Finding Freedom From Shame

This was originally posted on the blog of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA.


A therapist once pointedly suggested that I was experiencing shame. I promptly suggested she was wrong.

Shame is for people who’ve done egregiously terrible things, I thought (which is kind of all of us, I now realize, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” according to Romans 3). Gradually, I had to admit that the therapist was right and that shame is buried in the hearts of so many people—people like me and you.

shame_resizedShame happens when you fail a test and fear you’re a failure. It happens when you lose a competition and label yourself a loser. When you tell a lie or hurt a friend or drink too much and let the guilt consume you. When every bone in your body wants to not tell anyone—or at least not make eye contact when you tell someone—about your secret shortcomings.

So, how do you possibly find freedom from such a burden as shame?

Named in Confession

Since shame is experienced largely by a desire to hide, it follows then that freedom from shame can be experienced largely through a coming out of hiding. In the Christian life, this looks like naming our sins as specifically and honestly as possible through the practice of confession.

Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing about confession in his classic work Life Together, says this:

“You can hide nothing from God. The mask you wear before men will do you no good before Him. He wants to see you as you are. He wants to be gracious to you. You do not have to go on lying to yourself and your brothers, as if you were without sin; you can dare to be a sinner. Thank God for that.”

Put more succinctly, I’ve heard it said that “shame is broken when it is spoken.” So, consider sharing what you’re ashamed of with a Christian brother or sister, campus minister or counselor, priest or pastor. It feels frustrating at first, like ripping off a Band-Aid to expose a wound, but so freeing in the long run. I promise.

Renamed in Christ

If you fear that naming your shame in confession will change what people—and God!—think of you, then consider this: If you are a Christian, your identity has been renamed in Christ. Take a look at Colossians 3:1-17, for example, and meditate on the adjectives you find there. You might even read the passage manuscript-style in true InterVarsity fashion and underline, highlight, or circle these adjectives. The apostle Paul writes to the Colossian Christians, who had fallen into heretical teachings and sinful behavior, and tells them that in fact they are:

  • “raised with Christ” (3:1)
  • “hidden with Christ in God” (3:2)
  • “renewed” (3:10)
  • “chosen” (3:12)
  • “holy and beloved” (3:12)
  • “forgiven” (3:13)

In Christ, you too, when you sheepishly open your shame to God and others, can have full assurance that God sees you as holy. Beloved. Forgiven. Where you have been hidden in a mask of sullen shame, God sees you as hidden in the cleanest cloak of Christ.

Because of God’s grace, I could eventually name my shame to that therapist I mentioned earlier and could slowly learn, with her help, to receive the truth that I have been renamed in Christ as his child, holy and beloved.

And you can too. I pray you can. Hidden in Christ, I know you can.

Best of ’16

16 books I recommend:

  1. Between Midnight and Dawn: A Literary Guide to Prayer for Lent, Holy Week, and Eastertide – Sarah Arthur
  2. A Woman’s Place: A Christian Vision for Your Calling in the Office, the Home, and the World – Katelyn Beatty
  3. Garden In the East: The Spiritual Life of the Body – Angela Doll Carlson
  4. The Road Back to You: An Enneagram Journey to Self-Discovery – Ian Morgan Cron and Susan Stabile
  5. Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk, and True Flourishing – Andy Crouch
  6. Spiritual Sobriety: Stumbling Back to Faith When Good Religion Goes Bad – Elizabeth Esther
  7. Parables and Paradox: Sonnets on the Sayings of Jesus and Other Poems – Malcolm Guite
  8. Assimilate Or Go Home: Notes From a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith – D.L. Mayfield
  9. Called to Community: The Life Jesus Wants for His People – edited by Charles E. Moore
  10. Present Over Perfect: Leaving Behind Frantic for a Simpler, More Soulful Way of Living – Shauna Niequist
  11. Soul Bare: Stories of Redemption by Emily P. Freeman, Sarah Bessey, Trillia Newbell and More – edited by Cara Sexton
  12. Original Blessing: Putting Sin In Its Rightful Place – Danielle Shroyer
  13. You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit – James K.A. Smith
  14. The Broken Way: A Daring Path Into the Abundant Life – Ann Voskamp
  15. Out of the House of Bread: Satisfying Your Hunger for God with the Spiritual Disciplines – Preston Yancey
  16. Night Driving: A Story of Faith in the Dark – Addie Zierman

8 blogs posts I enjoyed reading:

  1. Beauty will save the world – Andrew Petiprin (The Living Church, January)
  2. When Beauty Strikes – David Brooks (New York Times, January)
  3. I want a religion – Mac Stewart (The Living Church, April)
  4. Dear church: An open letter from one of those millennials you can’t figure out – Jonathan Aigner (Patheos, May)
  5. God Needs Women – Rachel Held Evans (July)
  6. Only the dumb ones go into parish ministry – Sarah Condon (The Living Church, July)
  7. And on the seventh day, many don’t rest at all – Lisa Wangsness (Boston Globe, November)
  8. Her Loss – Lindy West (New York Times, November)

8 blog posts I enjoyed writing:

  1. Happy (Still) Easter (April)
  2. Where Are All the Women? (May)
  3. Hey. Thanks For Caring. (May)
  4. From the Other Side (June)
  5. First Things First (June)
  6. Carry Each Other (July)
  7. Why Seminary? (August)
  8. Sacrament at the Soul of Me (September)
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annual stack of (most of) the books I read this year

Side Effects of a Seminary Semester

img_3414I’ve been drafting this one for about 4 months. It’s a chronicle of the “side effects” experienced over the course of my first semester of seminary – those unexpected, sometimes humorous, sometimes meaningful things that start happening and keep happening whether you like it or not.

