Several years ago, a close friend bravely confessed to me a dark family secret.
Even though she did her best to help soften the blow, I was unprepared for what she told me. I thought we were simply meeting for dinner.
I asked many questions. We sat in silence. We awkwardly took bites of food because it was in front of us and we didn’t know what else to do with our fidgeting fingers. I told her I loved her. We prayed and parted ways.
I drove home and cried. I left with her secret, not knowing what to do with what I knew, not knowing how this information would affect our relationship, not knowing how to be her friend now that I was aware.
Because her secret was hers, I carried it. It was a heavy load, and I had to extend forgiveness and practice grace. But God taught me a great deal through her vulnerability.
The reality is, many of us have, at one time or another, carried a secret. Those secrets vary in degree, yet they are a part of our every day reality. Few of us have the courage to share our secrets.
Behind closed doors, we slice our thighs with razor blades, medicate ourselves under doctor-patient privilege, bury the abuse we suffered as a little child. We have a criminal record. We cheated. We had an abortion. Some of us hide our sexuality, pretend our marriage is what it is not or enjoy hours of fantasy behind our computer screens.
We worry that if someone knew our secrets we would be judged, gossiped about, lose our job or face rejection within our community. We feel vulnerable—the risk of opening up about our secrets and facing horrific consequences keeps us silent, sometimes even to the detriment of our emotional, spiritual and physical well-being.
Dr. Brené Brown, Researcher and Professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work whose Ted talks on vulnerability and shame have been viewed over 7 million times, explains: “Shame needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgment. And when you start naming [the cause of your shame] and talking about it with people who have earned the right to hear these stories in your life, it dissipates, because shame only works when it keeps you in this false belief that you are alone.”
Secrets, then, perpetuate shame and isolation. And shame is what makes us hide in the garden, running from the God who already knows we are naked, broken, and in need of rescue. When it comes to friendships, shame is what keeps us from sharing our pain, from confessing our sin, from uncovering secrets. Shame is what keeps some of us from ever feeling truly known and prevents us from having a deep, personal relationship with another human being.
Shame is the enemy of intimacy. And shame feeds on secrets.
We are designed in the image of God [Elohim], who is relational with a Spirit that longs for connection. And God relentlessly pursues us. God is fully aware of what we’ve done, what happened, what we struggle with, where we need rescue. He “knows the secrets or our hearts” (Psalm 44:21). He perceives “[our] thoughts from afar … [He is] familiar with all [our] ways” (Psalm 139:2-3). His goal is a restoration of intimacy with us. He beckons us to come and trust Him with our authentic selves.
When we trust God with our secrets, we experience supernatural healing. But as Ann Voskamp writes, we must first be honest with God and with ourselves: “The only way to be real … is to reveal. The only way to heal… is to be honest. With ourselves, with God, maybe with one other person … our story is who we are, and if we deny it, we deny not only our own selves—we deny the very Author Who’s writing this redemptive epic.”
After re-establishing our intimacy with God, we can choose whether to share our secret with a friend, family member or therapist. Many of us feel a void, a schism, between us and a good friend when we are keeping something from them. Particularly in a marriage relationship, or in a relationship with a family member, secrets can make deeper connection difficult.
This is where I feel indebted to my friend of years ago. She chose me, and while it was a tough load to carry, her secret helped us find deeper connection and, ultimately, more transparency between the both of us. For that, I’m extremely grateful. Like her, I want to have ‘real’ relationships. She helped our friendship be more real.
If we decide to tell our secret, it’s imperative we choose the right person to tell. Here are a few things to consider:
Choose a friend who has proven he or she is trustworthy. Trust is earned over time. Your secret is precious and it is yours, and the last thing you want to do is share it with someone who will abuse it. Observe your friends. Watch how they talk about other people. If he’s betrayed a confidence of a friend, don’t expect he will keep your secret either.
Choose a person who will help you feel seen and heard and who will not judge you or try to fix you. Pick someone that can sit with you in your horrible mess and will love you anyway.
Choose a friend who points you to Jesus and is for you. Pick someone who cares deeply about your intimacy with Jesus as a first priority. There are many Christians in whom you could confide. But pick a fellow believer who is for you, who wants your best and will be there for you in process. Sometimes a person being for you means they might actually push back and challenge you. Sometimes they might simply listen. But ultimately, you want that person to be your friend, your confidante, and not have a conflict of interest or ulterior motive.
Finally, as the bearer of a secret, if you learn that a friend is doing something harmful or being treated wrongly by someone else, (bullying, abuse, discrimination), or if someone’s life is in danger (threats of suicide, threats of assault or murder), safety trumps confidentiality. Some secrets are too dangerous to be kept silent.
The ministry of reconciliation is not cheap or easy. It takes courage, trust, and grace to move forward in community with God and each other. Yet only in authenticity with God, with ourselves, and within community can we find freedom, dispelling the power of the secret holding us captive.