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.

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Climbing the Ladder

In some recent posts, both This Is Not a Travel Blog and Roots and Shoots, I’ve mentioned Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s book The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture. Truly, it’s one of the most necessary, even prophetic books I’ve come acrossprophetic because stability is not something twenty-first century Westerners practice and necessary because stability is something twenty-first century Westerners need.

In a section on “the ladder we climb,” Wilson-Hartgrove summarizes a situation so eerily relatable to my own experience that I’m posting the paragraph here in whole:

“Practicing stability has meant unlearning the habits of a culture that tells us the answer to our problems is always somewhere else. For most young people in the West, ‘good education’ leads to a migratory existence. Conventional wisdom among the middle class says, ‘Go away from home for a good four-year degree. Go somewhere else for a master’s. Travel around and see the world a little. Then maybe think about a terminal degree somewhere else.’ Even on the fast track, this plan will take you into your midthirties. By then, of course, we’re well prepared for an economy that tells us where it needs us most. We sometimes call this ‘climbing the ladder,’ but even as a metaphor, it’s a stretch. Without a stable foundation to rest on, ladders become dizzying and dangerous.” (emphasis mine)

To be honest, Wilson-Hartgrove says that he largely followed this pattern himself, leaving home for “a good four-year degree,” going “somewhere else for a master’s,” and doing his fair share of domestic and overseas missions work along the way. And, to be honest, I’m probably living under the same paradigm.

But the problem isn’t necessarily so much with climbing the ladder so much as it is with securing the ladder.

The question for all you ladder-climbers like me is this: Do you have a stable foundation to rest on?

Do you have a healthy appreciation for affiliation (the people around you) and not just ambition (the goals you aspire to)?

Do you have some sense of a support network socially, core values morally, guiding practices spiritually, resilience emotionally, and a sense of preparedness practically and financially? (These are hard questions. We’ll probably be answering them for our whole lives.)

Do you know — really know — that you’re a child of God, loved no matter how high you climb or don’t climb, secure in His hand no matter how far you go or don’t go?

Halloween and the “Who Are You?” Question

“She’s the smart one.”

That was the last thing I expected to hear upon entering a bar. But, man, did it feel great.

It was Halloween and I was dressed like Velma from Scooby Doo, while friends were Daphne, Fred, Shaggy, and Scooby. When we arrived anywhere, it would gradually dawn on spectators who we were one character at a time. At one point, a young lady dressed like a jar of peanut butter explained to her jelly-dressed friend: “the dog, the stoner, the smart one…”

For one sugar-filled night, people knew who we were. Even when they asked “Who are you?” it was so simple to answer “Velma!” and so rewarding to see their eyes light up in recognition.

But, what about the day after Halloween? We go back to anonymity. We go back to fumbling with words and behaviors, resumes and business cards, rather than relying on costumes to convey who we are. When people ask the “Who are you?” question it’s not-so-simple to answer “well, this and this and sometimes that” and definitely not-so-rewarding to see their eyes cross in confusion.

So, how do we deal with this?

I’ve been slowly learning to reject the notion that I am a character and embrace the generous reality that I have character.

Characters (at least the simple, costumed kind typical of Halloween) have limited identifiers, e.g. “the smart one.” And it doesn’t take much for others to recognize those identifiers, as the peanut butter jar lady at the bar demonstrated.

As living, breathing humans who have character, though, we get to have multiple identifiers that change over the course of life and even over the course of a day. And we get to develop relationships in order for others to recognize those identifiers.

I am not Velma. Rather, as Descartes put it, “I am a thinking thing, that is, a being who doubts, affirms, denies, knows a few things, and is ignorant of many things.”

None of us are just “the smart one” – and we have to remember that, lest we get prideful when we act intelligently or get discouraged when we act unintelligently.

And none of us are just “the dumb one” – and we have to remember that, lest we limit ourselves unnecessarily. 

So, let’s try this again.

“Who are you?”

It’s not Halloween anymore. Your answer can be short or long, clear or complex. You’re not just a character. You have character.  

I asked God if it was okay to be introverted

This is the first post in my “God Says Yes” series.


 

I’m not just alluding again to Kaylin Haught’s poem here. I’ve actually asked God if it’s okay to be introverted.

Why would we think it’s not okay to be introverted?

  1. Introverts look around us and extroverts seem to be most visible. At work and school, we see extroverts speaking more frequently and forcefully than others. At social events, we see party hosts and extroverted guests mingling comfortably. At church, we see the greeters, musicians, and preachers — seemingly everyone who’s anyone — engaging gregariously with crowds of congregants. Extroverts can just be so visible, so we might assume they’re right.   
  2. Introverts look inside ourselves and feel afraid. Before or during socializing, we can feel real physiological and mental stress. For example, when I was first getting involved in a new church, I went to a party being held by the young adult ministry — but only after calling a friend to tell her about the knot in my stomach and the fear in my mind of not knowing what to do or say. (Fun fact: I didn’t know what to do or say, but party-goers didn’t even notice or at least didn’t mind. We’re friends now.) Introversion can just be so uncomfortable, so we might assume it’s wrong.   

