Rising Strong: The Reckoning, The Rumble, The Revolution is the third in the list of popular books written by shame-researcher Brené Brown, the University of Houston professor whose TED talks on vulnerability and shame went viral and have propelled her into the national spotlight. Rising Strong follows Daring Greatly (2012) and The Gifts of Imperfection (2010). I’m a self-professed Brown fan who’s been influenced and inspired by her work in my own thoughts about shame, which will be published as Unashamed: Healing Our Brokenness and Finding Freedom from Shame (Crossway, June 2016).
As a church-based biblical counselor with more than nine years of counseling experience and a master of arts in biblical counseling from Westminster Theological Seminary/CCEF, I would like to speak into both what’s good and what’s misleading about Brown’s book. To be clear where I’m coming from, I’m speaking as one who loves biblical theology and has been changed by the gospel of grace that sets me free from my self-righteous striving. Galatians 2:20–21 is my life verse as a recovering self-righteous Pharisee who can too easily trust in her own works.
Pitfalls to Sidestep
In reading Rising Strong, it seems the most obvious pitfall could be outright dismissal by the Christian community and particularly church leaders because of its raw language and failure to speak explicitly about Jesus. Brown cusses throughout the book, and does so unapologetically. This may well be a stumbling block for many readers. However, if you’re able to move past that problem, there is much here for us to learn. Much of her material maps onto a gospel-grace framework—if only Brown would follow the trajectory to its conclusion. She gives words to and speaks boldly about vulnerability (which 2 Corinthians 12:9–10 calls “strength” through boasting in weakness); about the value of owning our failures (instead of hiding them) and then learning from them; and about the importance of examining the default stories we tell ourselves when we experience failure and shame.
A second and corollary warning is that, like every other writer, Brown shouldn’t be followed wholeheartedly and without question. As Christians, only Jesus holds this place in our hearts. So I commend this book to you as one worth reading and evaluating, as the Bereans did, in light of the truth of Scripture (Acts 17:11). In so doing you’ll find, for example, that Brown’s teaching on forgiveness in chapter 7 (“The Brave and the Brokenhearted”) rings hollow because there’s no Godward framework.
What’s poignant and potentially dangerous about Rising Strong is how close Brown gets to biblical truth. You will notice that the biblical fallacy of her overarching argument is an overtrust in people and self (humanism) and a lack of acknowledgment of God, who is weaving together and ultimately writing each of our stories. There’s also a fair amount of self-determinism and belief that “if you do this, then you too can rise strong and rise above your failures.” Those of us most honest about who we are know there are and will be failures that will haunt us for the rest of our lives. In and of ourselves we simply aren’t strong enough to overcome our deepest failures. And even the sort of solid, rooted community she describes—which echoes what Christian community at its best should be—will fail us at times, even perhaps when we need it most. If I trust anything more than I trust Jesus, it will mislead me. This is true even—and perhaps especially—when trying to live transparently with fellow humans who waver as I do in levels of safety and trustworthiness.
It’s also helpful to remember that what Brown calls weakness, the Bible calls sin. There’s a relational component of spiritual rebellion to many of our failures that is not addressed in Rising Strong. Yet as Christians we can stand with Brown and vigorously nod our heads to her conclusions that the pervasive brokenness in ourselves, our communities, and our families often feels overwhelming and inescapable. The gospel offers a deeper hope than what she describes, yet what she offers can point the way forward—if you follow it to its logical conclusion—to our need for God’s love in Christ. In fact, last year Brown herself discussed her return to church:
Brené confides that she went to church to find comfort. Instead, she found challenge. “Church wasn’t an epidural, it was a midwife. It just stood next to me and said ‘Push, it’s supposed to hurt a bit.’”
Also consider her description of failure, which seems to be a desperate cry for redemption and a perfect backdrop to gospel hope:
“Failure” is a slippery word because we use it to describe a wide range of experiences—from risky efforts that didn’t pan out or ideas that were never launched to painful, life-altering losses. Whatever the experience, failure feels like a lost opportunity, like something that can’t be redone or undone. (201)
Reframing the Terms
While we must keep in mind Brown isn’t writing a primer for Christians (and that many of her concepts and terms fall outside of a biblical understanding), I believe it may help us to reframe a few of her terms in order to grasp some of her insights without embracing her humanistic framework.
- When Brown talks about the importance of journaling a “stormy first draft” (“SFD”), read this as an invitation from God to pour out your heart honestly before him (Ps. 62:8). He alone invites and embraces our raw emotions, deepest shame, and the failures we don’t want to admit to anyone. He takes these and gives us what we most crave in those moments when we feel most vulnerable—grace and mercy in our time of need (Heb. 4:15–16).
- What she calls “rumbling” might be better understood biblically as “speaking the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15)—being open and honest about where we are and what our struggles are. Our purpose in Christ-centered “rumbling” would be to invite others to speak into our personal blind spots and encourage us to keep working out our salvation because of God’s work within us (Phil. 2:12–13). A practical application here is the way I’m starting conversations with a good friend who’s also read this book. We’re committed to saying, “The story I’m telling myself about [this difficult interaction with a colleague/how my kids talked back to me/my surprise at my own sin/a weakness exposed] is. . . .” This becomes our cue to respond to the other with empathetic acknowledgment of what she’s experiencing—and then go beyond that by reminding her of the true narrative that aligns with her identity in Christ and the story of redemption God is writing for his people.
- When Brown discusses the concept of “doing the best you can” and using this as a way to restrain yourself from judging others, read this as an instruction to pass along the grace that is ours in abundance through Jesus Christ. We of all people have the most reasons to extend grace to others in their failures. As a Christian community we have much room to grow in offering understanding, empathy, and grace to our fellow humans who are beset with weaknesses as we are.
- Brown talks a lot about making choices “aligned with our values” and the importance of “living our truth.” Substitute “values” or “truth” for “our hope in Jesus Christ/the gospel of grace by faith” and there is rich food for reflection, prayer, and repentance throughout the book. Consider this quote with an inserted Christian value: “When we decide to own our stories and live our truth [that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone], we bring our light to the darkness” (75).
Stepping Stones to a Savior
We can appreciate the picture Rising Strong paints of how we as individuals and communities can grow if we own our mistakes (and sin) and talk transparently about them (“rumbling”) with others while seeking by faith to learn from them—always relying on God for the strength and mercy that are new every morning. Brown isn’t adding to what God’s already addressed in Scripture, but she is discussing (perhaps unbeknownst to her) key biblical concepts in a thought-provoking way. And she’s often more honest than the church typically has been regarding vulnerability, failure, resilience after shame, and our need for interdependent community.
As we refuse to be sidelined by our inevitable missteps and failures, we can agree with Brown that we often tell ourselves false stories—which is what leads us into sin every single time. It is forgetting the story of redemption and then stepping out of relationship with the Author that causes us to miss our way—to misstep into the twin pitfalls of guilt and shame from which we are rescued by Jesus. We would do well to consider the stories we are writing when we aren’t living true to the gospel and our identity in Christ.
Could this be the deepest truth for Brené Brown to rumble with—and could it be that the truths in Rising Strong become stepping stones along the way to Jesus for her, and for us?
Brené Brown. Rising Strong. New York, NY: Spiegel & Grau, 2015. 336 pp. $27.00.