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Welcome To CCEF On The Go. I'm your host, Alasdair Groves, and today I'm talking with my friend and colleague, Todd Stryd. Todd is a counselor and faculty member at CCEF. Todd, how are you?
I'm doing well, Alasdair. Thanks.
Glad to hear it. Today, I wanted to address what will sound like a very simple question that we got in response to my requests for input on the podcast, but someone emailed in and their question was this. It was, how do you interpret life biblically when shame keeps rearing its ugly head and won't abate? And I feel like there's probably at least three pieces to that question that we could dig in on, but I'd love to hear you just starting by offering any initial thoughts, which could take the form of an answer to that question or they might be a form of exploring the question before we get to an answer. But what initially jumps into your mind when you hear that?
Yeah. I think what initially jumps into my mind, Alasdair, is maybe even somewhat of a provocative statement, and that is I don't think our ultimate goal should be to extinguish shame,, or they use the word abate. For most people, that's not going to happen and I don't know how important it should be in terms of us trying to accomplish it.
Well, you're right. That is provocative. I like it. Say more. What do you mean?
Okay. My experience has been that the experience of shame, as it happens throughout our life, it tends to both linger and to burrow into us as a person in that it gets woven into us. And it's not typically something that we can necessarily turn off or say, "I don't want to feel this anymore, so therefore I'm going to do something so I don't feel it." It feels like it tends to be a part of us, and we have limited control of shutting it off or making it a bait.
I'm pausing here for a second. Let me think out loud in response. First off, I'm tracking with you. That is my experience as well. Second off, there's this way. I'm thinking about Ed's book, Shame Interrupted, and one of the key things I took from that book that was so helpful to me in thinking about shame that really turned my whole view of what shame was and how it worked on its head was the idea that shame can be an accurate experience, even if it's not something that you've done wrong. So you can have shame brought on you by something you've done that's wrong. You can also have shame brought on you by something that happened to you, a way you have been wronged, victimized, degraded, treated as less than valuable, less than human. And Ed in that book said something so counterintuitive initially to me, which was the idea that that's actually right. You have been shamed. It's not just in your head.
And he said, "Paradoxically, it is so helpful to people to hear this experience you have of feeling icky or dirty or naked or contagious or whatever, that's not a problem in your head that you just need to get your thinking and get over. You're actually experiencing something real. You have indeed been shamed. You have been brought into something that was not what you were made for or created for, that you have been marked by this experience in some negative and lasting way. And paradoxically," he said, "That's so often freeing for people. That's so comforting for people to realize, okay, it's not just because I'm not doing a good enough job of remembering my identity in Christ or repenting my way out of what I've done, and there's a reality to it." And scripture is full of the awareness, that that does indeed happen and that does affect the way people see you, the way you experience being part of society and community and the church and your family and so on.
I'm connecting all of that to what I hear you saying of sometimes, shame doesn't seem to abate much or seems, I like the way you put it, woven in to the very fabric of my life and who I am. And there's this way in which that can actually be a deeply freeing thing to hear where it's not saying you have a problem, that you can't get over your shame. It's saying, "No, this is real. Yeah, you're really talking about something that is happening to you, inside you, whatever the case might be." That's not the end of the story. And so that's where my hesitation a moment go, and I think you're calling it provocative, recognizes that's not where the gospel leaves us. It's just like, "Well, shame's a part of you. Tough news, but at least you're not crazy." There's more to it than that, but there's something really important about slowing down on that. Now, let me stop myself. Am I addressing the thing you're talking about? Or are you saying something slightly different than that?
No, I think you're absolutely addressing it, and that is in fact freeing. But if our assumption is that we're supposed to eradicate it, abolish it, make it stop, if that's our assumption, then what I'm saying feels hopeless. But what I'm saying, I think, provides some freedom because scripture does open up different alternatives. Instead of making it stop, let's say believing it away or thinking it away or trying to correct it through other experiences away, instead of that, I think where scripture takes us then is it's not about extinguishing shame or getting over shame or abating shame, but it's about opposing shame and the voice, the accusations, the lingering feelings of identity. It's about we can oppose them and we should oppose them and we can oppose them, but we're likely not going to eradicate them.
