March 23, 2024

Killing Termites in Church

Shame enjoys being hidden

Justin Kim

One thing that can kill organizations, families, and groups—is shame. This powerful emotion can paralyze social functionality and relationships. It works imperceptibly, slowly, often taking its time before it strikes. As an Asian, I’ve seen what shame can do in a culture. But also, as a Westerner, I’ve seen shame manifested just as potently, but often hidden from plain sight.

Brené Brown likens shame to hidden termites. “Looking for shame in organizations is like inspecting a home for termites. If you walk through a house and actually spot termites, you have an acute problem that’s probably been going on for a while.”* It’s often confused with guilt, humiliation, or embarrassment. Though similar to shame, guilt is a self-conscious emotion, resulting in reflection. Humiliation denotes shame when you think that you don’t deserve it. Embarrassment is a shameful feeling, but you’re not alone, because there is someone who has already done that before. But shame is a lonely emotion, denoting some form of social disconnection that results in gossip, harassment, perfectionistic performance, and favoritism. Cultural background is irrelevant—we all face shame.

Whether having five husbands (John 4), a vaginal hemorrhage (Luke 8), or an extramarital affair resulting in a cover-up murder (2 Sam. 11), shame enjoys being hidden. Not being able to speak of it empowers and emboldens it. Ever since Adam and Eve, shame causes us to hide under fig leaves, at noontime wells, in crowds, and behind each other. And because it hides somewhere, we end up gossiping in secret, trying to perform perfectly in public, yet extolling our favorite people and harassing our unfavorites behind the scenes.

Removing these community-killing shame termites requires a community effort. As much as one person may want to stomp every critter, a communal infection must be healed communally. Shame is repelled by trust, courage, empathy, and dignity. It calls for a complete spiritual transformation of the whole group, where the cross of Jesus becomes the great equalizer, and where all are fully cleansed from fear, guilt, shame. Our failures find full resolution in Jesus, causing all to confess, repent, and seek God together. Though shame pronounces us as unworthy, guilty, and unchangeable, Christ pronounces us worthy by His life, guiltless by His death, and redeemed by His resurrection.

Some churches utilize shame, embarrassment, and humiliation to produce good behavior—unfortunately. They further exacerbate the termite colony by whispering behind closed doors, denying their own spiritual condition, and justifying their own righteousness. But true bodies of Christ utilize empathy and courage to restore, with decency and dignity, the sinner back to the fold. Sometimes this restoration means an honest and vulnerable conversation; sometimes this means wise intercessors to minister unconventionally; sometimes this means artful and redemptive hard discipline, so that the obstinate may achieve sobriety.

It is ironic that church discipline has been associated with isolation, shame, and dishonor, the very things that it seeks to root out. Perhaps one generation swung one way too far, emphasizing behavior, standards, appearance, discipline, and outward obedience. Another reacted, equally, in the other direction, emphasizing sympathy, kindness, mercy, forgiveness, and inner self-worth. Emphasis in one way does not have to negate the other.

After having witnessed the extremes in our denomination’s history, the current generation is at a crossroads. We do not have to go to these extremes, nor find the mathematical average between the two. Rather we acquire courage, empathy, and dignity direct from our Master, in the heavenly sanctuary, and receive His specific orders to kill termites within our communities.

* Brené Brown, Dare to Lead, (New York: Random House, 2018), p. 130.