Toxic Shame

Toxic Shame by DAN JUSTER June 14, 2021

Recently I read a great book that describes building a truly loving community. The authors call it a “hesed” community using the Hebrew word that has been translated covenant love, steadfast love, loving-kindness and more.

The book is The Other Half of the Church by Michal Hendricks and Jim Wilder. They call their vision full brained Christianity and claim that Christianity in the West is too left-brained; rational, logical, and information-heavy. The left brain is important, but the intuitive and the quality of immediate response habits are built in the right brain, from depth of relationships and love. This is foundational to discipleship.

I am not a materialist so I would rather call this the other side of the soul or mind that is connected to these spheres of the brain. The relationship of the mind/soul to the brain is a deep philosophical issue that I cannot unpack here. Building upon the great books by Dallas Willard on discipleship, they argue that only a loving community with mutual correction, humility, and openness can disciple most people. It must be modeled by the leaders of the community. Their case is very strong. They put into new language something I have believed and taught now for more than 40 years.

One of the more salient parts of the book is their development of the concept of shame. They distinguish between toxic shame and healthy shame. All sin carries a degree of shame, but God and healthy brothers and sisters meet us with restorative correction. They come alongside, not with an accusative you, but identification, showing the person that their behavior is not in line with the “we” of the community and the example and teaching of Yeshua. In this way, the person who sins does not slink away in isolation but repents in the context of restorative love. In such a community restoration and growth takes place. Shame is temporary in the context of love; deliverance takes place in repentance and forgiveness. Such a community requires loving, humble, and vulnerable leaders.

The authors contrast a healthy community to congregations led by dominant leaders who use toxic shame to cow others into submission and to remove themselves from correction, questioning, or challenge. Toxic shame leaders have a narcissistic part to their personality, not in the full psychiatric sense, but in a broader sense of meaning whereby self-centeredness and ego are too much a part of their personality and style of leadership. Such leaders can build large congregations or gatherings, but not quality community. These leaders, who do not live an open life, sometimes fall into serious sins. People are shocked, but if we would look at the narcissist aspect of such leaders, we would be less surprised.