The child stood, stunned in the neighbor’s kitchen. Shame . . . ugliness . . . loneliness . . . engulfed her. In an instant, her shame grew exponentially, thereby becoming the most exaggerated part of her being.
She was bad.
She had led him astray.
She was to blame.
Unable to reconcile the wound that had been created, she attempted to forget all that transpired by burying the sexually abused and shamed parts of her. Little did she know, it oozed from her in a myriad of other ways. It manifested most distinctively by emotionally-overreacting; by people-pleasing; and/or by becoming perfectionistic. These ways of being grew as they increasingly began to serve as her protectors while masking her profound longings for connection, safety, and security—the parched needs within her.
It would not be until ten years later when she was in a better place to face the wound, which reappeared from the shadows, from the dark recesses of her mind. When it emerged, it played frame by frame like a movie before her mind’s eye. Her adult part stared in shock and disbelief at the identity of that little girl: She was that girl. Yet, shame soon grabbed the stage, front and center, with its shoulds and should nots.
She should have stopped it.
She should not have let it continue.
She was not good enough.
Trapped within the enclosed walls of shame, her world shrank. She had to be punished . . . her perpetrator had implied as much, hadn’t he? She was the bad one . . . her abuser had insinuated that she had caused him to sin. Thus, she took his evil act into herself. She bore it. She owned it. It became hers. As Bessel van der Kolk notes, “One of the hardest things for traumatized people is to confront their shame about the way they behaved during a traumatic episode, whether it is . . . warranted . . . or not.”
Unknowingly, the girl was living and breathing an age-old story told to and about women: The woman causes the man to sin.
The responsibility of men’s sexual violent acts has been repeatedly placed at the feet of women. Such responsibility is heard in the variations of the phrase: She was asking for it . . . by the way she dressed . . . by being in that place . . . by not stopping him . . . by the way she walked. Most recently this type of argument was given as a reason to kill when Robert Aaron Long blamed women at massage parlors for his sex addiction.
This story of blame and shame is not new. Genesis records Adam exclaiming, as the juice from the fruit remained fresh on his lips, “It was the woman you gave me.” Mary Stewart van Leeuwen comments how the healthy bond and connections among humans have been severed since that time: the man by dominating in all his relationships, thereby giving up authentic relationality, and the woman by being socially enmeshed in her relationships by being pleasing, thereby giving up her dominion. In short, God’s image is diminished in both.
Such dominating and pleasing in our human relationships point toward the pandemic of shame that has been unleashed upon humanity since Genesis 3.
It is our shame that reveals our fear of authenticity. Like Adam and Eve, we continue to cover ourselves, not with actual leaves, but metaphorical leaves. Leaves of status. Achievement. Rank. Beauty. Busyness. Like rats in a maze, we run here and there, desperately attempting to be and do enough.
Shame plays a central role in our fallen relationships. Simply consider this common exchange between individuals:
Person #1: “How are you?”
Person #2: “Busy.”
In this exchange, it is what is not stated that I find most revealing. After all, how many of us would dare to admit that we enjoy watching television with our spouse in the evenings? Instead, our not-enoughness takes the driver’s seat as our one-word response of “busy” strives to convince the other and ourselves that we are important enough . . . matter enough . . . good enough . . . through our active and full lives. In the process, we avoid authenticity as we strive to prove our worth through our busyness.
It is an ongoing search to be good enough, to find acceptance, to be embraced for who we are. But meanwhile, our human relationships suffer as they are permeated with ongoing veiled attempts to be enough by covering up our shame.
As a Christian, I realize that the church is not immune to the powerful pull of shame.
The church frequently utilizes tools of the systems of the world to gain power over the other, thereby indirectly revealing its own struggle to matter—to be good enough.
- It emerges in a summons by Christians to use violence to assert their way of life.
- It appears when we blame the Liberals . . . the Conservatives . . . the Asians or the _____.
- It may be seen in calls by denominational leaders to be bigger and better than _____.
- It is evident in stories of those who have experienced sexual violence by church leaders.
Shame divides, dominates, wounds, withdraws. It seeks power over to prove I am good enough. It pleases to be seen as good enough. It hides because it believes, “I am not good enough.” It is the silent killer of relationships. And each of us, knowingly or unknowingly, longs for a place that is free from the strangling grasp of shame’s tendrils.
