Faith and Family: Healing from shame and guilt — Shame functions by drawing one’s attention away from God’s voice


July 22, 2016

In the New Testament letter to the Hebrews, we are provided with a model for how to effectively approach shame: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before Him He endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:1–2).

The imagery of a “great cloud of witnesses” refers to those just named in Hebrews 11 (those who have gone before us) and to those who are with us now, emphasizing that we are not alone on our journey. It requires great effort to keep before us this vision of being part of a great gathering of people cheering us on, telling us “well done” as we move through life. However, this is one of the first and most helpful steps in combatting shame. It entails creating communities around us that are reminding us of the same thing Jesus heard at His baptism. 

At the moment of His baptism Jesus heard His Father telling Him, “You are My Son, whom I love; with You I am well pleased,” which is what God is telling all of His sons and daughters at all times (though not to the exclusion of other things He also is saying). What set Jesus apart was that He heard it and acted on it.

Immediately following His baptism, Jesus was “led by the Spirit into the wilderness” (Luke 4) and tempted by Satan. In all three instances of temptation, Jesus confronted the parts of His mind that evil tried to use to distract Him. “If you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread. … Jump off the temple. … Worship me and I will give you authority over the world.” In each case, Satan wants to convey that what Jesus planned to do was not going to be enough (thus the other options), that Jesus was not enough.

But Jesus counters this by saying over and over, “It is written,” which is shorthand for “God says.” It is the tagline that draws Jesus’ attention to God’s voice. Everything He reminds Himself of pays attention to His relationship with His Father who loves Him, is pleased with Him, will be faithful to meet His deepest longing and will bring Jesus’ creative calling to its climax. As He listens to His Father’s voice reminding Him who His is, Jesus remains intimately connected to His Father. It is imperative that we do the same.

The phrase “the sin that so easily entangles” (Heb. 12:1) is translated by other ancient authorities as the sin that so easily “distracts.” This is helpful because so much sin begins as a function of attention. Shame functions first, as Satan did with Eve, by drawing our attention, even in minute moments, away from our focus on God’s voice telling us that we are loved and that He is pleased with us.

We are to “fix our eyes”— our attention — on Jesus. To do so means watching Him and doing what He did. It is to intentionally seek out our shame, expose it and reframe it in light of our Father telling us that we are His daughters and sons in whom He is well-pleased.

Reorient your attention

Consider the reinstatement of Peter in John 21:15–17. Jesus did not ignore Peter’s denials. He did not minimize the depth of the wound Peter inflicted. Instead Jesus ferrets out Peter’s shame and reorients his attention toward Jesus and to the work that Jesus was calling him to do. 

With perseverance Hebrews 12:2 says we will experience joy just as Jesus did. Joy, in this sense, is the outcome of Jesus’ awareness of His Father’s absolute delight in Him, His joy in Jesus’ presence, not just Jesus’ behavior. 

Furthermore this joy culminates in Jesus’ eventual movement to carry out the vision for His place in the world: to be its Lord. In the same way, as we turn our attention to our Father’s delight and do those things that facilitate our belief that this is the story we live in, we further create the proper space to discover domains of creativity, “good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph. 2:10).

EDITOR’S NOTE — Curt Thompson is a psychiatrist in private practice whose main focus of clinical and research interest has been the integration of psychiatry, its associated disciplines and Christian spiritual formation. He speaks frequently on the topic at workshops, conferences and retreats. 

Taken from “The Soul of Shame” by Curt Thompson. Copyright (c) 2015 by Curt Thompson. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515, USA. www.ivpress.com.

Soul of Shame conference is Sept. 30 in Birmingham. For more information, call 1-866-991-6864.

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