“There smites nothing so sharp, nor smelleth so sour as shame.” William Langland (English poet, 1332-c. 1386)
It ranks among the most painful incidents of my life, an event I never could have foreseen. It happened during a grueling, four-hour counseling session with my abusive husband – the day before I left him.
At several points in the session, my then-husband stood and raged at me, arms outstretched as I sat terrified in my chair only a few feet away. The counselor did nothing to calm or constrain him (which I now know was highly unprofessional of her). Over so many years, I had grown accustomed to his blistering, if false, accusations, and was so beaten down I didn’t dare offer a defense. When my husband finally sat again, awaiting my response, the counselor turned to me where I sat trembling and asked, “What are you feeling, Cindy?” and at that moment the weight of years of torment shredded my composure. I could muster only, “I’m afraid in my own home.”
And with that, I buried my face in my hands and drew my knees inward. My eyes closed tightly while the tears poured forth in a torrent. So emotionally brutalized was I that I could not speak. My heart felt irredeemably broken, as though it might literally burst within me, and the utterances that fell from my lips were guttural and soul-wrenching, born of a weight of unbearable fear and shame.
As every ounce of pain I had been carrying poured out, I felt my mind begin to shut down. I remember the strange sensation of leaving my body, escaping my hellish reality, and how truly good it felt to be so far away from it all, moving off into what felt like sweet, safe nothingness. I was barely aware of the counselor as she pulled her chair directly in front of me. She then took my hands, held them gently in hers and called my name.
“Cindy,” she said softly. “Cindy, you need to come back.” With my anguish threatening to consume me, her voice was but a whisper from a thousand miles away. A part of me wanted to reject the sound of her voice and continue my journey toward that safe place worlds away. But in that moment, I thought of my four children, one by one. They needed me. And in my heart, I said only, “God, give me the strength I need.”
In a matter of a few minutes I was completely calm, if thoroughly spent, an answer to my simple prayer, and several minutes more passed before I could regain my composure somewhat. My then-husband sat across from me, his head in his hands, not looking at me. In recalling his response, I don’t think he was affected by my brokenness at all but perhaps more frustrated that I had “won the round” by default. Such is the mindset of an abuser.
What had finally consumed me was shame, a putrid burden of responsibility for anything and everything that had ever gone wrong in my husband’s life or our marriage over a period of 18 years. He had imposed upon me the notion that any unhappiness or stress in our home was a direct result of my insufferable incompetence and inadequacy.
The seeds of shame had been sown incrementally, deliberately and strategically over those many years. According to him, I was never enough – not giving enough or gentle enough or pretty enough or sexy enough or submissive enough or just plain good enough. Our disagreements always turned to why anything and everything that went wrong – even the way he treated me – was somehow my fault.
Rather than reject his lies for what they were, with every slight, every stinging criticism, every sarcastic jab those seeds began to take root and grow, causing me to doubt my instincts, my nature, and my reality. I was trained – brainwashed – to believe that I was wholly deficient and unworthy of love. Over time I began to emotionally curl up and isolate myself while pretending things were okay, fearing the possibility of being exposed for all of my glaring failures as a wife, as a woman, as a person. Try as I might to be perfect, my heart and my life had been overshadowed by a thick, black cloud of self-doubt and shame.
But shame is not of God. No, shame is a thief and a poison, a lying, damning perversion of righteous conviction. Conviction is a loving knock on our heart’s door that allows us to see where we have gotten off track, where we have been self-serving or perhaps foolish or disobedient. Conviction calls us out of the darkness and into the light where we can expect to find forgiveness, healing, acceptance and freedom. There is no shame there, only a redeeming measure of truth and grace.
In humbly responding to the nudge of conviction, we are invited to be cleansed and changed while also comprehending how very deeply we are loved and accepted. We are encouraged to enjoy genuine, precious relationship even with all of our frailties and flaws. There is no shame in that but rather sweet restoration, affirmation, completeness and peace.
Shame, on the other hand, is an insipid lie that says you are never enough, that your failings are intransigent and unforgivable. Shame pronounces you wholly unlovely, unlovable and worthy of rejection. It exploits your sensitivities and magnifies your blemishes and imperfections. Shame is a debilitating cancer of the soul, and it must be addressed and rejected as such.
To overcome shame, we must see it for the horror it is and remove ourselves and our loved ones from its influence. We can then seek shelter, rest and healing in the arms of the One who knows, loves and redeems us and allow others to come alongside to encourage us and affirm our inherent worth. Bathed in truth and acceptance, the filth of shame can be washed from every fiber of our being. And in the midst of it all, the lover of our souls takes into His hands the tattered remnants of our brokenness and miraculously begins to fashion them into something glorious and beautiful and whole.
Do not allow shame to define you, but rather claim the gracious, free gifts of forgiveness, freedom and healing and allow them to lead you back to the possibility and wonder of genuine relationship where you can embrace your God-given value, where you can love and be loved – even with all of your scars and imperfections.
It is altogether right to separate yourself from those who would seek to shackle you in shame. For those who truly love you will not shame you.
“…I am afflicted and in pain; may Your salvation, O God, set me securely on high.” Psalm 69:29
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