Coming off the heels of the church’s celebration of Easter, I believe this place of freedom has birthed forth in our world. Luke 24 is one such post-resurrection passage that indicates the presence of the freedom from shame.
In this pericope, Luke narrates the story of two men walking along a road that leads away from Jerusalem, away from the community of the other disciples of Jesus, when they are joined by the resurrected Christ. The two men are unable to recognize this mysterious stranger, who surprisingly seems unaware of the most recent events that have transpired. I personally cannot help but smile to myself as I read of Jesus’ feigning ignorance. As the reader, I know that Jesus is more intimately aware of recent events than these men are. But his playing dumb provides him with an opportunity to enter into the two men’s sadness and confusion by way of listening to their story. It is only when they are finished that Jesus takes the time to broaden their perspective. He begins “with Moses and all the prophets” and interprets “to them the thing written about himself in all the scripture” (24:27).
As Jesus spoke, I wonder if there was something about Jesus that continued to draw them to him that day. What was it that caused the two men to urge Jesus to stay with them as the trio approached the village? Could part of the burning in their hearts (v. 32) be the presence of genuine fellowship, an absence of shame? Luke seems to implicitly state as much when he speaks of the moment that they recognized Jesus. As they sat down to eat and Jesus took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them, their eyes were opened (v. 31).
This expression calls to mind another time in Scripture when eyes were opened but with strikingly different results (thank you, Bob, for this insight). Genesis 3:7 records that after Adam and Eve ate of the fruit, their eyes were opened—they knew they were naked, causing them to cover themselves with fig leaves, a.k.a. shame.
This phrase “their eyes were opened” invites the reader to notice a powerful contrast between these two narratives:
- In Genesis, shame oppresses; in Luke, freedom heals.
- In Genesis, the image of God is broken; in Luke, the image of God is restored.
- In Genesis, facades are built; in Luke, authenticity springs forth.
- In Genesis, blame disconnects; in Luke, fellowship connects.
- In Genesis, creation dies; in Luke, a new creation dawns.
Luke’s story, then, portrays that humanity finds freedom from shame at Jesus’ Table—the place of genuine fellowship. But all too frequently, our yearning to abolish shame appears in our constant striving to be the best, to be recognized, and to matter, all in the hopes that someday, we will beat shame at its game, silencing it forever. It is easy for us to forget the true place where healing freedom from shame resides. Maybe this is the reason Jesus instructs his disciples to eat the bread and drink the cup until he comes: To find our freedom from shame in him once again. As Andrew Peterson sings:
and every Sunday morning
You can see the people standing in a line
They’re so hungry for some mercy
For a taste of the Communion bread and wine
Hungry for some mercy in a world where shame is no respecter of persons.
Hungry for some mercy in a world where shame crushes the weak and the powerful alike.
Hungry for some mercy in a world where shame incessantly hisses, “You’re not good enough.”
On Sunday mornings, I too hear shame’s message whisper in my ear. Like Adam and Eve, I am tempted to hide from the gracious Healer. But I come, like the tax collectors and sinners with whom Jesus ate. Like them, I too am hungry for some mercy, for some acceptance, for some freedom from my shame. And as I come, I take to heart the words of the minister:
Hear the good news: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners; In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.
And as I eat the bread and drink from the cup, I find this place without shame, a place of connection, safety, and security. Such is my place at the Lord’s Table.
If you are a pentecostal/Charismatic who is on a healing journey from sexual violence, I invite you to consider participating in a research project. For more information, please read the blog Tell Me the Story of Trauma (simply click on the link to read or scroll down).
 This is drawing from Internal Family Systems, which describes protectors that emerge to guard us from the pain of the wound (the exile). See Jenna Riemersma, Altogether You: Experiencing Personal and Spiritual Transformation with Internal Family Systems Therapy. Jennifer Baldwin also notes that being a people-pleaser and/or a perfectionist are some of the socially acceptable ways that the effects of trauma emerge; see Jennifer Baldwin, Trauma-Sensitive Theology: Thinking Theologically in the Era of Trauma (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2018), Kindle Edition, loc. 560-561.
 Bessel A. van der Kolk, The Body Keeps Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (New York: Viking, 2014), 13.
 Mary Stewart van Leeuwen, Gender & Grace: Love, Work, and Parenting in a Changing World (Downers Grove, IVP, 1990), 46-47.
 Andrew Peterson, “Windows of the World,” on the album Resurrection Letters: Volume II (Franklin, TN: Centricity Music, 2010).