Can shame be redeemed?
Her mother was a prostitute, her father- probably one her mother’s “buyers,” but she didn’t know for sure. Despite an undiagnosed mental illness and years of exploitation, her mother had not forgotten her deep childhood Southern Baptist roots. So, her mother took her to church; where she was baptized at 5-years-old. At age 14, she participated in a church program called “True Love Waits,” and committed herself to a life of purity until marriage. The problem was that she had long before lost her innocence. At 4 years of age, her mother left her with someone thought to be a trusted babysitter, who sexually abused her. And just shortly after she made her purity vow, she was raped. Never having known the safety of a loving father or financial security, by the time she was 18, she had met a man 10-years her senior through social media who actually listened to her and promised to take care of her. Before too long, he had talked her in to getting paid for sex- telling her that she had already been sexually used and abused, so why not get paid for it? At least now she would be the one in control… meet Ebony.
On the other side of the country, another little girl was the beloved daughter of a prominent attorney and church elder. When she was in the sixth grade, her uncle, who had always made her feel like his favorite, began sexually molesting her. When she went to college, the abuse stopped, but by her mid-twenties, she had slept with more young men than she could count, and had experienced more than one abortion. Fortunately, since marrying the man of her dreams, she had put this history behind her. Now in her early forties, she was a loving stay-at-home mother of three beautiful children, ages 6, 10, and 12, and an active community volunteer. But she couldn’t understand why maintaining her normally trim figure had become such a problem. Her husband was unhappy not only with her weight gain, but with her recent unexplained moodiness and irritability. Their marriage was showing signs of strain.
What do these two women have in common? The obvious answer is abuse, but that is not the heart of the problem. The answer is SHAME. Before the fall (Genesis 3:7-9), Adam and Eve enjoyed perfect intimate communion with God and each other, but after their eyes were opened to good and evil, they immediately experienced fear and shame. Now suddenly aware of their nakedness and vulnerability, they covered themselves and tried to hide from God. Shame says there is something inherently wrong with us at our core that we are unable or powerless to change. There may be no actual words associated with our shame, as shame is felt, and often leads us to find ways to avoid experiencing it. The result is isolation and disconnection both within ourselves and with others.
Brené Brown, a leading author and researcher on shame who exploded onto the world scene with her famous TED talks, asserts that there are three common, yet destructive ways we seek to avoid feeling shame.
First, we numb out. We numb because we are afraid of being vulnerable, for we fear that being truly known will intensify or reactivate experiences of shame. Such denial and numbing creates an entire new set of problems, as with our housewife in the above illustration. Somehow, her body was remembering the abuse, likely triggered by her oldest child coming to the age where her own abuse began. Gaining weight was a subconscious way of protecting herself, because she had secretly blamed herself that being physically attractive had been the reason for her uncle’s advances. When we numb against feeling or remembering, we also eliminate the chance to heal from the true source of our wounds.
Second, we may work to exert control- to make everything that is uncertain, certain. This was a hook that snagged Ebony, that somehow by charging money for her continued exploitation, she would be “in control,” yet because of her deep needs for love and belonging, she unwittingly gave that control to her buyer, and experienced further betrayal and abuse.
Third, we may resort to striving for perfection, even though perfection is nothing more than a dangerous illusion. We determine (not consciously), that we must somehow earn or prove our worth. Most of us are familiar with feeling “not good enough” and we can easily fall into believing the lie that our value and worth is found in our achievements.
The difficult truth is that we really are not good enough, even at our best. In her research, Brown found that people who own their imperfections yet still believe themselves to be worthy of love and belonging are more resilient to the forces of shame. Romans 5:8 assures us of this truth: “But God demonstrates His own love for us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” In this truth, we can rest assured that our worthiness is never based on anything we do or fail to do, or even what is done to us, but solely on God’s unconditional love for us.
Research consistently demonstrates that vulnerability (a willingness to risk honestly exposing our shame and weakness) is actually the key to healing the ravages of shame based experiences and beliefs. Brown contends that vulnerability is not weakness, rather it is our most accurate measure of authenticity and courage. Throughout scripture, God encourages us to honestly confess our shortcomings, failures, and fears to Him and to trusted others in order to receive forgiveness and healing.
“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” 1 John 1:9 (ESV)
We all need to have safe people in our lives with whom we are secure in sharing the best and worst of ourselves. Human flourishing occurs when we experience being fully known, in the safety of love and acceptance. Even when humans harm or fail us, we can all rest in the knowledge that there is NOTHING that can separate us from the love of God.
“And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today or our worries about tomorrow- not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love.” Romans 8:38 (NLT)
Finally… what happened to Ebony? Although her early journey in life was marked by great pain, betrayal, and exploitation, her life has been redeemed. The early brand of God in her life was real, and marked as His own, God spoke to her at a critical juncture and delivered her from the world of sexual exploitation. Ebony now works as a certified consultant and trainer with the CSEC (Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children) and she is enjoying life with a new baby conceived in the bonds of a loving marriage. God redeems today!
You can meet Ebony Jones and hear her remarkable testimony on Thursday, October 10th at The Gathering, an event hosted by Life Resources to promote community awareness around pertinent issues of our day and raise scholarship funding to provide Christian integrated professional counseling and training services for the Lowcountry of South Carolina. For more information and to register for the event, go to www.myliferesources.org/thegathering.
Information provided in this article attributed to Brené Brown may be found by listening to her TED talks, entitled “Listening to Shame.”, and “The Power of Vulnerability.” For a deeper study of shame in the context of the Bible, the reader is directed to The Soul of Shame, by Curt Thompson, MD.
Dr. Barbara Boatwright is a Clinical Psychologist and the founder of Life Resources, a non-profit Christian emotional and relational resource center located in Mount Pleasant, S.C. For more information about Life Resources and these two upcoming events, visit their website at www.myliferesources.org.