Two Books about Shame: One; OK. The Other; Very Good.
I’ve just completed reading two books about shame – Curt Thompson’s The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories we Believe about Ourselves and Ed Welch’s Shame Interrupted: How God Lifts the Pain of Worthlessness and Rejection. Both are written from a Christian perspective. Both include important insights from psychology. Both do an excellent job of describing and defining the problem. They differ significantly when they propose solutions. Thompson’s falls short of offering the full solution of the gospel. Welch’s sings with wonder when showing how powerfully the cross “lifts the pain” of shame.
Both Thompson and Welch see profound significance (rightfully so, in my opinion) that scripture describes the man and the woman before the fall as “naked and without shame.” Of all the possible things to zero in on, why does lack of shame get mentioned? The inspired writer could have said the man and woman were naked and enjoyed great happiness or felt much delight or experienced freedom or felt no guilt or worshipped freely or quite a few other things.
Thompson and Welch bring years of counseling experience to the writing and offer wisdom in their analysis of this widespread problem. They write with compassion as they tell stories of people who experienced deep pain and saw remarkable change by God’s grace. Thompson adds unique contributions from neurobiology, strengthening his arguments for the potentially destructive power of shame.
But I was extremely disappointed when I arrived at Thompson’s sixth chapter “Shame’s Remedy: Vulnerability.” The solution to this terrible problem of hiding from God and others, Thompson says, is to make ourselves vulnerable. We need to follow the pattern God established when He made himself vulnerable to us. He did this by creating us in the first place and experiencing the worst shame anyone could experience by dying on the cross. We also need to “despise” shame as Jesus did on the cross. (see Hebrews 12:2)
Thompson illustrates this path to freedom through vulnerability by telling a story of a woman who confessed her adultery to her husband. She made herself vulnerable to him and that began the process of healing. I don’t doubt that such vulnerability is helpful. But I kept waiting for some discussion about Jesus’ payment for sin as the substance that removes shame. I kept wondering if I missed it. I even read the book twice. The closest hint I could find was Thompson’s statement that when God made himself vulnerable for our rejection of him, he came to the man and the woman in the garden and “felt their rejection.” He later adds, “we have no reason to doubt that that moment was the first of many moments that would culminate on Good Friday.” (p. 123)
If Thompson merely hints at the atonement on just one page, Welch elaborates about it for over a hundred. I found reading Welch’s exposition of the entire Biblical narrative to be nothing short of doxological. His chapter on the Levitical priesthood almost made me weep. I’m not kidding. The bulk of his book builds to the climactic chapter called “The Cross.”
Here’s just a taste of how Welch links our shame to the greater shame of the cross:
“First we saw only our own shame. Now we see that Jesus’ shame was deeper than our own, and we were among the scorners.
First we saw only our own alienation and rejection. Now we see that Jesus’ alienation and rejection was at the hands of the entire world, ourselves included.
First we saw only contempt and self-contempt. Now we see that all human contempt was focused on Jesus – and we participated….
When Jesus and his shame occupy our attention, our own shame becomes less controlling.” (180-181)
Welch brings both his theological and psychological training to bear as he walks us, gradually and graciously, from the shame of sin to the grace of the cross. At one point, I wondered if his book could have been shorter than its 325 pages. But around page 285, I sensed that I needed the time to process not just the concepts and thoughts of Shame Interrupted but also to allow the skilled therapist-author to help me move from shame to praise.
Both books provide helpful insight about a problem some of us need to face head on. If you’re only going to read one, I recommend Walsh’s.