It is one thing to know for yourself the weight of shame and to seek to walk free of its burden. There is tremendous courage required to name shame for what it is and identify its place in the story of your life and heart. The journey away from shame is always a lonely road, and no one else can walk it for you. But to become free of shame, you must have companions who can walk this road with you. In fact, stepping out of isolation and darkness into the light of relationship is essential for shame’s healing.
So how do we become helpful companions for our family and friends who are seeking to walk free of shame? For even if you are not battling shame in your life, it is highly probable that someone you know is – in fact, I would say that it’s guaranteed. Shame is insidious and pervasive, and our culture of perfectionism and air-brushed social media images perpetuates its growth. We can’t only blame our cultures, though. We need to admit that our church communities have too often been petri dishes for shame’s growth in the human heart instead of treatment centers for shame’s eradication.
To help others walk free of shame is relatively simple, but not easy. I’ll offer a few beginning steps here, with an invitation for you to attend my upcoming seminar by the same title at “Bethlehem Conference for Pastors + Church Leaders” in January 2017.
1. Realize that shame is not the same as guilt. Guilt results from wrong actions (sin), and is remedied by confession and repentance (see Psalm 51 as an example). Shame can result not only from my own sin, but also can arise because of another’s sin against me, or my sense of failure in relation to my own or another’s expectations of me.
When shame is because of past sin, it’s what lingers even after confession and repentance. It’s the track that plays on repeat that says I will always be defined by my worst sin – that my sin is what defines me, not the grace of Jesus Christ on my behalf.
When shame is because of another’s sin against me, it is often because of abuse and shame comes as the abuser has attempted to silence the abused through passing along shame. Shame tells the abused that they are somehow to blame for the wrong committed against them, and so it keeps them silent and isolated, carrying the weight of this burden alone.
When shame comes because of failure that’s not characterized as sin, I’ll often redouble my efforts to try to be better in this area of unmet expectations. For example, if I lost my job, I’ll do my best to work hard and be perfect in a future job. If I feel like I’ll never be a good enough parent, I’ll attend multiple seminars, read endless experts, and still never stop striving to be my definition of “perfect.”
2. Listen more than you talk, especially at first. When a friend or family member expresses their struggle with shame, or talks about an issue about which they’re feeling ashamed, it is crucial to listen until you think you understand before offering advice or a quick fix solution. At this point, express empathy and understanding, which could be as simple as saying, “That sounds really difficult. Thank you for entrusting me with this. Could you tell me more about what this is like for you?” The danger of talking too soon or too much is that you could unwittingly add to the shame they’re already carrying. Shame’s two big lies are that no one will understand, and that if you share this with someone else, they’ll reject you. So if you say something that is perceived as judgment, the person may assume you’re rejecting them. Notice all the times that Jesus, who knew every person’s heart, listened first before speaking or offering his wisdom (and he had infinite stores of divine wisdom, unlike us!). Consider how Jesus approaches the woman caught in adultery who is brought to Jesus by the religious leaders. Instead of heaping stones of shame on her, he turns the tables on them, saying, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” Then once they leave, he speaks to the woman and says, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you.” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.” (John 8:3-11)
3. Realize that your actions speak louder than your words. Truth about the grace of Jesus and the hope of healing from shame through God’s gift of Jesus are essential to share with your friend. Particularly for someone struggling against shame, your actions will communicate (or contradict) this gospel hope for them as much as your words do. Follow up after difficult conversations to reassure them of your continued care for them and acceptance of them. Also seek to follow their lead in talking about shame-laden areas. Don’t only talk about the issue or struggle, but also ask about other parts of their life. Don’t avoid talking about it either, reminding them that you’re praying with them and you’re committed to walking with them through the journey away from shame for the long-haul.
4. If you feel out of your depth, it may be necessary to include other safe people in your community. There are potentially life-threatening issues that come up when seeking to be healed of shame, especially if shame is due to past or present abuse, depression, or disordered eating. It’s ok for you to tell your friend that you want to help him or her by bringing in someone else who’s safe because you want them to find healing, and think this would happen best by including another person, too. Offer to accompany them to meet with your pastor, ministry leader, small group leader, or to help them to find a good counselor. Don’t take this step without discussing it with your friend first if at all possible, and do so only with your friend’s consent, unless it’s an emergency situation.
As a counselor who has met with many men and women through the healing of shame, I want to remind you what a privilege it is to be a companion on this journey. You’ll have a front-row seat to witness the Spirit’s power to bring freedom, which will bring you increased faith and hope in God’s power to redeem us from shame through Jesus Christ. You may even find that shame has more of a foothold in your own life than you knew, and this very friend whom you have helped may be one who walks the next mile with you. Isn’t that what the Bible speaks about in 2 Corinthians 1:3? “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” Shame is one of many afflictions that is eligible for the healing comfort of Christ applied through his people. Therein lies the hope for the ashamed and the one walking alongside the one being healed of shame.
Heather Davis Nelson is an author, speaker, and counselor whose favorite topics include grace, hope in the midst of life’s darkness, and finding freedom and healing from shame through the gospel. She is the author of Unashamed: Healing Our Brokenness and Finding Freedom from Shame (Crossway, June 2016). She will be leading “Walking with Others from Shame to Freedom” at the 2017 Bethlehem Conference for Pastors + Church Leaders (January 30-February 1, 2016).