Much ink has been spilled in recent years on the topic of shame, in large part due to the wonderful research, writing, and advocacy of Brené Brown. A fresh understanding of shame has seeped into the fabric of church culture in a way that has been overwhelmingly positive. We are keenly aware of how counterproductive and spiritually harmful it is to use shame to modify human behavior, and one cannot overemphasize how transformative this conversation around shame has been for how the church understands spiritual formation and mission.
However, I do believe that a glaring hole exists in how we understand shame theologically: namely, the manner in which shame is really a subtle form of pride in disguise.
According to Brené Brown, “Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” Shame is not the heart’s conviction that humanity as a whole is unworthy. Shame believes that I am unworthy, that I am uniquely flawed in a way that others are not.
The essence of pride is to see one’s self as separate, distinct, and superior to other people. Pride is therefore competitive. Pride takes no pleasure in being rich, but only in being richer than one’s neighbor. Pride takes no pleasure in one’s achievements, but only in the felt superiority of one’s achievements relative to others.
But what happens when we find ourselves on the losing end of the world’s game? Pride does not go away; it just disguises itself as shame: the felt sense that we are superior in our inferiority.