by Debbie Dewart
The theories of modern psychology have spread like gangrene in today’s Christian church. It seems that the gangrene is so rampant, so thoroughly absorbed in the teachings of the church, that it is no longer necessary to credit the original sources. Instead, erroneous psychological theories are taught under the guise of biblically-grounded truth. Discernment becomes ever more difficult, yet critically important.
An example of the current trend is seen in a small booklet, Shame—Thief of Intimacy, authored by Marie Powers and published by Aglow International, which describes itself as “a unique ministry by women, for women” and that claims to be “reaching women on six continents in over 120 nations.” The front cover of the book labels it a “Bible study.” There are, indeed, many Scriptures scattered throughout the booklet’s nine lessons. Unfortunately, these references hide a deadly mixture of erroneous psychological theories. If the reader is at all familiar with the popular “recovery guru” John Bradshaw, it is not difficult to see how this booklet coincides with his teachings about “toxic shame.” There are also similarities to the self-worth emphasis found in Robert McGee’s Rapha literature and elsewhere. Theories about shame and self are recycled and recirculated throughout Christian literature, with few warnings about the real source of what is being taught.
The introduction to Thief notes that we have all come into the world as beggars, with “a certain crippled-ness,” due to the fall of man. The author proposes two different kinds of shame. First, “legitimate shame” is what Adam and Eve experienced after they sinned. This type of shame alerts us to guilt and drives us to seek God’s forgiveness. God’s remedy for this “legitimate shame” is the cross. So far, we might be inclined to agree. Shame is the result of man’s sin, and, indeed, Jesus Christ has the only solution.
However, a second type of shame is introduced. “False shame” is claimed to be similar to “legitimate shame” in terms of humiliation experienced plus the fear of exposure and abandonment. It has no beginning point, no remedy, and is connected with “how we perceive ourselves at the core of our being” (flawed and defective) rather than with our actual sin. “Shame is the sense of feeling flawed, defective and unacceptable as a person” (37). The author insists that no one has escaped this “false shame,” and she proposes a “contagious,” cyclical pattern wherein people shame one another and perpetuate “false shame” in others (37-46). She teaches that Satan originates it, because “he knows the areas that are especially painful to each person and he reminds us of them over and over” (10). Like Bradshaw, this author attributes the development of “false shame” to early childhood experiences, including parental abuse and the sense of being different from others (14-15). She believes that “one’s core beliefs about one’s self are usually in place before adolescence” (17). Because such “core beliefs” are based on a variety of sources, even persons from “warm, functional” homes may suffer from the impact of shame (17).
The characteristics of this “false shame” are legion. They include: low self-esteem, self-rejection, depression, “loss of self,” comparison of self to others, inability to bear criticism, blaming others, excessive focus on self, looking for identity or worth from performance or other people, “addictions,” focus on outward appearance, avoidance of intimacy, perfectionism, dishonesty about feelings, and fatigue arising from self-protective efforts (20-23). This list revolves around the values of modern psychotherapy rather than biblical standards of godliness.
The author attributes the cause of “false shame” to the message that “you are not enough,” and that something from your own wisdom, rather than from God, is needed to make you “enough” (27). Looking in the “wrong place” for “who we are” results in “low self-esteem” (23). Again, there is a focus around self, on “who we are” rather than on who God is.
In addition, this booklet discusses different “covers for shame” and attempts either to withdraw or to trust one’s own accomplishments and qualities, rather than God, to make one acceptable to others (31). The list of behaviors here is so extensive that little is omitted. Declining to serve on boards and committees is considered a sign of social withdrawal for the purpose of hiding shame (31). Yet, active social service, including church involvement, is also considered a cover for shame (32). Whether you’re actively involved or not, your behavior is evidence of a covering for “false shame”! A similarly comprehensive listing is found when the author discusses ways of shaming others. You may shame others by “taking too much responsibility for another person” or by “not taking time or giving enough attention” (39). Perhaps at some hypothetical mid-point there is no shaming!
Powers describes the “cure” for shame in terms of intimacy with God and others. She believes that “shame drives us into hiding,” that it is “the thief that steals intimacy” (47), leading to the “BIG LIE” that God cannot be trusted (53). She states that the failure to know God’s ways leads to this lack of trust in Him (53). Specifically, “the deception of shame is that God is an angry God” (54). Her counsel is to find your value, significance, and identity by looking to God rather than worldly standards (48, 51).
Indeed, we must look at God’s standards as revealed in the Scripture. First, however, let us consider one example of how this author uses the Bible. She alludes at one point to 1 Peter 1:3-4 without specifically citing it, saying that:
- In His love He has provided everything we need for life and godliness: acceptance, redemption, security, identity, purpose, and worth (62).
The text, however, says that “everything we need” is specifically through the knowledge of the One (Jesus Christ) who called us by His own glory and virtue. Scripture teaches us elsewhere about being accepted by God because of Christ’s work and about redemption. The believer does have purpose, as well as the security of knowing that he has eternal life. He is identified with Christ in His death, burial and resurrection (Romans 6). However, the text in 1 Peter focuses on our knowledge of Christ for “life and godliness,” not on our own identity, worth, security, and the like. All too often, the teachings and values of modern psychology are imposed on the text of Scripture, encouraging believers to center on achieving “identity,” “self-worth,” and such, rather than living for the glory of God.
What does the Bible have to say about shame and its solution? The various biblical words translated “shame” are overwhelmingly used in connection with man’s actual sin. Public humiliation and disgrace are often evident. The author of Thief would agree that shame exists because of sin. Prior to the fall, Adam and Eve experienced no shame even though they were naked (Genesis 2:25). However, we don’t find in Scripture the distinction between “legitimate shame” and the “false shame” proposed by modern psychologists. There really is something fundamentally flawed and defective about man. Awareness of that condition should not be called “false shame,” but rather should lead to repentance (see Psalm 51).
Scripture does describe one instance where shame is experienced by someone who is innocent. Because of our sin, not His own, Christ endured the shame and public humiliation of the cross, focusing on the joy set before Him (Hebrews 12:2). Instead of dissecting the concept of shame in an attempt to build “self-esteem,” identity, worth, or such, let us look to the Savior who has suffered public disgrace on our behalf, in order to redeem us from our sin. The Scriptures assure us that those who trust in Him will never be put to shame (Psalm 25:3, 34:5; Isaiah 45:17, 61:7; Romans 9:33, 10:11; 1 Peter 2:6).
For more information on this issue, see A Way that Seems Right: Exposing John Bradshaw’s False Gospel by Debbie Dewart on the Study Materials list.
(From PAL V5N1)