation, although that doesn’t stop us from trying. What are some of the barriers that prevent us from engaging in the practice of knowing and being known in the Christian community? How can you reorder your life and your time to make space for this kind of relationship?  

  • Time for some difficult self-reflection: Does anyone actually know you? To put the question in Curt’s terms: Can you name three people in your “great cloud of witnesses” who know everything about you? 

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