 

There are things I simultaneously strongly want to do and strongly fear doing. I want to have friends, go to social events, make business contacts, be involved in ministry. Yet, I look at others’ extroversion, look at my own introversion, and wonder if I’m really able to do those things.

Yes yes yes.

Why, from a Christian perspective, is it okay to be introverted?

  1. Scripture. There are countless positive examples of introversion throughout Scripture. In the gospels, Jesus often “went away to a quiet place to pray” (Matt. 14:13, 23; Mark 1:35; Luke 4:42, 5:16). To Elijah, God spoke through a “still small voice” rather than winds and fires (1 Kings 19:11-13). And to Isaiah, God said: “In repentance and rest is your salvation; in quietness and trust is your strength” (Isaiah 30:15). The apostle James instructs that everyone should “be quick to listen; slow to speak; slow to anger” (James 1:19).     1547941_10201853562130339_3778232266731685006_o
  2. Tradition. For the majority of Christian history, from the early desert fathers to the 16th-century founding of the Jesuits, the discipline of silence has been a valued tradition. And the tradition is still alive. Last weekend, I got to participate in a silent retreat at a local retreat center along with 20 or so others from my church. From Friday evening to Sunday morning, we kept a vow of silence, setting aside distractions, letting fears fall away, putting people-pleasing aside. In silence, we could take the time to identify our thoughts and feelings, entrust them to God, and hear His voice instructing and comforting. What’s more, in a silent group (which is only a little awkward at first), introverts can experience the reality that we’re not wrong to speak less than others. In that setting, in fact, we’re quite right!
  3. Reason. Research is showing more and more that introversion isn’t so much about social awkwardness (wish I’d known that in middle school) but biological predisposition. And those who have that predisposition can contribute just as much as extroverts — just in different ways. Books like Susan Cain’s Quiet and Adam McHugh’s Introverts In the Church have helped me understand and maximize ways to contribute to the workplace and church as an introvert. Introverts are generally better with one-on-one and small group interactions rather than working with large groups. So, at work and school, we can be focused workers, careful listeners, good note-takers, mediators of conflict, and more. At church, we can be great small group leaders, wise mentors, and potentially helpful with setting up events, serving Communion, passing offering plates, and so much more. Public speaking can even be right up an introvert’s alley, contrary to popular belief, because it affords the chance to prepare and to speak in a planned manner that lets the introvert maintain control of the situation. (Just don’t ask us too many scary, spontaneous Q&A questions!)         

 

“God Says Yes To Me”

I’ve asked therapists, pastors, and friends all kinds of questions over the years. Is it okay for me to be a joyful person and have depression, okay to have both doubt and faith, okay to be an introvert and a leader? I won’t get into those answers just yet. Because, what I think my permission-seeking questions boil down to is this: Is it okay to be me?

A few years ago, I discovered my predicament described beautifully in this poem, “God Says Yes To Me” by Kaylin Haught

I asked God if it was okay to be melodramatic
and she said yes
I asked her if it was okay to be short
and she said it sure is
I asked her if I could wear nail polish
or not wear nail polish
and she said honey
she calls me that sometimes
she said you can do just exactly
what you want to
Thanks God I said
And is it even okay if I don’t paragraph
my letters
Sweetcakes God said
who knows where she picked that up
what I’m telling you is
Yes Yes Yes

An important observation: There is nothing wrong with any of the things that Haught’s narrator nervously asks permission for. They’re harmless personality traits (melodramatic), physical characteristics (short), and self-expression choices (wearing nail polish, not paragraphing letters). Sure, any of those things taken to an extreme could pose problems; being too melodramatic could cause social conflict, being extremely short could make it hard to reach things, etc. But she asks permission anyway.

More specifically, she asks God for permission.

Why?

Because, all too often, we come to believe that what we’re doing or becoming is socially — or even theologically — unacceptable to do or be. We may notice Bible verses that could be interpreted as forbidding what we’re doing (e.g. “rejoice always” could seem to forbid worrying). We may not notice many people at school, at church, or on TV who seem to be behaving, thinking, or feeling like the way we behave, think, or feel. As Pastor Steven Furtick has said, “we compare our behind-the-scenes to everyone else’s highlight reel.”

For years, I’ve compared my behind-the-scenes to everyone else’s highlight reel in a number of ways. And I know some other folks who have too.

So I’m getting ready to do a blog series on a few ways that “God says yes to me.”

Likely topics:

  • “I asked God if it was okay to doubt”
  • “I asked God if it was okay to be depressed”
  • “I asked God if it was okay to be introverted”
  • “I asked God if it was okay to change my mind”

In each instance, I hope to focus on just a couple reasons why we think it’s not okay to do those things and a couple reasons why it is okay.

I can give one sneak preview, though: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). So, we can ask permission all we want, but more often than we might realize the answer — while potentially complex — will ultimately boil down to: “what I’m telling you is yes yes yes.”