So this is a difficult review for me to write. When I saw the opportunity to review Un-Ashamed: Healing our Brokenness and Finding Freedom From Shame by writer, counselor and speaker Heather Davis Nelson, I jumped at the chance because Jody and I have spent the past few years really examining the whole concept of shame and how it so deeply affects our culture.
I rarely ever agree to do adult book reviews, primarily because I am usually too busy to commit to finish a particular book by a certain deadline but also because reading is my refuge from a busy day — it’s my dessert at the end of a long to do list, and I don’t want to devote that time to something I can’t relish and digest slowly, at my own pace.
I made an exception for this book because it tackled a subject that I find compelling and from a biblical perspective — all the better!
Nelson seems to have written the book partly in response to Brené Brown’s research and writing on shame but with a biblical answer to the pervasive issue, as well as out of her own personal battles with shame, many of which she doesn’t seem to have overcome. She writes, “I am a people-pleaser by nature and practice, and writing publicly terrifies me because of the fear of criticism and judgement. I want my words to be beautiful and perfect. And yet — like every other part of my life — they won’t be and they cannot be.”
Her transparency is admirable, but it makes it all the more difficult to write this review.
Whispers of Defeat
Perhaps one of my biggest struggles with the book is the quiet whispers of defeat that I felt toward the end. Nelson shares three personal stories of people who struggle with different forms of shame. She says, “They have named their shame, identified its origins, shared it with trusted others in community, and actively sought to live out of their new story of redemption through God’s rescue.” This is her basic formula for battling shame. But she continues, “They believe that their sin is forgiven, and that their shame is covered. And yet the reality is that battling shame will be part of their lifelong faith journeys.”
Why? Why is it their lifelong faith journey? It doesn’t seem faith filled at all. God is the ultimate Deliverer. He is our Salvation. Isaiah 59:1 says, “Surely the arm of the LORD is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear.” Nelson has an entire chapter called “A Shame Free Destiny.” I was excited to find hope in this chapter, but it seemed to be saying that the only hope of total deliverance from shame comes when we reach glory in heaven. But Psalm 27:13 says, “I remain confident of this: I will see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living.”
Jesus bore our shame so we don’t have to live shame-filled lives! We don’t have to wait until heaven to be shame free. We can live shame free now, in the land of the living. God’s arm is not too short to deliver us from any form of shame that tries to exalt itself above the truth — and the truth is that Jesus came to set the captives free, and He died so that we could live life more abundantly.
The Author’s Transparency
Nelson did a good job of describing different ways that shame oppresses people. And her transparency about her own battles definitely endears the reader to her. I love how she said that “in our western American culture, male anger is usually tolerated more than female anger,” and when women lose their cool, they can be more prone to thoughts of shame than men.
I love that she pointed out that “sin brings shame. It opens our eyes to our nakedness and we feel ashamed.” She’s right on. Nelson talks in detail about body shame, social shame and performance shame, and in each section, she does a good job of describing ways that each kind of shame can manifest. I think most readers would readily relate to some of what she shares.
But my struggle with the book is that in each case, I didn’t feel that Nelson offered practical, biblical tools that will really work to combat shame and offer lasting freedom. In fact, in some cases, I wondered if her antidotes would actually bring more shame. In essence, it seemed as if her answer to shame was “look to Jesus.” Obviously, I’m really distilling things here, but for people who struggle with shame, I can see them thinking, “I want to do that. I really do trust and love God, but I can’t seem to get rid of these shameful feelings. There must be something wrong with me because obviously, there’s nothing wrong with God.
My “Jody” Perspective
Maybe the problem isn’t the book but my perspective. Although everyone has momentary feelings of shame from time to time, I am not someone who struggles with this. But I have become very interested in the topic because Jody is, and over the years, I have marveled at how the enemy attacks her with sometimes debilitated thoughts of shame.
I am so blessed to have Jody as a business partner and best friend. She is so transparent and so willing to examine every part of her life and personality. In spite of the fact that shame often taunts her, she doesn’t want to give it any ground in her life, and so when I sometimes ask, “Are you feeling shame about this?” She is always willing to bare her belly and examine it closely.
The things that have freed Jody from some areas of shame have always started with naming the shame and identifying its origin, just as Nelson suggests. But the healing comes from complete surrender to the Holy Spirit and a willingness to discover the lie she is believing in that situation. Once she understands the lie, she can renounce it. Then the Holy Spirit can reveal the truth, and she can replace the lie that she once believed with God’s truth. So whenever the enemy whispers that old lie again, she can spot it coming and tell it to go in the name of Jesus! And then she can reassure her soul of the truth.
It is a process, as Nelson suggested, but it’s not one that she believes she will have to battle for the rest of her life. She sees victories in this area almost daily, and whenever she is victorious, that particular lie doesn’t return to have a continued hold on her because whom the Son sets free is free indeed!
