Millions of people are familiar with Brene Brown’s work on vulnerability and shame beginning with her 2010 TED talk on YouTube. Brown originally thought only a few hundred people would watch the video but it was quickly forwarded and shared around the internet world. She has admitted to feeling enormous shame over doing a TED talk about vulnerability and shame but she is learning to “embrace vulnerability and transform the shame.”
Brown is a social researcher who has studied the connection of shame and vulnerability. Her research reveals that our shame blocks our ability and willingness to be vulnerable and to live, as she describes it, “whole-hearted lives.” According to Brown, there are three universal truths about shame: 1) we all have it; 2) we’re all afraid to talk about it; and 3) the less we talk about it, the more we have it.
The Lent season invites us to face our shame and allow God to transform our shame into honor before God. I read in Leader magazine that “To be shamed, to be recognized as less than the image one has carefully crafted to bestow honor on one’s family and community, destroys people psychologically and spiritually.” The writers continued: “We need salvation from the disgrace we suffer and need to have our honor restored.” This is our Lenten journey—to allow the old patterns of disgrace and shame to be broken by what God has done in and through Jesus. Because Jesus Christ’s shameful death by crucifixion is redeemed by his resurrection, our shame is also redeemed.
To talk about shame in church, and especially in worship, takes courage and conviction because shame touches the deepest places of our hearts. Shame is even difficult to talk about even with those we are closest to, because shame indicates the disgrace we feel in failure—either by actively having done something wrong or by having failed to do something right, as we see in Prov. 14: 33-35: “Wisdom is at home in the mind of one who has understanding but it is not known in the heart of fools. Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people. A servant who deals wisely has the king’s favor, but his wrath falls on one who acts shamefully.”
When Adam and Eve ate the fruit of knowledge, their eyes were opened—dare we say they felt shame?–covered up their nakedness from one another, and then hid from God. What happened after God confronted them? Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the snake. They covered up, they hid themselves, and they blamed others (Genesis 3). Adam and Eve give us the first example of shame. It seems that shame is embedded in us at a cellular level—and because it embedded in us, that only an act of God can heal our shame through Jesus Christ. The transformation of our shame is a gift from God.
But, while transformation is God’s doing, we cannot be passive recipients of God’s healing, transforming work rather we must be active participants with God. Ever since the day God formed us from the dust of the earth and breathed life into us, we have been called into partnership with God. God seldom works alone. God often works with and through humanity. We are coworkers with God to bring about healing and transformation. We co-labor with God to bring about God’s reign here on earth, as in heaven. We participate with God in our own healing through our faithfulness to God.
As collaborators with God, then we need to consider what we can do to transform the shame in our lives and in our congregations. According to Brown, we need to talk about shame for healing to take hold in the depths of our hearts. This might mean talking privately with a pastoral counselor, spiritual director, or a psychotherapist. Or, we can learn from Twelve Step groups who do talk about their lives and the things they are ashamed about for it is in the talking—the confessing—the shame begins to be healed.
If a church does dare to talk about shame, there will probably be some pushback—or some kind of resistance—because people will not naturally or willingly talk about shame and woundedness. But what if a congregation does embrace God’s offer to heal shame this Lenten season? Then I think we become close to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s preference for a church to be “a church of sinners rather than a church of saints,” as he describes in Life Together.
Brown describes this healing as becoming “authentic” and “risking vulnerability” and she frames this as “wholehearted living.” I would reframe her language to the abundant living of carrying Jesus’ yoke from his promise in Matthew 11:28-30: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
To live as Jesus does gives us an opportunity to live in the Spirit and to take his light burden means to live in freedom from shame and the isolation that being bound in shame does to us. Carrying Jesus’ yoke restores us to honor—to trustworthiness, freedom, and humility. Humility means making peace with our shame because we know ourselves to be both forgiven and loved by the One who is without shame.
This Lent season provides us with a framework to touch those tender, wounded places of shame, to talk about the shame, and in turn, offer it all to God for God’s healing, forgiving touch. God is doing a new thing, recognizing our true nature and making a way for us to become fully human again. By the time we arrive at Easter we can boldly sing with the hymn writer of “And Can It Be”
“My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth and followed Thee.”
We can joyfully proclaim, “Ashamed no more!”