We love Jesus… so why are we still dealing with these issues? In this series, we address how the gospel frees us from the shame associated with our daily sins and struggles, and then helps us overcome them.
By Stephanie Campbell
In all my years of walking with the Lord, I’ve found that very often he asks me to do something before I know how it will be accomplished. Like Peter stepping out of the boat, not knowing that he will be upheld by the hand of the Divine. Or Moses returning to Egypt, tasked with an impossible mission and a stick. It’s the resounding echo on the canyon walls of my soul calling, “Trust Me”. And while I may have a slight flair for the dramatic, as the work I have been tasked to do is far less substantial, so often I feel like I’m charging the shores of the Red Sea without a clue of how to cross, asking God to show me the way. May the Lord part the waters as I begin to unfold the story of my journey on discovering how a soul heals from shame.
You may have heard guilt defined by the feeling that I have done something wrong, but shame is the feeling that there is something wrong with me. While guilt is about our behavior, shame is about our identity. Shame is like a disease of the soul. It infects every area of our lives, distorts our relationships and misshapes our view of self and of God. My heart in sharing this with you today would be that if any of this rings true for you, that you will know that you are not alone and there is hope coming for you. He is running towards you while you are still far off…
It was late one evening, several months ago that I shared with my husband that I believed that shame was ruining my life. I was struggling daily with an overbearing feeling of failure in my parenting while also feeling like some of my dearest friendships were drifting out to sea. As is typical of shame, I was struggling to fulfill my vocation, my identity and worth had become skewed, and my relationships had become the shrapnel.
I couldn’t understand why I seemed to be sabotaging myself through negative self-talk and withdrawal. Over the course of my life, I have had several people say to me that they have felt like they couldn’t fully know me. They felt like I was hiding and that they were waiting for me to “bloom” or come out. The first time I heard it, I sensed that it was true, but I didn’t understand it. A few years back, I had an awakening moment in the cereal aisle of a Food 4 Less— where most of my sacred epiphanies occur. I was doing my shopping when out of the corner of my eye I noticed an old co-worker of mine and for no reason at all I ducked and hid out of sight. Call it a knee jerk reaction but it was more than that. When I mustered up enough courage to finally peer around the end cap through the enormous display of Wheaties, I found that she hadn’t noticed me. Like the non-psycho that she was, she was minding her own business and marking off her checklist. It was then, for that brief moment, that I stepped outside of myself and saw what I was doing. I was literally hiding, like a small child; and from what and whom? I had no hard feelings or ill will towards this person. We had never had any conflict. There was no reason to hide. Yet there I was, desperate not to be found and I couldn’t even understand why. I wish I could say this was an isolated event. But what I did discover was that I regularly felt the need to hide. This was the core instinct of my shame.
From then on, I set out to solve the mystery and to begin the process of healing. I longed for the healing that I knew Jesus could give me, but it always felt out of reach. I clung to scriptures like 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has gone and the new is here!”. I believed these words in my mind, but I could never get them to settle in my heart. Even though I was saved it seemed there was still something else in the way that separated me from God. The veil had been torn but some unknown barrier remained.
I believe I have that answer today. You see, I’ve realized that somewhere along the road, I picked up and bought into the lie that God doesn’t love me. I knew and truly believed that God was love but I found it impossible that God could love me. I believed he was the Son of God; God incarnate. I knew he was all powerful, just, merciful, righteous; loving even. I knew every word to Jesus Loves Me. I sang it to my children nightly. I even believed that he loved other people. But somewhere in the depths of my being I did not believe that God loved me personally. This was not a reflection of his good character, but rather, because of my own unworthiness. I realized that at the bottom of it all, I felt unlovable and unacceptable. Once I realized this was what I believed, things began fall into place. The hiding, the withdrawing, the fear of being abandoned. I felt certain that if people really knew me, they wouldn’t love me, so I kept them at arm’s length. Ultimately, I was certain that God couldn’t love me because of my brokenness. So, I did the only thing I knew to do. I kept Him at arm’s length. I would not allow myself to surrender to His love just in case He changed His mind.
The reason I had not discovered freedom in my battle with shame was that I had not yet realized an imperative truth about God that my soul desperately needed to take grasp of. God is first and foremost a loving Father. As Michael Reeves shares in his book, Delighting in the Trinity, “God has revealed himself to be: not first and foremost Creator or Ruler, but Father”. The trinity has always existed with God the Father loving his Son. As we see in John 17:24, “You have loved me before the creation of the world”.
But how can we be assured of God’s love for us? “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8). Within this reality, I am beginning to see that I can come to God with my shame and he will receive me and love me just the same as he always has.
I am learning that “while guilt is healed through the forgiveness of sins, shame can only be healed by gracious, loving acceptance from God” (Paul Rhoads). He does not leave us or reject us but rather is committed to us in love and moves towards us in our brokenness. As we find in Hebrews 12:2, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before him, endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
One of the most poignant pictures of God’s response to our shame is found in the story of the prodigal son. At the start, the son has run away from home so that he can squander his inheritance and live autonomously. When the money runs out, and the son finds himself in the ditches, he begins to long for the Father’s house. He remembers how his father had always lovingly provided for him. He knows that he has sinned, and he wants to go home so he prepares his groveling speech and heads out. But notice what he feels that he needs to say to his father: “I do not deserve to be called your son.” He is feeling shame and it has breached his identity. The son perceives that their relationship has changed but the Father does not. Furthermore, the son says, “Hire me back as a helping hand”. He wants to earn his way back into the father’s love. But what does the father do? The father runs to his beloved son, while he is still far off, and lavishes him with kisses and unrestrained embrace. The exact moment the son’s heart wants to return to the father, His presence is already there to receive him graciously.
This is how the Father responds to our shame too. He runs towards you and I with open arms. His love for us is utterly unfettered! We do not earn our way back to him nor are we cast outside of His family. Instead, He rejoices over us and calls us His own. He already holds perfect, pure, gracious love for us. And so I ask, what if we lived in this truth? What if we lived like God saw us through the eyes of a loving Father? What if we wholeheartedly believed that we are, in this present moment, wholly known and wholly loved by God? Then we could return home to the heart of God! Let us step out from behind the shadow of shame and into the light of God’s perfect affection for us. May we be children who are deeply rooted in the total assurance of our Father’s love.
“Those who look to Him are radiant, their faces are never ashamed.”