The Key to Freedom from Shame: Discovering Our Worth and Cleanness in Christ
In August of 2008, Michael Guglielmucci shocked much of the Christian world. He had recorded a hit worship song with Hillsong in Australia. He had spoken to thousands about his struggle with terminal cancer and his unshakable belief that God is his Healer just as God calls Himself in the Bible. In August of 2008, Guglielmucci revealed to his family and church that he never had cancer. It was further revealed that he had been struggling for decades with an addiction to pornography, and the shame he bore from that addiction had been so great that it produced physical symptoms including his hair falling out and frequent vomiting. Guglielmucci was the son of pastors of a major pentecostal church in Australia. He was also a pastor on staff with one of the largest youth churches in Australia. How is it then, that a man who grew up so close to the Gospel and who’s career focused on Gospel preaching could be so buried in shame to the point that he would create a web of lies that would affect people across the globe once they were exposed? For the same reason that you and I, my dear Christian reader, would struggle with shame in our own lives.
Before we can talk about the key to freedom from shame, we need to recognize its presence in our lives. Shame takes on many forms in a person’s life, but 9 ways it can manifest in our lives (as I have seen it manifest in my own life), are as follows:
Dual Identities: This is primarily how Michael Guglielmucci dealt with his shame. The person who is crushed by the weight of their shame believes that there is something innately wrong with them that they’ll never escape, but also wants to do good and to appear good. At some point this person either consciously or unconsciously decides that they will do, say and be the best they can out in public, often appearing very loving, giving, joyful and faithful. These persons can be workaholics, pouring themselves into their work - obsessed with standing out and being the best at what they do. In private however, they indulge in self-loathing thoughts and give way to whatever sin they feel they can never escape. This is the essence of pride and hypocrisy. Most Christian leaders either struggle with this manner of coping with shame, or are frequently tempted towards living in it.
False shamelessness: Where a person frequently, openly talks about reasons for shame in their lives as though they mean nothing. For example, “Yeah, I was molested, but everyone goes through bad stuff, right?” This person tries to shrug off the pain of shameful memories and acts done to them or by them through attempting to make what they went through seem as though it was never that bad. I personally have fallen into this on countless occasions.
Victim mentality: This is where a person frequently casts themselves as the victim throughout the story of their life. They view their present and future based on shameful acts from their past. Whenever they tell a story about what happened during their day, almost every time that story will describe some injustice that was done to them and will have an overall tone of disappointment at the unfairness of the world. This person is often buried in a fear of loss, being alone, being trapped ... you name it. They live in fear and self-loathing because they see anything good in their lives as something temporary that they are afraid to enjoy at all because they believe it will only be taken from them soon. As a result they are sparing with their praise of others (or they over-compensate with praise), withhold thankfulness or begrudgingly offer thanks when they experience some form of social pressure to be thankful.
Angry/Overly-aggressive: This person is very sensitive and often very “testy.” It doesn’t take much to set them off, and they are often given to fits of anger. The way they handle their shame is to lash out whenever they feel they are in danger of getting hurt.
Passive/Non-commital: While this person may have strongly held beliefs, they bury them under a mask of being agreeable and flexible. They personally believe that there is no way anyone would accept them if who they really are was exposed (just like the dual-identity coping mechanism), so they become whatever they think others want for much of the time, though occasionally they may snap and become obstinate. They have little sense of identity in themselves except for the feeling that unless they cover themselves up with others’ opinions they will never be accepted. They do this because they are terrified of not matching up with others’ opinions and so being abandoned to be alone with their shame.
The Boaster: This person uses every opportunity to congratulate themselves and to boast in personal accomplishments or compliments they have received. In Christian circles, the boaster knows that it’s wrong to boast in themselves, so they cover over their self-congratulating with false humility and religious language. For example, they make note of personal accomplishments as often as they can, but preceded with, “Praise God...” or, “Let me tell you what God just did...” yet with an undertone of self-promotion. Today (2014) this is known as the #humblebrag
Rebellious/Apathetic/Exhibitionist: This person showboats and showcases themselves as much as they can through any rebellious or attention-grabbing act that will demonstrate their alleged immunity to shame. This person wants to appear free and demonstrates a kind of apathy toward anything that might deal with seriousness or personal healing. While in some ways they may come across as, “I’m OK, you’re OK,” they really want to come across as being better than everyone else and above all other struggles. The prefer to be known as fun-loving and the life of the party - this way they never have to acknowledge or deal with the cancer in their soul, and through gaining the admiration or rejection of others they feel they are less likely to be hurt by them.
Fear: It underlies most relationships with other people for the person who struggles with shame. This fear causes many more manifestations of behavior than I can list here, and it is often irrational.
Control or the attempt to control: This person has many unspoken rules in their heads about how things ought to be done. These rules may apply to themselves and/or others and provide specific or unspecific expectations as to how some or all behavior and activity should be governed. If these rules are not followed, fear, panic and/or anger tend to follow in an extreme way. The purpose of attempting to control people, themselves or their surroundings through rules, manipulation or some other means is ultimately to protect himself or herself from being hurt or shamed again.
These symptoms of shame are never alone but appear in various combinations in a person’s life. As I said before, there are more symptoms than the ones I’ve just mentioned, but at the heart of all of these symptoms is the belief that God is far off. He may be good, He may be loving, He may have even saved me, but I am still dirty, still worthless, and God is beating me down, giving me what I deserve because of how disgusting I am.
