The Bible has this grand story it tells, a grand narrative that proclaims a Creator God that loves creation. Humans, whom this God deems as bearing the image of the Divine, are the pinnacle of God’s creative process. They are designed to be God’s representatives on the earth. This is facilitated through four relationships: to God, to others, to all creation, and to the self.
This web of relationships is what many theologians call “shalom.” Shalom is a Hebrew word that means holistic peace and welfare in a network of relationships. Shalom is what life looks like when humans can engage all four of those relationships without shame and alienation between the parties. Jesus modeled this perfectly.
Of course, the other party must also attune themselves to shalom for this to be complete, which doesn’t always happen (just look at Jesus and the religious elite!). But insofar that we can love God and neighbor well (even with truth telling, etc), and insofar that we come to know ourselves how God knows us and steward God’s resources as though it were a sacred task: we live in shalom.
When it comes knowing the self, this is perhaps one of the hugest hurdles to the four-fold pattern of shalom.
It can be summed up in one word: shame.
As I said in a previous post:
For being a religion that preaches grace alone, it is amazing how often people encounter Christianity as ‘shame’ alone. Often, this is a subconscious result that churches (and their leaders) don’t intend. Shame can be a powerful invisible force that destroys goodness in the world–sometimes propelled by folks who believe they are proclaiming hope and healing. No wonder the New Testament claims over and again that Christ came to conquer shame! Sometimes, this victory, needs to be re-announced in the church, as though it were brand new.
So, what is a good working definition for shame? I think Brené Brown gets to the experiential heart of the matter:
“[shame is]…the intense painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging” (Daring Greatly, 69).
In Daring Greatly, she says that the shame 1-2-3s are:
- it is universal (unless one lacks the capacity for empathy and human connection),
- we’re all afraid to talk about it at some level, and
- the less we talk about it the more it controls us.
Shame is something that, if we are human, we deal with. And our capacity for self-awareness and deep inner-work is the space where we can name it, confront it, and find healing from it. This is the space where our part of alienation is dealt with first.
This isn’t a process that we walk through, to be clear, without the other three relationships of shalom–I mean, come on, we need God and others–but it is often the greatest challenge to going deeper in those other spheres. The process of doing this hard work, in community, with God, under the sun of God’s good world: this is restorative.
There are several ways that our internal narratives shape us. Jan Johnson (who writes all sorts of stuff on spiritual formation), talks about our internal “committee members” who shape the way many people experience shame. If these voices are loud enough, our ‘committee’ can alienate us from getting to know the self that God knows and getting to know Jesus himself. Perhaps one of these connects at some level (and yes, they are playful so let them be 😉 ):
- Picture Perfect: “I’m great and getting things right! Others should try it.”
- Kick-Back Kid: “Let’s eat! Let’s watch a movie! (distractions)
- Self-Improvement: “Try harder! I should. I should. I should!”
- Army sergeant: “I’m going to build the best defense system possible so I’m not vulnerable.”
- Victim: “Why do bad things always happen to me?”
- Self-Thrasher: “Well, I deserve it. I’m not that great. I always screw things up.” (emotionally beating yourself up; regret and self-incrimination)
- Rescuer: “I can fix this situation.”
- Attitude Police: “Here’s what’s wrong with him, her, you…”
- Never Enough: “I don’t have enough because I am not worthy.”
Any combinations of these (and other shaming voices) that sit on our internal committee have power over us.
I want to invite you to consider sitting with the concept of shame. Then, perhaps you might think about your own relationships: to God, others, creation, and the self. How do shame inducing narratives shape your connections to these four parties?
Ultimately, I pray that we all will embrace the reality that God, revealed in Jesus, loves us. Jesus’ posture towards us in irrational and unqualified love. May we move into our shame-narratives holding onto the beauty of God.
I will leave you with some questions to consider for reflection:
#1 Name the members of your committee sitting at the table. What is the main thought or desire of each member, in your own words, as you hear their voice in your imagination?
#2 What is the primary fear of each member? In other words, why have you invented this persona? Which fears of these members lead you to narrate your story as you often do?
#3 Who is sitting at the head of the table?
#4 Sit Jesus down next to each: What does he say to each one of them (how does Jesus address the fears)?
#5 What is a God-drenched replacement thought/attitude/persona for each member’s main thought (especially the ones you identify with from the list above)?
Author: Kurt Willems
Kurt Willems is a pastor, author, and spiritual director. His first book, Echoing Hope: How the Humanity of Jesus Redeems our Pain, releases in March 2021. Kurt is also the host of the Theology Curator podcast. He has a master of divinity degree from Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary and a master of arts in comparative religion from the University of Washington.
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