Right. Right. In the same way that you're not going to eradicate a scar from having been imprisoned and beaten for the name of Christ, but that doesn't make this scar, this irreparable, terrible, "Oh no, I'm never going to..." It's nuts. It's part of a life lived in a fallen broken world that does not have to be either the defining piece of you or even a piece that you should be trying to get rid of per se. So me do this. Let me take a stab at re-asking the question then in a way that we might be more easily or more comfortably able to answer. The question is saying, okay, biblically, we want to live rightly in the face of shame. What do we do when it seems to be overwhelming and it seems to be lasting? It seems to me that part of what you and I are saying thus far is, okay, we actually start by saying, "Well, let's get our expectations right here. What is even our goal in the response to shame?"
It's not for the feeling of shame to be entirely gone. It's to do something in the face of an experience of shame. It's to respond to shame as it is felt bumped into and encountered, et cetera. How would we say, "Here's the hope. You've got this shame and it isn't going away. It's fiery, it's in your face, it feels constant, it feels so debilitatingly awful. It feels like it separates you from God and other people." What do we do with that? How would we offer hope in a way that's different than we might instinctively say, which is, okay, great, I do something and then it goes away and I don't feel it ever again?
Yeah, yeah. That's a great way of reframing it. I think part of the hope is in a proper understanding. So that's part of the work that we've just been talking about is a proper understanding of shame. And maybe another piece of the proper understanding is that how shame works is that because it is a feeling or an emotion, it feels true. It is incredibly persuasive and convincing because it feels so convincing. And that is the power behind shame is that, well, we tend to believe our emotions. They're authoritative in a lot of ways. It takes us a lot of actual power or control or discipline to second guess emotion. Shame is powerful and convincing because it feels that way.
So what do we do with that? If we can recognize and we can help people recognize that shame is trying to convince them of what is ultimately true, and we can also propose that emotions and particularly the emotion or the feeling of shame is going to be unreliable in its authority, then it opens the door for there being a different authority about life, about whether or not you're okay, about whether or not you're disgusting, about whether or not you're a failure. If we can at least have the option that shame is going to be proposing, let's say, a proclamation about you and we should question its authority, then it opens us up to considering a different authority about who you are, whether you're okay, whether you're gross, et cetera.
I wondered, just I'm struck by your use of this idea of shame has a voice and it's speaking into your ear. I feel like in some ways, what we're saying in the first part of our conversation is to say that voice may never entirely go silent. And in fact, how loud or quiet that voice is not actually our biggest concern. We'd always like it to be quieter rather than louder if we were given a choice. But the fundamental question is not how loud is the voice. The really fundamental question in terms of what is the hope, what's our response is, how loud is the voice of the gospel? How loud is the voice of Christ? I like the way you're using this idea of competing authorities.
In some ways, I almost wonder if it's competing volumes, competing voices, because I think the danger of what someone could be hearing in what we're saying is they could be saying, "Okay, I've got to turn down the voice of shame as quiet as I can get it, turn up the voice of God as loud as I can get it. And so therefore, I'm failing if the shame isn't getting quieter fast enough." As opposed to, no, however loud the voice of shame is, we do want the voice of God to be louder. And usually, it starts pretty still small and quiet because shame is pretty megaphone heavy. But ultimately, the response of faith to the experience of shame is not if I just believe enough or listen to God enough, the shame goes away. It's rather, no matter how loud the shame is, it can never compete with the voice of God.
The voice of God ultimately has the authority, the voice of God ultimately has the louder call, meaning that let's say you are someone who has walked through some kind of abuse, for example. That would be a very common reason for someone to feel shame. So you've walked through abuse, probably especially if it's sexual abuse, but regardless of what kind of abuse, you have been treated as an object and as less than human, as degraded by another human being. That voice, in one sense, again, going back to Ed's argument, he's saying, there's a reality you have actually been wrongly treated. You have actually been pressed down by that. You're responding that shame is telling you something true, but the voice of shame becomes a problem fundamentally, it becomes the most fundamental problem when it's the only voice.
And so if you can on the one hand say, "Yes, I really was degraded by that experience. That is in fact an accurate capturing of my suffering and it does linger." But the voice of Christ that says, "You are honored. You are precious. You are beloved. You are pure and clean. You are embraced rather than outcast. You are victorious and overcoming rather than defeated and cast down," that you could actually be in one sense, and I hesitate to use this word. Maybe this isn't the best way to put it. I won't say an excellent place, hearing loudly the voice of shame, and yet hearing even more loudly the voice that overcomes that shame, that interrupts that shame.
