When I was fifteen years old, we had a special youth group night where we split up by gender. Brian, our goofy, gregarious leader asked his opening question to the guys before we even had a chance to put our guards up: “Okay, so let’s get real. How many of you have looked at pornography?” We all bashfully raised our hands. “Okay, so all of you.” he reflected, and then we heard a knock at the door.
His wife, who had taken the girls into the next room, peeked her head in, “Um, Brian, we can hear everything from next door; we’re going to go upstairs.” Unfortunately, going upstairs meant that our female peers had to walk through our room as we hung our heads low, trying to shrink into the couches.
I’d like to say that being faced with such humiliation would’ve stopped me from acceding to temptation in the future. But instead, it just gave me reason to pause at my next chance to confess, to hesitate before admitting what I’d done. Shame works that way. It doesn’t necessarily motivate a change in behavior, but it does galvanize a better plan to hide it.
The mere words porn or masturbation can trigger shame so quickly that those who deeply desire support and liberation from these compulsive behaviors often find it difficult and embarrassing to get the help they need. While meeting with others who struggle with the same kind of sin provides some comfort, all participants are aware that their behaviors go against the social norms of the community they share, the broader church. Consequently, shame shows up as an invisible, uninvited group member. And if he goes unaddressed, he holds the power to quietly thwart the goals of the group.
Shame makes the difference between cultivating and squelching community. Accountability groups are small, intentionally established groups where we seek intimacy with others and change within ourselves. Yet when shame shows up, it can be a death knell to both of these goals. Shame compels us to hide, to shrink, to disengage and isolate. Group members may confess their sins while concurrently shutting down internally, withdrawing, avoiding eye contact and staring at the floor. Shame shuts down the rational part of our brain and engages the survival functions: fight, flight, or freeze. These impulses actively work against building deep relationships with others.
Because shame shuts down our higher brain functions, it keeps us from moving into healthier behaviors. When it is present but unaddressed, the ability to change is significantly hampered. Shame researcher Brene Brown states that it “corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change… We cannot grow when we are in shame, and we can’t use shame to change ourselves or others.” If we fail to discuss shame in our accountability groups, there’s a chance that our meetings will only enhance feelings of isolation and hopelessness.
The first goal of an effective accountability group is not to change behavior but to address the shame that comes with it. We can either aim to be perfect, or we can learn to courageously talk with others when we fail. Being held accountable to not look at pornography during the duration of an accountability group or program has its merits, but its effect is time-limited and pales in comparison with the life-long skill of learning to confess our sins to those we are in community with, including spouses, friends, spiritual leaders and those we lead. This is the first step toward change and transformation, and should not be skipped; it lays the groundwork for life-long freedom from these compulsive behaviors.
In his book The Wounded Healer, theologian Henri Nouwen suggests, “Christian community is therefore a healing community not because wounds and pains are alleviated, but because wounds and pains become openings or occasions for a new vision,” a time in which we remind one another that God is present, “not after all our misery is passed, but in the middle of of it, not in another place, but right here where we are sitting.”
The most effective facilitators are not those who have had victory over a certain behavior but rather those who are familiar enough with shame to be able to speak its name when it shows up to the meeting. Transformation happens when we’re reminded that even as we expose our shadow-selves and the sins we try to hide, God is in the room, and His heart is bursting with love.
Together at the Table
The communion table, a cornerstone of our time together as believers, is the perfect picture of a powerful accountability group. We sit face to face with one another under the acknowledgement that we are all present because we need to be there. The table of grace relieves burdens and shame. Unfortunately, many behavior-change-oriented groups subconsciously communicate that the goal is to move beyond needing grace. They promote the idea that we could someday graduate and get up from the table. It is during those times, once we’ve walked away, that we often do the most damage to ourselves and those close to us.
While we know that God’s kindness is intended to lead us to repentance, there’s often a fear lurking: if we go too easy on our brothers and sisters, they may take that grace as a license to continue in their sin. Kristen Neff, Ph.D and author of Self-Compassion, produced research that says withholding criticism in the face of failure actually encourages success the next time around. She says that by embracing grace for ourselves we will more quickly own up to our faults and address them in productive ways. This only confirms what we Christians have known all along: it is God’s love that transforms, not His judgment.
3 Ways to Move from Shame to Safety
Discuss shame before it makes an appearance. Talk about the inherent difficulties of the topic at hand. Commend members for being willing to take part in such a vulnerable process. Begin with reading Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15. Ask questions like, “How might you feel when you come to this group after you’ve failed?” “When you mess up, what kinds of self-critical thoughts go through your head?” and “How can we best support you when that happens?” By exploring these dynamics beforehand, feelings of shame can be normalized and the likelihood of isolation and disconnection from the group can be reduced. If we can anticipate a shut-down response before it occurs, it can be easier to recognize and work through in the moment.
Get broader than the behavior. No one likes to be defined by their flaws. Take time to discuss strengths, accomplishments, families, careers and hobbies. Members will feel more comfortable as they discuss their flaws knowing that it does not encompass their entire identity. The Apostle Paul repeatedly rejects all-or-nothing thinking, something that addiction quickly cultivates. He talks about his spirit, his flesh, being the best of all, the worst of all, and everything in between. He’s in touch with both his flaws and his identity in Christ, and we do best to provide such opportunities in accountability groups.
Reward vulnerability as well as victory. It’s a great idea to celebrate victories and change. But ensure that you also celebrate vulnerability. We need to hold in our hearts the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector in the temple. There is true spiritual power in the willingness to beat our chest and proclaim before God and others: “God, have mercy on me! I am such a sinner.” We need to find ways to celebrate both victories over compulsive behavior and the confessions that pave the way for those victories.
Beyond Accountability Groups
In our society you can be passively involved or actively uninvolved in pornography, but no one is passively uninvolved. That option is an impossibility. In fact, we may no longer have a need for specialized “accountability groups.” We can count on the fact that the topic is going to be relevant in any group of Christians meeting together for authentic community.
If we maintain porn’s taboo status in the church, we will only maintain the suffering of those oppressed by its clutches. And the existence of “men’s groups” may promote the idea that there’s only a small section of us that needs help with navigating a culture where pornography is at our fingertips. Oftentimes programs for porn addiction are quietly held in the basement and seen as a necessity only for the truly depraved. In a culture that wants to normalize porn, our most powerful witness as the body of Christ is to create a counter-conversation as we engage in grace-filled discussions about it in our communities while addressing the shame attached to it.
It’s important to talk about porn in the mainstream programs of the church including church services, Bible studies and softball games. When we do so, we promote the consistent message that the table of grace is available to all for any kind of sin, and because there is grace, there is room for a discussion of topics that bring up shame and guilt, that are embarrassing and isolating. We know that addiction thrives in the dark and that the first step toward freedom is bringing sin into the light. As 1 John says, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” We practically live out this truth when we talk about porn in the broad light of day, demonstrating in a concrete way that we truly believe God’s grace is enough.
Copyright 2016 Krispin Mayfield. All rights reserved.
Copyright 2016 Cara Strickland. All rights reserved.
Copyright 2016 Cara Strickland. All rights reserved.