There are three areas where feelings of shame can enter our lives. These may be perceived or real feelings based on culture, family, beliefs, or lived experience:
1. Shame on yourself
2. Shame from others
3. Shame from God
Thanks to the work of Brené Brown, the world now better understands that shame is “the intensely painful feeling or experience that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance, connection or belonging.”
One would assume that the church would be a place of acceptance and love, grace and belonging, but instead, many enmeshed within a church culture find it a place, which feeds intense shame. Why is this
Shame Controls Us
It is a basic human feeling — shame. If we were honest with each other, we all have experienced that feeling of somehow not being good enough, thin enough, successful enough, educated, or cool enough to fit into a group or community.
Our deeply rooted need to be accepted can sometimes pack a hard wallop as we find ourselves changing who we are in order to be welcomed into the good graces of those we deem worthy, important, or special.
If for some reason our culture camouflage doesn’t work, we are faced with a few choices, which might be: try harder next time, fail again, or give up, become a loner, accept the fact that they’re just not your tribe, or create your own tribe.
Church attendees are told to imitate Christ — an impossible thing — which leads to more feelings of being unworthy and flawed. This constant focus on self-examination and improvement can be exhausting! Jesus is Deity, we are human. We can never be like Jesus, but we can pattern our decisions after His example.
Shame Is Performance-Based
Unfortunately, many churches have embraced a celebrity view of their pastor, staff, and guest speakers. It’s called celebrity church culture. Members fawn over staff, use statements such as, “I attend Pastor John Smith’s church,” and nearly swoon if the music pastor remembers their name.
People are elevated based on their performance on stage, a successful business, their physical appearance, and what they have accomplished.
It’s impossible to keep up with celebrity culture. “Fake it ‘til ya make it,” might be a good slogan. And yet, the shame people feel for not looking good enough, not making enough money, not rubbing noses with famous Christians, or just not being “in” with the cool crowd.
People are given real (or imagined) positions of authority based on their personality instead of character, who they know instead of what they know, and the aura they carry with them instead of true wisdom.
Cliques aren’t just for high school, they are in churches, ministries, and organizations everywhere. One might even call them a cult of personality.
Recently, I visited a church where the pastor told his congregation that the lack of discipline is why they had failures in their life. Porn addiction, weight issues, marriage conflict — it’s all because you need to work and do more.
Without knowing it, this pastor was telling his congregation to perform at a higher level, and that will resolve their issues. Setting the bar even higher will make your troubles go away. There was not one mention of mental health, past traumas, conflict resolution, or God’s unfailing love.
The better you perform, the more perfect your life will be and the better off your Christian life will become. This pastor was setting people up for failure and you got it, more shame-filled thoughts because what he promised them one, is not true and two, can never be attained.
Legalism is the operating system, which emphasizes rules over grace, performance over genuineness, and being right over relationship. When legalism coexists with our beliefs about God and faith this becomes a double whammy, a second layer of expectations we can never achieve leaving more room for shame and inadequacy to envelope our day-to-day lives.
Programs, books, and workshops have all been created inside churches to educate people on a particular area in which they must feel shame, I mean, in what ways they sin and fall short of God’s glory. Purity Culture is a classic example of the craftiness of religious control ingenuity.
Women were shamed for having a body — they make men lust, they are sensual, they must be covered. Men were shamed for having human urges and told there was nothing they could do because men are sexual beings. As people who were indoctrinated with this thinking were taught, the very body that encapsulated their soul was shameful.
Shame Keeps Us Covering Wrong
As we have seen in recent days with the leaked correspondence from Southern Baptist leader, Russel Moore, “I am trying to say this as clearly as I can to you, brothers and sisters: These are the tactics that have been used to create a culture where countless children have been torn to shreds, where women have been raped and then ‘broken down.’”
A culture, which includes shame can keep us covering wrong in two ways:
1. You are the victim who believes they were the cause of the abuse, wrong-doing, or unwanted behavior. You have been manipulated to absorb the lies handed to you.
The unwarranted shame you feel keeps you from going to the authorities, leaving a relationship, or standing firm on an issue because after all, you started it and are the one to blame, the other person’s actions are justified.
2. You are the one who did something wrong, abusive, or not acceptable in your religious space and feel the heavyweight of guilt and shame. If you confess, you will now be seen as imperfect, tainted.
Publicly, your humanness will outweigh your godliness. You deal with the wrong internally, or perhaps only with a confidant who will keep your secret yet become a form of feigned accountability.
Shame Keeps us from Transformative Vulnerability
Some of the subtle shaming messages we receive are aimed at protecting the reputation of someone else. It makes the church, God, your parents, or pastor look bad if you mess up or sin.
Questioning your faith or church leadership is always wrong and is considered a lack of faith or rebellion.
For centuries, church leaders have twisted scriptures to control people and their behavior. How better than with that core sense we established belongs to all humans, the feeling that we are not worthy — with shame.
But if these same leaders would be honest with themselves, much of what drives them is their own sense of inadequacy and the need to try harder to prove themselves to God and man. The shame used within religious spaces is phycological and emotional flogging.
Vulnerability unmasks us. A shame-filled society recoils from transparent truth-telling. A life-giving church community allows room for questions and doubts, disagreements, and concerns with an open-door policy to leadership.
Does Shame Belong in the Church?
Think about it, if you truly believed God loved you no matter what and that there was nothing you could do to make Him stop loving you, why the need for shame? You are accepted and beloved. When you were born, you were made in the image of God.
Evil, that’s what breaks things. Jesus came to bring redemption and freedom. Living in shame is neither healthy nor part of God’s plan. There is a place for turning away from evil, from hurting others, or yourself, from walking the opposite path that Christ exemplified.
But the “keep striving for more perfection to be accepted” kind of shame that has a firm grip on the church today, should not be. Instead, live in God’s complete acceptance and gift of eternal life.
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Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/MarinaZg
Rebekah Drumsta’s work has been globally reaching by serving with various nonprofits and organizations. Her background is diverse including educational and online content development, event coordinating, international relations, and public speaking. Currently, Rebekah delights in being a homeschool mom and Life Coach. She serves as Director of PR for an international non-profit while also hosting her personal blog, RebekahDrumsta.com which focuses on recovery after religious trauma and spiritual abuse. Rebekah holds a BA in Urban Ministry and Family Crisis with a Christian Counseling Minor, an MA in Religious Education, and is a Certified Professional Life Coach. She has made appearances on and consulted with sources including BBC, NBC, ABC, The Daily Telegraph, and a variety of other platforms.