And so while on one level, I think the louder voice of Christ is and the longer that goes and the more your heart is listening to him and loving him and therefore his view of you as defining you, I think it wouldn't be unrealistic to say that the shame's volume might well decrease over time. That would not be an unrealistic hope or expectation. But it seems like the point is not how far down the shame has gone, the point is, is the loudness of the shame or the presence of the shame, is that driving you to clinging to the voice of Christ ever more loudly, ever more centrally? Again, I think your authority language is going there too, but I think the way you're introducing voice to me seems like it sets up a really helpful and different paradigm than the one we want, which is, Jesus, make my shame go away.
Yeah. Yeah. In the initial stages of helping somebody, the work is first going to be, "Let me help you entertain the possibility that there's another voice who is speaking into this and about this. And the voice of shame and what it says about you and your value and your worth and your condition, that's going to be really loud. But let's just entertain. Let's consider that there's another voice. If there is, what would it say? Who gets to say it? Where does it say these things? And you're right, Alasdair, that over time, the volume changes on both of those. We can't guarantee exactly how it'll look, but what we do know absolutely is there is another voice, the voice of God that speaks in, that too often is either absent altogether or is suppressed such that doesn't have any air time.
Right. Because how could the voice of God say anything else? If the voice of shame is true, there are no other channels. If I'm disgusting, God having a different opinion on that or you telling me that the Bible says God has a different opinion on that is irrelevant, because I know from my experience that it can't be true. The only thing that can be true of me is I am disgusting and wrong and filthy. And again, let me clarify one thing I haven't said that could easily go in the wrong direction. It is very possible for shame to be sending false messages. Shame can certainly be telling me things about myself that are they wildly untrue. And the voice of God will say something that says, "Shame is utterly wrong about you. You are not a failure. In fact, you shouldn't even be defining yourself on that particular scale which you're looking on."
But I think for me, the more difficult times to deal with are, well, what if shame says and be about me is true? What if I really did commit some really grievous sin and was publicly revealed and exposed? What if I really did experience abuse? What if I really did have an alcoholic parent and I was humiliated by my association with them? Well, those are harder when shame is saying something that's got a significant accuracy to it. And that's why I'm gravitating towards saying, "Actually, even there, it's the voice of Christ being louder that is our goal and that has this unbelievably powerful impact." Go ahead.
Yeah. And you're identifying now that that shame is usually bound up with factual events. But where it goes off is shame likes to make a conclusion. That's where we would say, God may see the same events, but he sure doesn't draw the same conclusion. And that's where we're tempted to equate our feelings of the voice of shame with the voice of God. We equate how we feel, and this is everybody, I think, how we feel with, well, if I feel this, it must be true. It feels true, and this is probably how God sees me. And that's where we push back.
I love that, Todd. God comes to a different conclusion than shame does, and we too easily hear the voice of shame as the voice of God. It's a great place for us to wrap it up. Thank you so much for the conversation, and I look forward to talking sometime soon.
Great being here.
Today's resource for those who are interested in going deeper is The Gospel For Shame, a blog by Ed Welch. As you heard during the course of our conversation between Todd and me, Ed has really been the one to shape our thinking about the topic of shame at CCEF. So anything Ed has written on shame is well worth a read. Of course, the primary source there being his excellent book length work called Shame Interrupted, but The Gospel For Shame will give you just a little taste of how he's thinking and will take some of the things we talked about a bit further. It'll be posted on our website, CCEF.org/podcast, and it will be free there until the next episode goes up. As always, if you've got questions or thoughts for us, we do invite you to send things our way, email@example.com. Shoot us an email. Till next time, blessings.
"The Gospel for Shame" by Ed Welch
Alasdair is the Executive Director of CCEF, as well as a faculty member and counselor. He has served at CCEF since 2009. He holds a master of divinity with an emphasis in counseling from Westminster Theological Seminary. Alasdair cofounded CCEF New England, where he served as director for ten years. He also served as the director of CCEF’s School of Biblical Counseling for three years. He is the host of CCEF’s podcast, Where Life & Scripture Meet, and is the coauthor of Untangling Emotions (Crossway, 2019).
Todd is a faculty member and the counseling coordinator at CCEF, where he has served since 2005. He holds a doctor of psychology from Immaculata University and a master of divinity from Westminster Theological Seminary. He has experience as a hospital chaplain, crisis worker, and university counselor. He has written a minibook entitled Schizophrenia: A Compassionate Approach.