You’re Never Too Old to Grow More Free From Shame

Happy 4th of July! I woke up this morning both thankful for my country and troubled by it (but honestly more thankful and hopeful). Then I began thinking about freedom in the broadest sense since I know this: we might live in the perfect country and still not be free because of the reality of being enslaved to sin. I remembered that beautiful verse in Galatians 5:1: “It is for freedom that Christ set us free.”

When I think about the increasing freedom offered through Christ alone, I think about Jesus delivering others and myself more and more from what I see most damaging people today. I think it’s the prison of shame. That’s where you and I are the least free in our lives. Just when I think I’m free of it, shame reappears. It’s sometimes subtle, but sometimes obvious. Since I studied shame for my doctoral work in English literature, I attune myself to when it operates. I see a shame culture more and more on social media: the “canceled” culture, the “your party is over” culture, and the public ridicule of nearly everyone on Twitter alone. I think of the diligence we must now exercise; one misstep and we’re burned at the stake of public opinion, even, sadly, among Christian brothers and sisters. That’s shame.

I think of the shame culture that still haunts me about being the right size, looking the right way, and rearing children that fit this same model. I think of the shame culture of achievement and wealth, too. Everywhere I turn, I see the fear and anxiety in people’s eyes that they do not and cannot measure up. That’s shame operating. They fear being found out for just how much they fall short, and so they live in the reality of an imposter syndrome so typical of the population I’m most near–those of graduate students and faculty on a college campus. All the tears of fear in my office from students are really the fear of shame.

For twenty years, I’ve witnessed and enacted remedies for shame that never work. Think of it: We blame others for causing our shame. We blame ourselves. Or, lately, we try to remove shame by making our shortcomings into celebrations (Look how bad I am! Look at me! Let’s celebrate what a sinner I am by accepting my sin and encouraging it!). Finally, and most poisonous to me, we attempt to manage shame by working harder, losing more weight, earning more, and carefully constructing a false self that nobody can reject. Exhausting! Imprisoning!

But what about this astonishing biblical but so overlooked remedy of confession and repentance? What if we admitted that we have grown to like and need our shame because it protects us from the opinions of others, meaning if I shame myself, I at least control the situation? What if we confessed to the Lord that we are simply terrible, that we do actually fall short, that we honestly need others to like us and approve and that this idolatry has suffocated us for so long? In fact, what if we confessed that most everything we do in our lives works as a reaction against real or imagined shame?

It feels so terrible. It’s so dark and heavy in the soul. It’s tormenting.

Now what? Does it seem odd to you to confess? Me too. But what if we confess that we’ve been living in shame, that we’ve enabled it and given it power? What is the fear of shame but the fear that we won’t be admired or seen as the wonderful people we want others to believe we are? Confess it. Tell it all to God and expose shame for what it is.

We confess and then we run to God. Imagine the embrace of God! Imagine the look of perfect love and perfect acceptance of you no matter what you’ve done or how far you are from the person you hoped you would be? In His presence, you become perfect. Your shame is gone! I mean, why did Jesus die publicly on a cross of shame? Why does scripture say Jesus scorned the shame of the cross? He is a Savior who bears our shame. When I see my shame as my toxic sense of inferiority and inherent wrongness, I don’t need to do anything but take it the Lord to heal. I cannot do anything else. It’s a hopeless situation without Jesus. That’s how deep and painful shame truly is; nothing can repair your sense of self no matter how hard you try and no matter how many self-help books you read. The unlimited and unconditional love of Jesus alone repairs us and brings us out of shame. He takes our shame and loves us. He liberates us. He brings freedom from the shame that we cannot escape on our own.

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