Where Shame Loses Its Power
How breaking the silence about Church taboos can set you free.
Two pink lines. When my husband and I saw them, we imagined all of our plans and dreams fading away. First came anger and then, swiftly, relentlessly: shame.
I was pregnant.
To others, our situation looked ideal. We were young, relatively healthy, and my husband had a steady job with full benefits. And we had wanted children.
Just not yet.
Who could we talk to?
We recoiled from Church, feeling isolated by our lack of joy. We didn’t want to wound couples that were unable to conceive by voicing our disappointment over this baby, so we kept our mouths shut and our sorrows to ourselves.
The shame of not wanting our child turned into a soul-eating disease. Instead of diminishing over time, it grew along with the child I was carrying. The longer we were silent, the more isolated we became and the less able we were to sort out how we were feeling.
I’ve since realized that our situation is far from unique. All around us, this soul-eating disease of shame is ravaging Christians, sometimes for years after the event. Shame comes from a myriad of sources, both willful sin and things that aren’t sinful. Sexual attraction. Mental illness. Bitterness. Addictions. Masturbation. Debt. Miscarriage. Eating disorders. Promiscuity. Doubt. Abuse.
The list is endless, but in each case, the self-induced isolation and self-hatred are the same.
Elizabeth Chapin wrote about the difference between shame and guilt by explaining that guilt is focused on behavior (e.g. “I did something bad”) and shame is focused on the individual (e.g. “I am bad”). She goes on to say: “shame almost certainly leads to hiding wrong behavior for fear of rejection and abandonment because of the idea that doing something wrong means there is something fundamentally wrong with the core of who I am.”
In my case, I felt that not wanting my baby was deeply indicative of my irredeemable wickedness. I had no grace for myself, so I expected no grace from others.
Often we assume that if we feel shame, it is a result of sin, and sometimes, of course, that is true. But often shame results, not from sin, but from the heavy stigma imposed by Christian culture. Issues like mental illness and sexual abuse are taboo topics at many churches, and it feels impossible to broach the subject.
Unlike AA meetings, where each person says their name and their struggle in the same breath, church meetings tend to be less graphic and also less accepting. Let’s be honest: There are some things you just don’t talk about in church.
Yet hiding behind our friendly smiles and polite pleasantries are real life issues; the ones that don’t fit neatly into everyday conversations. Churches preach the benefits of living in community, yet we somehow forget that living in true community is guaranteed to be messy and complicated. While we talk of authenticity, Church often remains a place where you can’t be honest.
Church should be a place muddled with honesty and real-life messiness. And it should be a place where a shame-filled person can find relief. It should be a place where shame loses its power.
The truth is that there is no place for shame in the Church, not because we’re trying to keep up appearances, but because our shame has been taken to the Cross and can be left there. Here are a few ways to begin moving past the shame and talking honestly about taboo subjects:
Break the Silence
Shame and silence go hand-in-hand, so one of the first steps to overcoming shame is to break the silence and let someone in.
It was only after I told a few friends our story that I realized I wasn’t alone with those feelings. Others have had surprise babies that changed the trajectory of their lives and they understood everything I was feeling. My isolated struggle was really not so unique after all.
Differentiate Between Shame and Guilt
While shame and guilt can stem from the same incident and often feel the same, they are subtly different. When you get into a heated argument with a coworker, guilt tells you that the way you treated her was unkind. Shame, however, tells you that that you are a horrible person. Because of the way shame worms into our core, it has long-lasting, damaging effects.
Don’t Let Shame Win
Living in shame is antithetical to the message of Christianity. To let shame rule our lives is to say that Christ isn’t enough and that He can’t redeem us.
The well-known phrase “Preach the Gospel to yourself” is Jerry Bridges’ twist on Psalm 42:5 which says, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God … my salvation and my God.”
If shame emerges in your life, it is helpful to go back to the basics of Christianity and remember that shame has no long-lasting place in the life of a Christian.
Practice Forgiveness and Grace.
Toward yourself. Toward others. Over and over again. Grace is an endless cycle.
My own story ends happily. We have a son we adore, now a ridiculously active toddler. That, of course, brings a certain sense of happiness and healing. But even after our son was born, the shame still lingered.
But then I found shame’s kryptonite: honesty and acceptance. Shame is bred in silence so as I told my story to others and saw that they still accepted me, the shame diminished. Slowly, the shame was replaced with grace.
As Christians, we must be grace-givers. Part of that grace is making room for people to tell their stories, which often starts with telling our own. By creating a safe place for honesty within the Church, we allow God to work in the hidden, messy areas of life.
By speaking out, we acknowledge that those hidden, messy areas actually exist. Church can be a place of honesty, but it starts with you. So will you tell your story? And, equally important, will you accept the stories of others?