Living in shame is a form of disbelief in God’s Word. It is a form of accusing God of being unjust. Adam and Eve reacted to the shame resulting from their sin by covering themselves with leaves, and when Adam was asked why he disobeyed, he blamed God (see Gen 3:12). Shame comes to us as a result of our own sins, but it also invades our hearts because of evil things that were done to us. Often, after a person has been defiled or hurt because of something evil that has been done to them, they choose a lifestyle of sin that re-enacts the initial shame-producing act. This is why a little girl who was molested and raped by family members grows up to engage in numerous adulterous relationships, prostituting herself. This is why a little boy who is shamefully treated by his father, abandoned, beaten and unloved goes on to live in a homosexual lifestyle. Some of this shame can even be passed on through generations as a way of life that simply seems "natural" or "normal," but this is because of past experiences in the family line that have passed along through genetic and spiritual means.
What has happened is that in our shame we seek out some way to fix ourselves, to end the deep feeling of loss and worthlessness that overwhelms the soul. This is the result of living in what the apostle Paul calls “the sorrow of the world,” in 2 Corinthians 7:9-10. When it comes to the shame that comes from sins we have committed ourselves, God calls us to being “sorry in a godly manner,” which leads to repentance - turning from our sins to placing faith in our Savior, the Messiah, Jesus. But what does that look like?
And what if the shame we bear comes from something that was done to us? The answer to these questions comes from God’s Word, and I’ll let Him speak for Himself on this point. After describing all that the Messiah would suffer for our salvation in Isaiah chapter 53, we read the following in Isaiah 54:4:
“Do not fear, for you will not be ashamed;
Neither be disgraced,
for you will not be put to shame;
For you will forget the shame of your youth,
And will not remember the reproach of your widowhood anymore.”
Paul wrote in Romans 10:11 in regard to faith in Jesus Christ:
“For the Scripture says, ‘Whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.’”
Shame is directly connected to how we see our own personal value and the value of all humanity. Sin, whether we commit it or it is committed against us, devalues us in such a way that only God can restore purity, goodness and value to us. Jesus, the most perfect man endured one of the most shame causing acts in all of human history. He was beaten, tortured and crucified naked. Yet Hebrews 12 tells us that rather than giving way to shame and becoming its slave, He despised it. He showed shame that there was one person on earth who would never bow the knee before it. Jesus destroyed the power of shame for all who believe in Him. Thus, so long as we honor Christ as Lord over our lives, listen to what He has to say about our true identity in the place of prayer and accept His Word as the final authority in our lives, we will be free from shame because He is also the Lord over shame.
The key to our freedom from shame as Christians is to trust and live in this - that our value does not come from past or present sins we have committed or that have been committed against us. Our value; My value; Your value, comes from the infinite love of the infinite God. This is a love that we are meant to live in, being continually surrounded and overwhelmed by love Himself. It is God who declared that His glory was worth redeeming formerly worthless people like us with His infinitely worthy Son. He bore on Himself what we deserved and fulfilled the requirements of God’s good laws. Through this, God made us who were worth nothing into beings of infinite worth to Him, because of the infinite price He paid on the cross for our salvation.
Further, God not only paid an infinite price for us, but He killed off our old, shameful selves and implanted His infinite Son into us who believe as the Scripture says:
“I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” Galatians 2:20
Because of this; because we are now new creations in our Messiah, Jesus, with Him living in us, we are no longer defined by sin but by righteousness. We are no longer defined by our weaknesses but by His strength. We are no longer defined by what was done to us, but by what He did for us and does in us. We are no longer in bondage to evil, but we are sons and daughters of Him who is purely, perfectly, wholely good.
Thus, whenever the flesh, the devil or the world come to us in various ways with temptations to sin and lies that sin is what is best for us, or that we are dirty, worthless, rotten scoundrels and reprobates we can respond with a resounding, “NO!” We can ask Holy Spirit to remind us of our true identity and listen for His response, even reading it in the Bible regularly. We are purified new creations of the Most High God. We are sons and daughters of the King of all things and persons, created and uncreated. We need never again lower ourselves to the level of sin, shame, darkness and evil. Instead we can dwell in joy, humility, love, grace, faithfulness and hope because God is our strength and we find our life in fellowshipping with, trusting and obeying Him above all other temptations. We are most whole in Him, most alive in Him and made worthy because of His love in Jesus, the only Messiah.
So long as we live clinging to this Man (Jesus) and His truth, that Jesus the Messiah is our Worth, our Cleanness, our Savior, our Lover and our Lord we need never again bow our knees to sin and shame. We cling to this truth through reading what Scripture says about God and ourselves, through spending time in God’s manifest presence through meditation on Scripture and through prayer, and finally through simply asking God what HE thinks about us, listening to what He says in return, and comparing His voice with His Word to verify to whom we’re listening.
It is my prayer to God that every believer would come to this understanding that we will never find our personal value through obedience to rules, through ministry, through rebellion, looking into our past or believing the words of others. Our value is found in Jesus the Messiah and Him alone, and as we fellowship with Him, His love for us is the greatest place of strength from which we will ever fight the good fight of faith against all sin, temptation and shame.
“In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” 1 John 4:9-11
All Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.