Facing Shame Issues in a Small Group

Why some group members don't want to open up, and how to help

Note: This article has been excerpted from the SmallGroups.com training tool called Improving Small-Group Accountability.

Joe and Jane have found themselves in a small group that wants to start sharing more deeply, building authentic relationships, and developing true accountability. But even as the group leader makes the case for this kind of authenticity as a vehicle for spiritual growth, Joe and Jane both feel ill at ease with what the changes might entail. They, like many others, carry a deep dread of being known. They chose a large church so that they could melt into the crowd, but the church was high on small groups and it wasn't long before they were invited to participatein one by some well-meaning people they had begun to respect. Now they are beginning to dread what the acceptance of that invitation is going to cost them.

You might assume that we all share the same desire to be known and to engage in loving community. At our very best, when we are walking in harmony with our created design, this is true. But because we are all products of the fall, our default position is to avoid the pain that can easily come when we open our hearts to others. Prior experiences in relationships have taught us that it is very risky to be vulnerable and that loving community is an elusive dream. Internally, we often make a vow to never be hurt again. And we begin to deeply mistrust our hunger for relational intimacy.

The Reality of Shame

What could be going on for Joe and Jane? Somewhere along the way, they have had their eyes opened to their nakedness. Maybe it was rooted in the struggle Joe had with reading in elementary school—the teasing that came when he stumbled over words the other kids all seemed to know. Maybe it was the time he went with some older boys to pick up balloons at the drugstore and they tricked him into unknowingly purchasing condoms. Even the girls had a good laugh when they heard about that one. Joe learned that the safest strategy was to lay low and avoid exposure, or else risk being seen as a fool. Jane's father made fun of her childlike naiveté to the point that she felt her judgment was fatally flawed. That was reinforced through a sexual encounter on a date in high school.Both Joe and Jane have sewn fig leaves to cover their feelings of shame and experiences of betrayal.

Shame is a murky awareness of being deficient or undesirable in the eyes of someone we hope might deeply enjoy us. We are sure we will eventually be found out. As a result, we begin to hate our longing to be wanted and enjoyed.

Sooner or later God comes walking in the garden and asks, "Where are you?" He sometimes does that in the form of a small group that is determined to engage people in what they bring into their group and not ignore it. The next question is logical: "Who told you that you were naked?" This is the way God pursued Adam and Eve in their shame, and it's instructive for us. Following the path of shame exposes more than a story.Dr. Dan Allender points out that it exposes how we really feel about ourselves, what we demand of ourselves and others, and where we believe life can be found. It unearths the strategies we use to deal with a world that is not under our control.

It should be pointed out that there was nothing innately sinful in Joe or Jane's stories. They could not say, "God, forgive me for being stupid" or "Forgive me for being naïve." But trusting in the self-protective strategies they have created to cope with life is sin. It has become idolatry. Their shame is informing them of who they are, rather than their Creator.

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