Perhaps a big part of Jody’s victory has come through God’s work in and through the “safe” people in her life (I am so privileged to be one of those), and I really appreciated Nelson’s description of what a safe person looks like. (To find out what that is, you’ll have to read the book!)
I Do Still Recommend the Book
In spite of my struggles with this book, I actually do recommend it. For one, it is enormously helpful for believers to understand the deadly grip that shame has on the body of Christ, and I think this book does a decent job of exposing that.
I particularly liked the chapter on shame in marriage. It shows very tangible ways that husbands and wives can both cause shame in one another and be used to heal shame, and Nelson offers some practical ways for couples to find hope and deliverance together.
The chapter on parenting frustrated me. Although I appreciated the general message that parents must focus on training up children without shame, and I felt that Nelson offered some very good resources for parents, I thought she missed a critical opportunity to identify and free parents from the shame that parenting can cause and the detrimental effects it can have on their parenting methods. So many parents feel overwhelming shame in the face of their children’s misbehavior and failures.
Two Big Shoes to Fill
In the same week that I read Un-Ashamed, I also read Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck, and in it, Dweck cites research which shows that young children misbehave every three minutes. That’s a whole lot of opportunity to feel shame! I loved how Dweck divided mindsets into fixed and growth, and I actually thought that her book (although not directly about shame and not a biblical perspective) offered a much more practical approach to understanding and overcoming shame.
Just before I began reading Un-Ashamed, I had finished Culture of Honor: Sustaining a Supernatural Environment by Danny Silk, and his book did an extraordinary job of showing how the church can demolish shame and how individual believers can live in total freedom in Christ.
So maybe my problem with Un-Ashamed was that it had two big shoes to fill (Mindset and Culture of Honor). But whatever the reason, Nelson’s book missed the mark for me.
Clean House Struggles
Throughout the narrative, she talks about her battle with performance shame, especially as it relates to keeping her house clean. Now this is one that I can really relate to. Although shame is not typically a thought process that haunts me, I do understand the battle to keep a clean house and the shame that can come when I’m not successful. It’s something that I have worked on my entire adult life. Like Nelson, I am a super busy mom.
I’m about to have my 7th child. I’m working really hard to help my three oldest launch into adulthood. Griffyn is my oldest, and he is autistic. He’s working his way through the vocational rehab process now, which requires a lot of testing and appointments. Sky is getting ready to apply to music schools in the fall, and I spend quite a bit of time talking to admissions officers, combing through school websites and helping Sky establish and keep a schedule to ready herself for exams, auditions and interviews. And Seth is entering high school and preparing for a possible film career. He just passed the college entrance exam that will allow him to dual enroll at the community college and earn his Associate’s Degree along with his high school diploma, and he’s working on an extended film project to document chronic homelessness in families.
My younger kids still need to be chauffeured to different activities, and I’m still homeschooling four of the almost seven. Plus, I co-host a weekly radio show that just syndicated nationwide, write a weekly parenting column, try to maintain a blog and keep up with some social media, plus Jody and I travel and speak.
Nelson seems just as busy as I am, and so I totally understand her battle to keep house in the midst of it all. But whether she intended this or not, I sensed a subtext of defeat in her story. It didn’t seem to me that she was gaining victory over this.
Because it has been something that caused shame in my life, it’s something that I have taken to throne of God with great zeal. And of course, He is faithful! God has used people and books and sometimes simply Divine downloads or even changes in circumstances to help me gain victory in this area. God’s desire is for us to go from glory to glory. He wants us to confront our struggles and draw on His wisdom and power to overcome. Romans 8:37 says that I am more than a conqueror.
At one point in the book, Nelson says we should embrace imperfection. She even suggests posting an image of your messy kitchen or closet and tagging it with #embracingimperfection. I don’t want to embrace imperfection, I want to pursue excellence. Obviously, perfection is elusive and unattainable, but excellence is totally attainable. Nelson quotes Matthew 11:29, 30, where He says that we should take His yolk upon us and learn from Him, and He even says that His yolk is easy!
I don’t believe God wants us to embrace our mess. I believe He wants us to seek Him for wisdom to clean it up and get better. For me, the flickering feelings of shame were valuable red flags that let me know this was something I needed to work on. And when I brought it to the Lord, He helped tremendously. I took His yolk upon me and learned from Him, and with each passing year, I have grown.
We just moved a few weeks ago, and our new house has a great layout. But that, coupled with some great organizational ideas from the Lord, and a few helpful family systems in place has spelled out a clean house that brings joy and no shame.
If you would like to check this book out for yourself and see if you have a different perspective than mine, leave a comment, and you will be entered to win a free copy.
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