This is a little bit off-topic, but I just finished reading the book Daring Greatly by Brene Brown for a book club. If you are not familiar with Brene Brown’s work, she describes herself as a “shame researcher”, but I would say that ultimately she is a person seeking to understand how to live “whole heartedly” through secular academic research methods. She says that she hacks into people’s lives for a living and that she has interviewed thousands of people about their deepest fears and all the things that hold them back from living life to the fullest. The book is well-written, funny at times and poignant at others. Overall, I would highly recommend the book as one that has given me much greater compassion and understanding toward others and probably also myself.
But something seemed to be conspicuously absent to me: the role of faith in living a wholehearted life. In her book, Brene Brown talks a little about the betrayal of disengagement: “Of not caring. Of letting the connection go. Of not being willing to devote time and effort to the relationship.” And I found myself wondering why she let go the positive aspect faith (it must have come up?). Religion is listed as a source of shame, but not as a path to wholeheartedness. (Maybe the data just did not turn up any clear answers with regard to faith?) But for me personally, having a church family helps me to know that I have a place of love, connection, and belonging, not in a perfect way, but in a real way, a way that seems increasingly odd in an age of social media.
I happen to be Presbyterian and a bit of a Calvinist, and my belief that all of us sin and fall short of the glory of God gives me tremendous shame resilience. Brene Brown addresses this when she talks about Common Humanity:
Suffering and feelings of personal inadequacy are part of the shared human experience—something we all go through rather than something that happens to ‘me’ alone.
What she calls our “common humanity” is what I would call an important foundation of a Christian understanding of the world.
In her book, she lists a number of ways to achieve shame resilience. I feel that most of these strategies I have learned at church. One thing she teaches is that we must believe that “We are enough.” At church, I’ve learned that I am created by God for good works prepared for me in advance. It’s not so much that I believe “I am enough.” What I really believe is “I can do all things through him who gives me strength.” If I fail, “Well, apparently that wasn’t the work I was supposed to be doing.” I don’t really worry about being enough, I just trust God to guide and help me. I think this accomplishes the same purpose.
She describes something that holds people back as “foreboding joy,” a sinking feeling that sets in when things are going well. Foreboding joy feels to me like the very reason people need God in their lives. It makes my heartache to hear tales of people being filled with bad thoughts just as joy arrives (and I know it’s extremely common). I just want to scream: “Trust God and enjoy the moment. Joy is gift from God. Give thanks!” And honestly, that’s Brene Brown’s answer to foreboding joy: practice gratitude. But I wonder if gratitude without faith in God would offer the same relief to foreboding joy as gratitude offered in faith to God?
Another thing that Brene Brown says holds us back is perfectionism. I know many Christians who struggle with perfectionism (there is that troublesome Bible verse “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect”), but it’s at church that I’ve heard most often “God can use even our mistakes.” This reassurance gives me confidence to try new things and also to keep moving forward.
One more thing that Brene Brown says holds people back is our tendency to numb ourselves toward vulnerability. Brene Brown shares the following thought:
And numbing vulnerability is especially debilitating because it doesn’t just deaden the pain of our difficult experiences; numbing vulnerability also dulls our experiences of love, joy, belonging, creativity, and empathy. We can’t selectively numb emotion. Numb the dark and you numb the light.
Sitting through many boring church services as a child taught me to numb boredom, but it was also at church that I regularly heard prayers for others in their time of need, which taught me quite a bit about being vulnerable. When we pray for others, we are with them in their journey and we are definitely part of the joy or sorrow however the situation turns out. At church I learned to embrace vulnerability by seeing many role models of caring people willing to come along side others in their most difficult moments.
Brene Brown lists 12 categories of shame, and one of them is religion. I found myself wondering: how can a religion that teaches me that Jesus took all my shame when he offered his life on the cross also be a source of shame? So I asked myself: does my religion give me any feelings of shame at all? I thought for a while: The shame I feel most deeply as a Christian is that personally I have been unable to fulfill the Great Commission, to go out and make Disciples. I don’t think that I’ve personally led anyone to faith in Christ. In high school, I went on a missionary trip to the Dominican Republic with my church youth group, but on the trip, I met wholehearted Christians with such great faith that I was the one converted. Oh dear! Brene Brown teaches that giving a voice to our shame is a way to free ourselves from it, and I can almost hear God quietly whisper: “Never forget: Faith is a gift from God.”
Here’s a link to Brene Brown’s awesome TED talk. It’s well worth watching!
(As an update: When I was pondering Brene Brown’s work, I was also wondering to myself why it’s so hard to bring up faith in a secular, academic environment. It’s kind of amazing to me that somehow her academic research seemed to have helped her see the truth in Jesus and what he teaches about love and also to discover a personal faith in God as love and Jesus as the best example of how to live love. The video on this blog helped answer some of the questions that tossed about my head…