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Love that Conquers Shame

From time to time, I have a nightmare: I’m in the church sanctuary, the offering is being taken, and I am about to get up and preach in a couple of minutes—but I have no idea what to say. I begin to frantically scratch out an outline on some scrap paper. I get up, move to the pulpit, glance down at my notes. Then to my horror, all I can see are these completely indecipherable symbols: #!%?3^R*^&. And so, as I begin to wing it, the auditorium empties.

Or, I’m supposed to be speaking somewhere. I’m in a car and on the way I realize I have nothing to wear; I’m basically naked—just in my underwear, and I’m running late!

At a subconscious level, I have a fear of being shown up as deficient, of not being enough.

Each of us struggles at some level with the feeling that we come up short, that we’re not good enough in our own eyes or the eyes of someone else.

We can feel doubt about our abilities, our likability, or embarrassment over our bodies. We can feel inferior because of some kind of dysfunction in our family, not having enough money, or an addictive habit we have.

Writers in the ancient world of the Bible and contemporary social science researchers have described this feeling as shame. As Brené Brown puts it, shame is the “intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belongingsomething we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.”

But this intensely painful feeling isn’t confined to those of us who have failed or fallen short, those who have been abused or gone through trauma, or those who have been told they are stupid, ugly, or would never amount to anything.

Even people who seem extremely successful—with wealth, status, talent, fame or acclaim— struggle with feelings of falling short, being unworthy, or not being enough.

Not long after the American decathlete Ashton Eaton repeated as the gold medallist in the decathlon at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, I asked him if his gold medal made him feel like he was enough. He told me winning a gold medal—and especially the first one—felt great, but after a while he looked down at the medal and thought—it’s just a medallion. It wasn’t the answer—it wasn’t enough to make him feel like he was enough.

Regardless of where we are from, human beings the world over live with a sense of shame, of falling short. And most of us can point to areas in our lives where we feel innately flawed and unworthy of love and belonging.

Mental health can be one of these areas. If we have lived with mental health challenges, we have likely encountered stigma in our culture. Stigma is most simply defined as a mark of disgrace that brings about feelings of shame. Erving Goffman, an eminent American sociologist, defined stigma as “a process by which the reaction of others spoils normal identity.” If we have experienced the reality of stigma, we may carry shame about our mental health.

Particular mental health disorders are also associated with shame-proneness, and for anyone who struggles with a deep sense of shame, seeing a therapist, developing self-compassion, and learning to tell different stories about oneself can be important aspects of the healing journey. But there are also riches in our spiritual heritage that can support us in healing our pain.

Before sin entered the world, our ancient ancestors Adam and Eve were free from feelings of shame. We are told in Genesis 2:25, “The man and his wife were naked and they felt no shame.”

Shame was not an emotion human beings experienced at the dawn of creation. Shame entered the world because of sin.

Shame, as Adam and Eve discovered, separates us from God and each other. When we experience shame, we hide ourselves from God, fixate on our shortcomings, and feel so unworthy that we are unable to accept the forgiveness he offers us. We also hide ourselves and become less transparent with one another.

One of the ways our feelings of shame are healed, then, is through a deep experience of God’s love and a genuine experience of belonging and connection in the community of Christ.

The apostle Paul understood this, and so in Ephesians 3:17-20 he prayed this prayer for the early church and those who would follow Christ down the corridors of time, including us:

I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

We know that perfect love casts out fear, including the fear of rejection, which is at the root of shame.

I can think of no goal as noble and transformative as seeking to experience deeply the love of God, so that our shame does not define us, but the fullness of God does.

I have a pastor friend here in the city of Vancouver. His wife, Julia, has been following Jesus since she was 11. A few years ago, she realized that she had never really asked God if he specifically loved her. So she started asking. Every day she just asked, “Do you love me Jesus?” It wasn’t demanding, nor accusatory, and it didn’t have a time limit. She just wanted to hear from him about herself. She prayed and persisted.

About a month into this prayer, she was reading the gospels, specifically the suffering of Jesus related to the cross. As she read the familiar passages on Jesus’ crucifixion she thought to herself, “I know this. I don’t want to read it again.” But instead, she pressed into the passages. Then she felt a very strong impression, words that were not her own, “I died so that I could be with you forever.”

These 10 words now hang at the entrance to her home.

For others, being open to God’s love might take the form of seeking beauty.

Curt Thompson is a psychiatrist and author I know. He recently told me he loves listening to Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony. For him, this piece of music is stunningly beautiful. The wonder he experiences as he listens to this gorgeous symphony reminds him of the wonder God experiences over him.

Perhaps regularly spending time pursuing beauty and experiencing wonder can give you a deeper experience of God’s love as you are given a window into the wonder God experiences over you.

Or perhaps being open to God’s love takes the form of being open to other people. In Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians, he says that it is “together with all the Lord’s holy people” that we grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ. If shame separates and isolates us, it is Christ’s love that can draw us together, healing our shame through human connection and belonging.

For those of us who have been hurt through negative experiences in the Church, reaching out to connect with others can be especially difficult. Knowing this, each of us is called to help cultivate an environment of belonging in which we express the love of God to each other and experience the love of God through each other.

While I don’t know how God will affirm his love for you, I know God’s love is unchanging and available. You can pray for and seek it while meditating on Scripture or in prayerful silence. You can catch glimpses of it in the beauty of creation, human creativity, and in Christian communities that are vulnerable and open with each other in love. Regardless of where we’re at, what we’ve experienced, or what others have said about us, we are all worthy to participate in the love of God.

Ken Shigematsu is senior pastor at Tenth Church in Vancouver, British Columbia and author of two awarding-winning bestsellers on the spiritual life, God in My Everything and Survival Guide for the Soul.