During Advent we look forward to the Word of God, incarnate, coming into the world—to the True Light coming into the darkness. Like John the Baptist, we “bear witness to the light, that all might believe” through us. This week we will continue sharing stories of lives in which light of Jesus has shined in dark places.
Shame says, “I am irredeemably bad.” It masquerades as godly guilt. But rather than convicting of sin so that one can confess, repent, and receive forgiveness, shame wallows and festers and destroys.
For most of my life, I was infected with devastating shame. A thin veneer of perfectionism concealed the lava of self-loathing and despair roiling beneath. Those who knew me best simply saw an overachiever with a minor-but-nagging insecurity issue.
But my God knew. Tenderly and patiently he wooed me out of that darkness and into the light of his freedom.
I resisted it for a long time. There was an illusion of safety in the mask of self-sufficiency I wore.
By God’s grace, the ongoing parenting crisis I referred to in my earlier reflection was beyond my limits. I unsuccessfully attempted to will calmness and competence despite the storm. I knew my veneer was in danger, and claustrophobic panic closed in.
My inward misery felt like a barrier to whatever mystery I believed God might be trying to reveal to me, but my faith would not allow me to resent him for what appeared to be his silence and delay. The only viable option to my tormented mind was to loathe myself more for my perceived spiritual incompetence. I berated myself for being too stupid to locate the goodness of God as I groped desperately for it in my darkness.
For almost two years, I was submerged in this flood of heightened painful emotions. In shame, I put on the bravest face I could muster and hid my struggle away, which only served to feed it and allow it to metastasize.
Eventually, it wasn’t just my mind that was drowning: In my distress, my body began to shut down the basic processes necessary for survival, like eating and sleeping. The state of my health–physical, emotional, and spiritual–terrified me.
After two sleepless weeks of living like a prisoner in my broken body, I made an appointment with a Christian counselor. Within minutes of meeting me, she made a phone call that resulted in my admission to a psychiatric hospital later that day.
Psychiatric hospitalization? The shame that had plagued me my entire life inflated to its most monstrous proportions yet.
It’s always darkest before the dawn. The week I would spend in that hospital was going to transform my life.
When Jonah was swallowed by the giant fish, those days in the lonely, putrid depths weren’t a punishment, they were a rescue.
Not only was Jonah rescued from drowning, but also, in his isolation, he finally felt and experienced God’s loving presence. In the darkness, his eyes were opened to see God’s grace; in the quiet, his ears were opened to hear God’s voice.
“I called out to the LORD, out of my distress, and he answered me…
“The waters closed in over me to take my life; the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped about my head at the roots of the mountains…
Yet you brought up my life from the pit, O LORD my God.”
In the belly of that hospital, God saved me from drowning in the suicidal depression of my runaway shame.
He removed the shattered remains of my mask and, like Jonah, opened my eyes, allowing me to see shame-evaporating truths: I am fearfully and wonderfully made. He calls me by name. I was bought with a price so that I might glorify him.
Like Jonah, the Lord opened my ears, allowing me to hear of his astonishing love for me. He showed me I was finally in a posture to receive this love, completely empty of my own self-sufficiency. I finally understood God’s words to Paul, that his strength is made perfect in weakness; I learned that when I am weak, through Christ, I am made strong.
One of the other patients on my floor would repeatedly sing just one line of a pop song that had recently been released: “Shut up and dance with me.” I laughed when I realized God was using that line to invite me to rest and dance with him:
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly” (Matt. 11:28-30 MSG, emphasis mine).
In his book, Jesus Journey, Trent Sheppard says, “The very being of God is relational: picture a vibrant, never-ending, life-giving dance shared by Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. And the vital and glorious reason that you and I and the entire cosmos were created is so that we would enter that dance. Or, as Paul puts it, that we would be ‘adopted as sons and daughters’ into God’s family (Eph. 1:5).”
On that topic, in Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis says, “The whole dance, or drama, or pattern of [the Trinity] is to be played out in each one of us: or (putting it the other way around) each one of us has got to enter that pattern, take his place in that dance.”
It was hard to dance when I was crippled with shame. But my “irredeemable badness” was no match for the cleansing flood of Jesus’ blood. Now free, I dance in profound and grateful awe with the Lord of the Dance who knows me, loves me, and accepts me.
Ironically, that woman who used to be consumed by shame now has absolutely none when she tells the story that she spent a week in psychiatric lockdown. Because the thing she dreaded most turned out to be the very best thing that could have happened to her.
“You have turned for me my mourning into dancing;
you have loosed my sackcloth
and clothed me with gladness,
that my glory may sing your praise and not be silent.
O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever!”