Recently I’ve been reading a book about the shaming effects of sexual abuse. Going into it, I thought to myself, “Luckily I don’t have any shame so this should be a quick read” but now I’m in tears after every chapter and on a Jesus-music-only diet until further notice. This book defines shame as the belief that if people really knew who you were, you would no longer be acceptable. Shame drives you into a living a life of secrets, dishonesty, and numbness.
I can’t remember a time I felt ashamed before I was abused, but I have vivid memories of shame and embarrassment from every year afterwards. In fifth grade, for example, I was so nervous to say the pledge of allegiance in front of the class I made myself sick and threw up in the trashcan by our lockers. I legitimately felt like it was the end of the world. In sixth grade, I remember the look on everyone’s faces when I told them I wasn’t allowed to listen to the Spice Girls. In seventh grade, I remember running into the bathroom and crying after all the boys nicknamed me “Savage.” In eighth grade, I remember when I cut my bangs too short and a girl in science class said, “Why did she do that to her face?” This was also the first time I remember someone calling me fat. In ninth grade, I remember the shame I felt after realizing nobody was going to ask me to homecoming. In tenth grade, I remember when a boy said he was too afraid to play basketball with me for fear of getting trampled on. In eleventh grade, I remember how embarrassed I was when I didn’t get asked to prom. My senior year of high school, I remember feeling ashamed that I didn’t wear a bikini on our class beach trip.
I became so wrapped up in toxic shame that I was afraid to do or say anything out of the ordinary. If I’m being really honest, I spent an entire decade of my life creating versions of myself that I believed to be more acceptable than who I really was. When that girl in science class made fun of my bangs, I pinned them up every single day until they grew out. Why? Because I wanted to be more acceptable. When everyone started wearing UGGs, I made my mom go to the mall and get me a pair because I was terrified of standing out. They are seriously the worst, most ugly boots in the entire world, but I still wore them with every outfit in order to be accepted and avoid shame.
It reminds me of a man that Jesus encountered in Matthew 8: “Behold, a leper came to Jesus and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.’ And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, ‘I will; be clean.’ And immediately his leprosy was cleansed. And Jesus said to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a proof to them.’”
Lepers were marked by shame and rejection. They had to yell, “Unclean, unclean!” if they approached anyone in the town. After Jesus healed the man (by touching him, which is a statement in itself) Jesus told him to go to the priests and offer a gift as proof of his cleanliness. How terrifying would it be to go to the very people who shamed you most and say, “I am ashamed no more. I am accepted. I am clean.” This is what Jesus does, though. He looks at the rejected and says, You are rejected no more. He touches the ashamed and says, You are accepted, there is no condemnation for you. He reaches out to the dirty and says, I have made you clean. While the world has marked you with a scarlet letter and commanded you to stay outside the city walls, Jesus invites you into the center of his Kingdom. Child of God, this is your new identity: accepted, unashamed, known, and loved.