Shame on you. Or not.

Posted on by Curt Thompson

In The Soul of Shame I explore the interpersonal neurobiological elements of our quarry. In it we soon find out that shame is a rather nasty feature of what it means to be human. And if it were only something that happened to happen to be in the universe, it would merely be—albeit woefully—unpleasant.

But if we believe we live in the story we read about in the bible, then shame is not just an artifact, like a typical virus. Rather, it is like a really, really smart virus; one that is smart enough that it intends to do us harm. Now, no one really believes that a virus would do such a thing. I mean, we can imagine a virus to be elegant. We don’t think it’s smart. Not like Isaac Newton was smart. However, much like a virus—or even more so, like the symptoms a virus induces, shame is ultimately the harbinger of abandonment. Like nausea, it warns us that something sinister is about to befall us. It would seem, from reading the creation texts of Genesis that God seemed to be really concerned that people not live alone. I don’t mean that they not live in an apartment by themselves while maintaining friendships. Rather, he doesn’t want us living cut off from ourselves or other close relationships. Not that I mind that so much. I mean, it’s why I have a job.

As it turns out, recent neuroscience supports the notion that brains do better when connected, especially when under stress. I have written elsewhere about the work of James Coan at the University of Virginia. He and his team wonder if “normal”—as in, healthy—human brains are not individual ones, but rather ones that are connected to others. This reflects what the writer of Genesis claims God suggests when he notes, “It is not good for man to be alone.” Shame is what warns us that that connection is threatened. But the way shame works, much like how nausea warns us of impending emesis, we only get the nausea without ever throwing up. Imagine what that would feel like.

In the story the bible tells, shame shows up early and often. So much so, that I suggest that the reader consider that shame was present in the interaction between the serpent and the woman long before any fruit was eaten. In fact, I would suggest that, like any other symptom that acts as a siren to get our attention, shame does the same—and did the same with our first parents. The problem for them—and for us—is that we often are not paying attention to it. Rather, we respond nonconsciously to it in the way it would like: by isolating, disconnecting, and accusing. We stop moving, cease taking proper risks, and scuttle even fledgling attempts at creative endeavor for fear of being accused of being what we already fear we are: inadequate, less than, unimportant—worthy only of being left.

But the bible didn’t stop with the woman and the man hiding from each other and then God. No, it tells a story of a God who ruthlessly, ceaselessly pursues us ever asking, “Where are you?” And he wants to find us because, more than anything else, he wants us to know what it is like to be found—and not found wanting.

Today, in which story are you living? The one that shame is trying to tell, with you being at its center, worried you soon won’t be? Or the one that the bible is telling, the one with Jesus at the center, but always calling for you to join him so that he can show you off to all of his closest friends?

Where are you? In a world in which shame would rather you just get lost—or remain so, right where you are—the Triune God is telling us something very different. And if we are willing to listen, we may just find we love what we hear. For indeed, it is a story He is dying to tell.

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