Burton, Brown: Shame and Redemption
Guest Writer: Larry Burton
“Shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal, and the withholding of affection damage the roots from which love grows. Love can only survive these injuries if they are acknowledged, healed and rare.” Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are
While spiritual direction is different from psychological counseling, I find that sometimes theology and psychology become entwined. Years ago I heard a colleague say that “when we change, God changes, and when God changes, we change.” That colleague was referring to her work as a pastoral counselor, but I think it applies to spiritual formation and spiritual direction, as well.
Developmentally, shame is older than guilt, but many of us use the word “guilt” when the deeper feeling is one of shame. Shame is the sense of “I am bad and it is my fault.” The image of God that many of us grew up with, is one of a critical parent who is constantly watching and waiting for us children to mess up. This is a “god” who then becomes angry and threatens us in order to bring us back into line. But we find that nothing we can do is good enough. If this were truly about guilt, we could truly repent and make repair. If one has stolen or lied or something similar, confession and restitution can change things. But if nothing we do is ever good enough, despair may be the result.
In formation or spiritual direction, grace is the dominant voice, for it is divine acceptance that is the antidote to shame. Brene Brown, a university researcher has some thoughts about that. She writes about the fear of vulnerability and the shame that so many of us carry. Brown’s response to shame is grounded in her spirituality and her understanding of the redemptive power of human community. “Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”
As we who do spiritual direction and formation help folks to be vulnerable to the God who is love, as our relationships point toward vulnerability, acceptance and redemption, old and destructive images of God become new and more importantly, they become alive.