“Something’s Wrong With Me”: Effectively Engaging a Culture of Shame

Looking ahead to our 2018 Intersection Conference on Engaging Culture (May 17-19), we asked some of our writers to share their thoughts on winsomely engaging culture. Author and speaker Sally Breedlove explores the symptoms of an increasingly shame-based Western society, and how we can communicate “good news” to people plagued by inner dis-ease. Hint: It starts with us.   

by Sally Breedlove

A cottage industry flourishes these days around the issue of shame. Culture’s consensus is that we feel bad about ourselves, not because we are guilty, but because someone or something has put shame upon us. “Shame” is far more likely to show up in conversations than “guilt.”

Shame is an age-old weapon. Racists wield it to keep people in their place. It’s a battering ram in the hands of immature parents, teachers, and coaches whose highest goal is to get others to cooperate. Shame silences the voice of the abused. If they speak out, they will be exposed as dirty and flawed, shameful.

Shame is also a way to fight back. People in our culture who are sick of not being treated with respect, the #MeToo tidal wave, the demands of the LGBT community that we affirm and applaud all choices—all of them count on shame’s power to make their point. Declaring that what people do is wrong is virtually ineffective.  Public shame, however, seems to have almost unlimited capacity to reshape our culture.

The real truth is that shaming is not just a weapon. Shame is a parasite that infects our own souls. Kurt Thompson’s book The Soul of Shame, Andy Crouch’s work on culture and shame, and Brene Brown’s TED Talks and books have met an audience primed for a richer understanding of the complex and confusing mess we find… inside ourselves.

We live in a culture whose self-talk goes something like this: No one has the right to judge my lifestyle. But underneath that protest another voices mutters: Something’s wrong with me…the truth is I’m a flawed, unwanted person. Sooner or later I’ll be found out.

So our culture has turned to shamelessness in self-defense: I’ll do my own thing; to hell with what anyone else thinks. Or we succumb to practices that for a while numb our souls: web surfing, drugs, alcohol, fast-paced lives, achieving, pornography. But the internal dis-ease proves hard to snuff out. Our shame finds moments to rear itself: we are unwanted, not included, unloved, unlovable; and our lives are small and insignificant.

As Christian leaders, we are faced with a crucial question:

Is the Gospel big enough to face down our personal shame, and that of our entire culture?

Is the Gospel big enough to face down our personal shame, and that of our entire culture?

Until recently Christian leaders primarily talked about the good news of the kingdom in this way: We’re all guilty before God, but through Jesus’ death on the cross our sins are forgiven and our debt to God is paid. Deep down, most people know they are guilty.  Almost anyone will admit they have not perfectly loved God and neighbor or have fully kept the Ten Commandments.

But most of our culture will also protest they haven’t been all that bad. If that is true, I would ask, Why doesn’t everyone feel absolutely wonderful about themselves?

The truth is, we are indeed guilty and Christ’s death has paid the penalty for our sin that we could never pay. But being guilt-free is not the sum total of the good news for this generation.

The cultural connecting piece is the larger gift Jesus offers. The Gospel also tells us we are the beloved of the Father, invited into a family, and individually fashioned as creatively as poetry—for good works. Our shame is not who we are. Shame’s remedy is the mystery that Ephesians 1:1-3:21 brings to light: The gathering mercy of God draws us together as his beloved family.

Mercy is grace on steroids, a grace that forgives not just what we did but that comes to us with compassion and help, regardless of what we fear we are.  A doctor told me in a moment of candor, “Every doctor knows he will make a mistake at least once in his life where his action (or inaction) causes a person to die.”  The mistake that brings about death can be forgiven. But shame whispers, “What kind of doctor are you that you would ever have made that mistake?” Its poison seeps into our souls, bringing up things we have done, things done to us, and things about ourselves that are no one’s fault, but simply the way we are.

I believe the answer to shame is the mercy of God: We are deeply known and lavishly loved by the Triune God. We are no longer outsiders: in his great love, God has adopted us, making us family. Our lives matter, no matter how lonely, small, or broken they seem.

The loving embrace of God’s mercy through Jesus heals shame.

Speaking this Gospel of mercy to a shame-filled culture is, however, a costly, personal enterprise. It is not at all a matter of learning to identify, explain and theologize about shame and then offering techniques to fix it. It demands facing our own internal shame.

Speaking the Gospel of mercy to a shame-filled culture demands facing our own internal shame.

Every leader or minister knows shame: our fear that we are an outsider, or an impostor. Our self hatred. Our resistance to being known. Our inability to own our own imperfections. Our longing to be noticed and needed; our jealousy, our envy, our insecurity, our angry protests that we are “just fine.” Shame has its tentacles in our souls. We have to embrace Christ’s mercy for ourselves. Without that humility, theological and cultural treatises about mercy and shame will simply ring false.

People whose shame is being healed have hospitable souls. They are secure and openhearted in the presence of others. They aren’t put-off by the ways other people struggle. They are aware of their own longings for belovedness and belongingness and blessedness. They don’t offer quick fixes for deep wounds. They know that assurances of being guilt free have to be accompanied by being welcomed in.

Assurances of being guilt free have to be accompanied by being welcomed in.

May we be that kind of leader in today’s culture. May we sit with people, hear their stories, be patient over time, and live out what it means to love well, even before the hurting person is well healed. May we look like Jesus, who didn’t turn in shame from the woman with the loosened hair who bent over his feet while her tears flowed. May we look like Jesus who was unperturbed when others insinuated he was a drunkard or a blasphemer or a bastard. May we look like Jesus who patiently stood in line with all the sinners waiting to be baptized by John. May we look like Jesus who touched lepers and went to dinner parties at the house of rich thieves.

Jesus had no internal shame that needed healing.  He never minimized sin, but he also never turned away from the burden of shame he felt in others. His centered, welcoming soul invites all of us in and offers us freedom from our own shame, and the freedom to walk in love alongside a culture of broken people.

  • Where have you recently seen shame at work in our culture?
  • Where has shame’s poison seeped into your own soul?
  • How can you embrace Christ’s mercy for yourself so you can welcome others?


Sally is a co-founder of JourneyMates, a contemplative small group ministry that invites people to connect intimately with the Triune God by making space in their everyday lives. She serves as a trainer and supervisor for JourneyMates and as guest faculty for Selah, LTI’s certificate program for spiritual directors. Sally and her husband Steve, a bishop in the Anglican Church in North America, live their life in the rich context of five married children and 14 grandchildren.