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 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)
“holy and beloved” (3:12)
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.
Image by twentyonehundred productions team member Matt Kirk.