Shame is born out of a soul-deep desire that God built into all humanity, and there is a way to reclaim this godly longing in our hearts.
The World Surf League’s open off of South Africa’s Jeffreys Bay was just one more major competition for Mick Fanning. Little did he know it was about to become the event of a lifetime.
The weather was perfect. The water was a deep blue-green edged with white as the waves curled. Mick and one other surfer hit the water for the final, and Fanning was preparing to begin his swim when something hit his legs.
His entire board jerked sideways. Fanning kicked and hit something solid and moving. On the shore, announcers began shouting and swearing.
He started kicking with all his might as something latched on to his board and leg and began pulling him under. He managed to keep a hand on the surfboard, frantically scanning around him. An arc of water sprayed up as the shark darted in again for another attack. Fanning hit the shark with his board then frantically swam away.
The shark came in again. Fanning turned and punched the giant marine predator.
Jet skis swooped in, one to grab Fanning and the other circling to frighten off the shark. Gasping, Fanning clutched the tow-sled on the back of the jet ski then reached back and grabbed his severed tether, snapped sometime during the fight for his life.
While he was highly lauded for his bravery, Fanning would shake his head in interviews. “I feel like someone was looking out for me.”
The Inconsolable Secret of Our Story
The first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism is “What is the chief end of man?” and its answer is “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”
Almost 300 years later, C. S. Lewis wrote a sermon titled “The Weight of Glory” in which he said, “For glory means good report with God, acceptance by God, response, acknowledgment, and welcome into the heart of things. The door on which we have been knocking all our lives will open at last.”
In the same sermon, Lewis put his finger on the sore spot that attends this desire to be welcomed, accepted and loved. “The sense that in this universe we are treated as strangers, the longing to be acknowledged, to meet with some response, to bridge some chasm that yawns between us and reality, is part of our inconsolable secret.”
An “inconsolable secret” does very well to describe the conundrum that is desperately wanting acknowledgment from other people but being uneasy of close connections, afraid of relationship problems or hamstrung by past pains.
The blue depths of our secrets are often haunted by one silent and deadly predator: shame.
It’s that one thing that someone could say to us that just seems to get beneath our skin like nothing else. It’s the story that the mere thought of telling a loved one makes us shrivel inside. It’s a stark memory from our childhood that lingers years or even decades later.
Shame is the universal experience of humankind, and it all began with a heavenly Father, his two children, a snake and a piece of fruit.
An Alarming Map of the Brain
In his book The Soul of Shame, Curt Thompson states that shame has the brutal potential to rob a crucial key to life from every single one of us. “…we were created for joy. Not a weak and watery concept of joy that merely dilutes our sadness and pain. Rather it is the hard deck on which all of life finds its legs, a byproduct of deeply connected relationships in which each member is consummately known.”
Shame’s worst work is separating us first from God and then from other people. It isolates us and then drags us down, usually before we even fully realize what has happened.
The Bible gives us the story of how it all began, and science can now give us the story of how it continues to harm us.
“…the fundamental neurobiology of the experience of shame,” Thompson explains, “disintegrates different neural networks and their corresponding functions within each individual brain, isolating them, causing the mind to be decreasingly flexible in its capacity to adapt to its environment.”
Not only does it make us unwilling to face our God, but it also makes us less and less able to interact in healthy ways with others and adapt well to our circumstances.
Positive self-talk and avoiding certain situations can help our shame to a point, but both can easily devolve into self-delusion, repression and self-policing that ultimately ends up reinforcing the idea that we dare not directly face the sources of our shame.
No matter what we do to protect ourselves, we must face two very simple facts: there will always be sharks in the water, and they will hurt our relationships if we give them even the smallest opening.
Scotty Smith, writer for The Gospel Coalition, states the biblical truth that gives us a starting place for how to take to the waves without being crippled by fear of our shame popping up. “To believe in Jesus is to trust in the One who was shamed for us on the cross—the One who doesn’t despise our weaknesses or spurn our brokenness.”
How to Shake Off Shame’s Power
The Bible has quite a bit to say about shame.
“Fear not; you will no longer live in shame. Don’t be afraid; there is no more disgrace for you. You will no longer remember the shame of your youth…” (Isaiah 54:4 NLT).
A few verses later, God specifically lays out how we escape our shame. “‘For the mountains may move and the hills disappear, but even then my faithful love for you will remain. My covenant of blessing will never be broken,’ says the Lord, who has mercy on you” (Isaiah 54:10).
Love and acceptance are deeply important to healing. “Shame is birthed relationally, so therefore it's not healed in isolation,” Gary Wilkerson points out in his podcast on shame. “That's why James says, ‘Confess your faults to one another that you might be healed.’ Not, ‘Go into your secret closet and pray that you might be healed.’ Please don't hear me saying God doesn't work or the Bible doesn't work, but it works by obedience, and part of healing the shame is bringing it to light.”
When we accept that we are valuable in God’s eyes, we can turn and face our shame. Honesty and transparency, with ourselves and others, is a punch in shame’s face.
Learning to tell ourselves a story of victory or love, in many cases, looks like taking steps toward self-care. This is nurturing our bodies with good food and exercise because God’s skillful work deserves care and praise (Psalm 139:14). It is cultivating emotional stability by building stronger relationships because they will both require and build humility alongside the right kind of confidence. This is steadying our spirit with disciplines like prayer and Bible study because we’ll constantly need reminding of God’s promises.
We need all of these things, especially when we stare into shame’s black, depthless eyes.
Retelling the Right Story
As we learn to trust a different story than our past or the world has told us about ourselves, we will see other people more truly and enjoy the splendor of God’s creation more fully.
We will find freedom from shame by facing it, exploring the lie that we have sold, reminding ourselves of God’s view of us and then building relationships with people who remind us of God’s love and whom we can remind of God’s love.
Mick Fanning could’ve just been a shark-attack victim, but instead people told his story as the man who punched a shark in the face, and he told the story of a man with “someone” watching over him.
A week after the incident, he returned to surfing. The next year, he went back to Jeffrey’s Bay to compete once more. Did he look for sharks in that beautiful water?
We don’t know, but we can say they didn’t stop him.
Remapping the routes of shame in our mind takes time, and we won’t succeed every day. With each step we take, though, we honor our maker and Father.