Brené Brown introduced me to the phrase “shame storm.” If you’re like me, you’ve been caught in one before. You just didn’t know what to call it.
Shame storms can be triggered by all sorts of things, and they may take different forms for different people. But in essence shame tells us that we’re no good. We don’t measure up.
Don’t confuse shame with guilt. They’re really very different. Guilt is actually helpful. When we know that we’ve done something wrong, we feel remorse. Our contrition leads us to change our ways and to mend fences.
Shame, by contrast, devastates and dismantles us. In the midst of a shame storm, I’m likely to say to myself, “You’re an idiot.” I feel like a fraud who’s been found out. My only option seems to be to lock myself in solitary confinement, to hide myself from the world that surely rejects me now that I’ve been exposed for what I am, and to kick myself unconscious to save everybody else the trouble.
Here’s an example of one of my shame storms.
I was a brand new philosophy teacher. Still working on my dissertation, I was given an intro to philosophy course to teach at Emory University. The lecture hall was filled with overachieving, hyper-intelligent young men and women. That is the profile of the Emory student. Intelligent. Driven. Well-educated. Sophisticated.
There’s no question that I knew more about philosophy than any of them. And I’m not the dimmest bulb ever. But frankly, I was incredibly insecure about all sorts of things.
I grew up with a speech impediment that had only been surgically corrected a couple of years earlier. Speaking in front of people still triggered my gag reflex.
Growing up in a home in which English was a sketchy second language, my vocabulary was a little narrow, and I was sure that my education had big gaps in it.
Now add to this that I grew up in the working class, that I was the first in my family to even attend college, and that I was standing in front of sons and daughters of doctors, lawyers, professors, and CEOs.
I was feeling a little like that man behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz, and I heard Toto sniffing around my feet.
Things were, to my relief, going pretty well. The students were engaged. They laughed at my jokes. They even seemed to like me personally. And then it happened.
I was writing on the board. I wrote the word “occurrence.” Only I misspelled it, replacing the “e” with an “a”. O-c-c-u-r-r-a-n-c-e. Mind you, I didn’t know that I had misspelled it. Oh no. In fact, I had always thought that my misspelling was the correct spelling.
That’s what I thought until I heard a voice say, “Do you mean occurrence? That would be o-c-c-u-r-r-E-n-c-e.” It was a voice I knew well. The smartest student in the class. The very one who routinely challenged me, outflanked me with a superior vocabulary, and at times outpaced me intellectually.
Now if that happened today, I would chuckle, thank him for the spelling help, and not give it a second thought.
When I was twenty-six, I was overwhelmed. I barely got to the end of the class before succumbing to a hurricane-strength shame storm. I was sure that all those students saw me for the fraud that I was and would never respect me as their teacher again. I spent the rest of the day in a funk repeating versions of “Stupid, stupid, stupid,” in my head.
Here’s the difference between that young, inexperienced teacher and the man that I am today.
That young Jake was convinced that his worth was bound up with his achievements. I was always trying to measure up to validate my own existence. Falling short of the mark meant that I was less lovable. Maybe not lovable at all. I was striving to fit in with all the other people who had made it, had measured up, had proved that they belonged in the lovable group.
This older Jake is still susceptible to shame storms, but those storms are neither so frequent nor so intense. And I’ve learned how to weather them so that I come out on the other side not only intact but more vital and robust, more accepting of my imperfect self and, crucially, more accepting of others as just imperfect gifts I need.
Shame no longer plays the role it once did in my life because Jesus has shown me something about him and something about me. Jesus has not come to condemn me because I haven’t gotten life right. He has come to heal me, to give me a new life that I can’t make for myself.
This is one of the lessons of the story of Jesus’ healing of the blind man in John’s Gospel. Let’s take a minute to recap some of the highlights of that story in order to see what I’m driving at.
The disciples asked Jesus why the man was born blind. Did he sin or did his parents sin?
They were expressing a theology of suffering common in their day. You might call it the blame the victim theology. If something rotten happens in your life, you’ve got it coming. It’s a punishment for your sins. Conversely, that theology suggests that health and wealth are a reward for playing ball with God.
In this theology, God merely upholds his standards. He rewards those who measure up and punishes those who fall short. Moral achievement wins God’s approval. Wailing and gnashing teeth in the outer darkness await moral underachievers. This is just the sort of theology that creates shame storms.
Jesus is abundantly clear. This is not how God rolls.
God goes looking for the blind (and the lame and the leprous and the sketchy and the cranky and the self-absorbed and the clueless), not to scold them or to condemn them or even to condescend to them. God seeks out the blind to give them sight. God is a healer, not a moral score keeper.
God is not looking to start a club for the morally elite. In Jesus, God has opened a rehab center. The only criterion for admission is that you’re a mess and you really want to be made whole.
You can stay as long as you admit a basic truth. In this life, you’re never going to be completely recovered. At no point will you be able to look down your nose at any fellow inhabitants, nor for that matter at those who haven’t stumbled in just yet. When things are going well for you, you’ll say with gratitude and joy that you are recovering, but God’s not finished with your rehab yet.
We are broken, and God has come to make us whole. Instead of rewarding moral performance, Jesus heals broken hearts and minds, souls and bodies.
The Pharisees will have none of this. They are the religious insiders. They know the rules like nobody else, and they follow these rules rigorously. As they see it, their rectitude gives them the status to say who is in and who is out. They are God’s morality police.
There’s just one problem.
If God is a healer and not a moral score keeper, then it’s not so clear that God actually needs morality police. The Pharisees are not about to give up their status, so they refuse to accept the God that Jesus is revealing. The God of mercy and healing. Ironically, the Pharisees choose to remain blind to who God is in Jesus.
As a younger man I was blind in a way worthy of the Pharisees. I was convinced that my degrees or publications or lectures or awards or position on the career ladder would convince the world of my worth. Would convince me of my worth. That’s why I was so susceptible to shame storms. A single misstep called my entire worth into question.
I regret to say that my fear and shame about my own inadequacy prevented me from whole-heartedly affirming and accepting others in their weakness and fragility. Again and again I would try to fix people as if their lives were a problem to be solved. Or I would get frustrated and even angry when they didn’t measure up after all the work I had put into them.
Everything began to change for me when I saw Jesus for who he is. Instead of the God who will love me when I am moral enough or spiritual enough, Jesus is the God who loves me when I’m a mess. His love makes me enough. And being enough frees me up to love others when they’re a mess.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m still in spiritual rehab. I’m not perfect. But Christ is making progress in me. And I know that he is making progress in you.