Guest review by James Midwinter
Shame is a quiet killer.
That’s the title to Ed Welch’s opening chapter in ‘Shame Interrupted,’ and it’s a powerful insight into the painful but often hidden world of shame.
And I say the “world” of shame, because as Ed helpfully shows us – shame is everywhere: “Look under anger, fear, even guilt, and you will find a root of shame.” Shame isn’t the same as guilt: “Guilt can be hidden; [whereas] shame feels like it is always exposed.” And it’s the combination of both truths – the pervasive nature of shame, and the fact that it’s rarely discussed – that makes Ed’s book so necessary and helpful.
Ed’s style of writing uses lots of case studies and personal appeals throughout that winsomely connect with fellow shame-strugglers. He introduces us to the idea of “shame theology” that spans redemptive history, but without assuming that the reader is familiar with lots of theological categories or vocabulary. To guide us through this shame theology, ‘Shame Interrupted’ is split into four sections.
Conscious that few people have spent much time thinking carefully about shame before, Ed begins by uncovering shame in some of the innumerable ways it can be found. His working definition of “shame” is insightful in its breadth: “You are disgraced because you acted less than human, you were treated as if you were less than human, or you were associated with something less than human, and there are witnesses.”
Ed helpfully distinguishes guilt and shame: “Guilt lives in the courtroom, where you stand alone before the judge. Shame lives in the community, though the community can feel like a courtroom.” Although the two concepts are closely related, when carefully distinguished, shame is broader and its synonyms (nakedness, dishonour, disgrace, defilement etc.) appear in the Bible ~10 times more than references to guilt. As a young pastor, I was particularly challenged by this. There are depths to our sin-problem that lie deeper than our guilt. And in seeking to bring the all-sufficient hope and comfort of the Gospel to bear in people’s lives, it’s important that we recognise the work that needs to be done after we’ve addressed the question of guilt. “We might speak about forgiveness and no condemnation, yet shame is unmoved by such things. When a judge says, ‘Not guilty,’ and you still feel like scum, the verdict doesn’t bring much help or hope.”
After briefly scanning the history of “shame,” Ed unpacks his “trinity of shame” – nakedness, rejection, and contamination – which shape the structure of the rest of the book.
Shame, before Christ
Ed charts how shame was unleashed at Eden, and explains how God established the categories of clean and unclean, holy and common. He then introduces the concept of hope, with God covering Adam and Eve’s nakedness, and then Isaiah’s vision of being touched and cleansed by God.
Shame, honour and Jesus
Understandably, Ed helpfully dedicates a third of ‘Shame Interrupted’ to the various ways in which Jesus willingly embraced shame from the moment of His conception until His death. There’s a lot of pastoral gold here, and the section on Jesus experiencing abandonment, betrayal, and denial in the run-up to His crucifixion is particularly powerful.
Similarly helpful is Ed’s explanation of Jesus touching the “untouchables”, and his analysis of the Sermon on the Mount and the way we can interpret the whole sermon through a shame-paradigm (although not in a way that seeks to exhaustively re-define the event!).
Throughout this section, Ed begins to build the idea that the solution to shame is to turn our focus towards the God who has endured the greatest shame for us, and who now chooses to draw near to and touch us – with contagiously-holy hands that change us. His unpacking of Jesus’ commission of the disciples at the lakeside is particularly encouraging. Individual Christians and churches (particularly those in a different cultural context to Ed’s) will need to work through Ed’s exhortation to “go public” with our shame struggles, but discussing the broader topic itself would be a helpful exercise in itself.
Honour, after Jesus
In the final section, Ed focuses very practically on how the indwelling of the Holy Spirit gives Christians power to overcome a struggle with shame. He highlights the importance and value of baptism and the Lord’s Supper in regularly encouraging us in our battle with shame. And his brief treatment of Paul’s theology of shame is helpful, particularly as he unpacks some of the different elements to shame (whether from our own sin/the sins of others/our weakness, and whether it’s before God or the world).
If you struggle with shame, or know someone who does, this book will be a great blessing to you. For those who would like to take their study of this pastoral battle further, Ed lists seven books in the Acknowledgements that have significantly shaped his understanding of shame and would stretch your understanding of the subject further.
“Please hear this final barrage of hope. The remnants of shame still cling to us, but they are losing their grip. We still fail. In our relationships, we can be rejected, ignored, and discarded. We can be betrayed by our spouses. We are the targets of anger, which is almost always demeaning. But we are growing. Our interest in how we treat others is threatening to overtake our concern about how others treat us. We are learning where to turn when shame comes knocking. We are learning to turn to the one who adopts outcasts and never minimises our pain. That simple act honours God and undercuts shame’s strategy of turning us inward.”