So, if you ever start seminary, maybe watch out for the following:

1. Humility. (Actually, this one often starts as impostor syndrome or self-doubt. But, by the time symptoms 7 and 8 set in, this can manifest as humility.) As early as orientation, I would look at the course catalog and think: I can’t possibly learn even 1% of the things taught here. I used to think I was smart, used to be accustomed to friends looking to me as something of a miniature “expert” on religious matters. Now, the thought of expertise – the thought of “mastering divinity” as my Master of Divinity degree implies I’m doing – makes me laugh. Now, I marvel at the expanse of theology, biblical studies, ethics, history, languages, spirituality, and pastoral care that exists and suppose I’m the smallest speck compared to that expanse. Now, I think maybe it would be smart to be humble about how little of the expanse I will actually “master” (even while working to master what meager portion I can).

2. Anger. By this, I mean a sometimes-righteous, sometimes-raging anger at the way churches, communities, and individuals have engaged narrowly and unjustly (often in the name of religion) throughout the world and throughout history with issues of gender, sexuality, race, poverty, abuse, mental illness, disabilities, politics, war, slavery, mass incarceration, biblical interpretation (clobber verses, anyone?), missiology (crusades, anyone?), and more. Yes, those are all topics I have crossed paths with just in my first semester – nay, first month – of seminary. Yes, it can be overwhelming. This quotation gives me hope: 

“Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.” – St. Augustine

3. Questions. Why? What for? What does that word mean? Better yet, what does that word mean in Greek? My favorite is when I bump into a friend and they say “Hey, quick question: What do Episcopalians believe about Eucharist?” In most of life, these are not “quick questions.” In seminary, apparently these are normal.

4. The inability to answer questions simply. I increasingly hear questions in gray rather than black-and-white, thinking quickly of at least two ways to approach the question (maybe an Old Covenant approach and New Covenant approach, Protestant approach and Catholic approach, literal and metaphorical, critical and devotional). I don’t even mean to, but I’m getting trained to. For instance, a few weeks into the semester, a friend asked casually “How’s life?” I contemplated his query for a second and said, “Hmm how’s life? That’s a deep question. Can we clarify our definition of the meaning and scope of the term ‘life’? Do we mean my life right now or life in general?”

5. The inability to listen to religious music in the same way ever again. I hear songs on Christian radio or in worship services and little sirens go off in my head screaming of patriarchal language, out-of-context biblical references, or downright heresy.

6. Speaking in tongues. By this, I mean using Greek, Hebrew, and Latin right and left (but, yes, if you also wind up speaking in tongues in other ways I suppose I can analyze the history, theology, and spirituality of that). I’m not even taking a biblical language this semester, and I wrote a paper including terms like imago dei, facere quod in se est, oikonomia, kenosis, and epectasy as if that was perfectly normal.

7. Prayer. For me, every day begins with morning prayer with the Anglican/Episcopal House of Studies. Most days close with evening prayer. Most classes open with prayer – whether moments of silence, psalms, prayers of the saints, or the prayers of Professor Smith. During finals, I stopped in the hall to pray with an anxious friend one day, and then my housemate and I stopped in a parking lot to talk and pray with a homeless woman another day.

“Study that does not finally result in prayer is a dishonesty for us.” – St. Benedict   

8. Friendship. Truly, when dealing with all the above side effects, I couldn’t possibly do it alone. The people with whom I’ve been studying, praying, conversing, and eating become inherently connected to me and I to them. It is beautiful.

“We are incomplete in ourselves. We want to share our lives with others both to expand our hearts and to receive help because of our smallness of heart.” – St. Thomas Aquinas

 

 

 

 

Advent 2: A Sonnet

I’ve barely squeezed out a sonnet for the week (2 hours before the week ends, at least in my time zone). But somehow I did it!

Collect for Advent 2:

Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

My sonnet for Advent 2:

Oh Merciful God, come help us hear
Your messenger birds, the prophets preach
Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near,
The kingdom of heaven is in our reach.
Prepare the way, prepare the way,
Repeats their morning warning song.
Prepare the way, prepare the way,
The kingdom of heaven is coming along!
Come help us see and still our sins
That we may come to, joyful, greet
The perfect sun that’s entering in
In earthly form for us to meet.
Helped by those birds, who say awake,
In you, through Christ, we may partake.

 

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Advent 1: A Sonnet

I used to write poetry. A few poems in middle school, a few more in high school, and a few semesters worth (enough to get me rather burnt-out) in college.

These days, I don’t write poetry, although I continue to write poetically.

And as of today? Apparently I write sonnets based on collects (pronounced coll-ects and amounting to short prayers focused on one theme, for those who don’t know) from the Book of Common Prayer, inspired by the liturgical-year sonnets of poet-priest Malcolm Guite.

Maybe, just maybe, this will even be the start of a spiritual practice of sonnet-writing, in which I try to write a sonnet for each week’s collect. Maybe. Stay tuned.

Here’s the collect for Advent 1:

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

And my poem for Advent 1:

Almighty God, come give us grace
To wipe the dust from corners dark,
To clear in us for you a place,
To set the wreath and light the spark
That must precede our every flame
That must precede our every fire.
Your son so humbly, spark-ly came
To make more light be our desire.
We’re making room, so visit please
In hurried, blurry homes and hearts.
You visit and the darkness flees
From oft-forgotten crevice parts
Through him who lives and reigns with you
And readies us for Advent new.

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