Shame and the Renewal of Vocation

Posted on by Curt Thompson

This is the last in a series of offerings that have been intended to summarize the elements in my book The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves. In the previous essay we explored how our primary nurturing environments are the places where our trajectories for responding to shame are first formed. Those primary arenas set the stage for what comes next.

Out of the home, the family of faith, and the halls of education we emerge to discover our place in the world. As followers of Jesus, we would say that this journey is not one that we are simply deciding by ourselves, but rather one to which we have been called. This is not the larger story that our culture’s dominant story believes or tells. A quick glance at one particular word in our language illustrates this.

The word vocation has in recent years become synonymous with what we eventually do to earn a living, after having traveled some short or long distance of education or technical or professional training. And as we have seen from previous posts on the topic of shame, that process is often driven by a spirit of worry, perfectionism, and condemnation that emerges directly from the heart of hell itself. But the origins of the word vocation have a rich history in the biblical narrative and in the tradition of the church. Indeed, the word vocation comes from the Latin word vocare, which is a direct reference to the notion that one is “called.” But in order to be called, there must be a caller. And in the story of the Bible, as suggested above, God has from the beginning been calling things. From the first chapter of Genesis when, as Wheaton College professor John Walton proposes, he called domains of creation into their functional purposes; to his calling of Noah; to Abraham, Moses, Samuel, and David. And then there is Jesus, calling his disciples. Calling them and us to follow him.

But God’s call to us in Jesus is not primarily about assenting to a particular set of abstract propositions about the nature of how the world works. It is first a call to relationship with him, one in which we live as if Jesus is our friend, but also our King—a word that likely, when taken seriously, does not sit well with our Western sensibilities—and as such he is Lord of everything that exists and that we do.

In the biblical narrative our King has placed his kingdom—everything about our world—under the stewardship of humans. He has called us, therefore, not merely to “believe” him in order “go to heaven when we die” but also as friends of the King who are in relationship with him to steward in his name all of the vocational domains that we occupy—over which he is Lord. But of what do those domains consist? The biblical narrative suggests that we are not to understand them to be limited to those things at which we earn a living. Rather, they are all of the multiple spheres of life that you occupy. You are not only a plumber. You may also be a son, a mother, a friend, a cyclist, a musician, a father, a farmer, or an engineer. Indeed, each person occupies many vocational domains, and it was God’s intention from the beginning that we take great joy in stewarding, creating, and curating them.

But shame, also from the beginning, was having none of that. Consider if you will the various ways that shame shows up in your place of work, or in any of the additional vocational domains that you occupy. Imagine the frequency with which you find yourself being self-critical about any number of things you might have considered trying, but choose not to because of your fear of shame. Imagine the CEO who fears admitting she does not have all the answers because she is convinced she will be fired. Or the middle manager that worries that revealing his limits to his subordinates will cause them to lose respect for him. Or the pastor who is overworked but cannot say this to his board of elders because he is, well, the pastor, and everyone knows that the pastor has no limits to his spiritual or emotional resources.

Furthermore, imagine the nearly infinite possible moments of creativity and play upon which we do not act because we are virtually unaware that they are before us. Unaware because we have so practiced our standard response to shame of hiding and deflecting the Spirit’s nudging that in our calloused state we don’t know how shame has imprisoned us. We even find ourselves unwilling to consider taking wise, reasonable relational risks because of the grip that shame has on us—and that we then pass on to our children or other close relationships. Shame has so effectively straitjacketed us that much of our vocational creativity lies dormant, with us—automatically and nonconsciously—left unaware of, let alone unresponsive to God’s call.

Moreover, imagine the amount of energy that is typically bound up in our attempt to manage our shame. Consider the creativity that would be unleashed should we be freed of this. What new things—new relationships, technologies, curricula, architectural designs, furniture, problem-solving strategies and more—would we co-create with others and God if shame were disallowed to be part of the conversation?

We were created for joy. And God has imagined that we would then go forth and create in joy as well. But evil knows this, and has no intention of going quietly into the night. This week, with whom will you partner to scorn and silence shame, and so find new liberation in the multiple vocational domains you occupy?

But don’t let me keep you here any longer. I think I hear God calling you.

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