Jasmine L. Holmes is not a licensed counselor or psychologist. But she is a Christian woman who actively struggles with shame. In her newest book, Never Cast Out: How the Gospel Puts an End to the Story of Shame, she shares candid accounts of dealing with shame spirals and turning to the Bible for hope. Author Abbey Wedgeworth spoke with Holmes about discerning the causes of shame and responding in spiritually profitable ways.
How would you define shame, and what makes it such an important topic?
My earliest memory is a memory of shame. I must have been two and a half years old. My mom told me “no” to something I had asked for. She said it gently, with a tone of No, we’re not going to do that right now. But I felt so terrible and wrong. And I remember thinking I shouldn’t have asked in the first place.
I had no idea, at that moment, that for the rest of my life I would experience that feeling in numerous ways. So when I talk about shame, I’m talking about that negative feeling, that feeling associated with being wrong, being bad, being not enough. It’s that feeling of wanting to hide.
Shame affects so many people, in ways big and small. And for this book, I wanted to be careful to admit that my experiences of shame are small compared to what, say, abuse victims and survivors endure day to day. So I’m talking, if you will, about my little shame that follows me around every day, and I’m not trying to make light of the big shame others suffer.
Why is it so important to attend to even our “little” experiences of shame?
If we fail to recognize them, they compound—they grow. As a mom, for instance, you might have a moment, like I did this morning, of looking around and thinking, Oh, my house is so dirty. And I had to decide not to wallow. Otherwise, I might start thinking, My house is dirty; therefore I’m a terrible mom, because I shouldn’t be working. If I were staying home with my kids full time …
And on and on it goes down this rabbit hole, this shame spiral. It takes my eyes off Jesus, off the Cross, and it puts me into this navel-gazing space where all I hear is this loud, intrusive voice saying, “You are bad.” Shame distracts us from kingdom work, and it also distracts us from biblical rest, which means resting in Christ. Shame, by contrast, keeps us on a hamster wheel.
You define three typical responses to shame as “false gospels.” What are they, and why don’t they work?
The three false gospels are “Shake it off,” “Work it off,” and “Pass it off.” The “shake it off” attitude says that shame is always bad, and that I should just do what I want at all times. But of course we wouldn’t want to live in a society where no one is capable of shame.
“Work it off” means allowing shame to jerk us around. For instance, when I thought my house looked dirty, I could have said, “Well, I’d better get up and clean it. I need to do this the right way, or my kids will end up in therapy.” We obey the urgings of shame because we feel like there’s always a guillotine dangling over our heads. But we’re only quieting the voice of shame rather than dealing with the heart of the matter.
The instinct to “pass it off” was part of how I grew up in a hyperconservative background, where the attitude was, Yes, we do bad things, but at least we’re better than the world. We can always think of someone whose house is dirtier—or fill in the blank. We pull others lower to make ourselves feel better.
The problem with all of these approaches, however, is that shame is telling us something. It’s giving us a message. Maybe shame is telling us that we’ve done something wrong—or maybe not. Maybe it’s telling us to turn to Christ or to have a conversation with a mentor or friend. But whatever the message, ignoring shame is like ignoring a stomachache and letting the underlying illness get worse and worse.
What value does shame have in the Christian life or in the process of sanctification?
Shame offers different opportunities. One is for repentance. If we’ve sinned and feel guilty, then shame points us toward the Cross, where we can confess our sins in the knowledge that Jesus has atoned for them. It leads us to say, “God, I have done this bad thing. And instead of running and hiding like Adam and Eve, I will run toward you and admit I messed up. And I will bask in your grace at the end of that.”
A second opportunity is for reorienting our hopes toward Jesus. The shame I feel over a dirty house, for instance, might reveal that I’ve made my house into an idol—something I lean on for the justification and righteousness only Jesus can provide.
You write, “Sometimes the accuser uses our sin to fuel his accusations. Sometimes, though, he just uses our humanness.” How do these forms of shame—and their remedies—differ?
We are so good at attaching moral weight to questions Scripture doesn’t answer authoritatively, like when we get married or when to have kids or how many kids to have. These questions have moral dimensions, of course, but how we answer them doesn’t determine our standing before God.
You can say the same about my dirty house. It could tell me lots of things. Perhaps I’m taking on too much—or I’m being lazy. Or maybe I’m just tired. Or maybe it’s time to have a conversation with my husband about helping out. There could be sin involved, or just ordinary human limitations. In either case, the remedy is running to Jesus. Because sometimes we need forgiveness, but sometimes we just need security because we’re weak and frail and groaning, like all of creation, for the return of Christ.
You were nervous about writing this book because, as you write, it might “open the floodgates for shame to come roaring into my life.” How has it affected your own struggle with shame?
It was weird to write about shame during a shame-filled season of life. As I was writing this book, I was in the depths of despair, first because I was pregnant and then because of postpartum depression and the balancing act of raising three kids. Shame was knocking on my door every day.
My editor was such a rock throughout the process. She would say, “You’re writing a book about shame, and the Enemy is constantly taunting, just reminding you of your insecurity. And we need to turn to Jesus with that.” I joked with her that this is my last book of this nature—I don’t need this spiritual growth again!
What is your greatest hope for people who read this book?
To see them set free, so they can cast their cares on Jesus because they know he cares for them, and they know he is ready and willing to forgive them.
It’s worth repeating that not everyone deals with shame in the same way. For me, as someone diagnosed with depression, shame is something chronic, a rut I get stuck in. But anyone who gets stuck in that navel-gazing, self-loathing cycle can turn to Jesus and be free.
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