Words by Scott Axtmann
I’m writing this especially to the person who identifies deeply with the problem of shame. You can’t, of course, tell anybody about this problem because, well, that’s how shame usually works. You carry it alone. You’ve done things to people you don’t want anyone to know about. Maybe you’ve hurt people in ways so shameful you can’t even bear to admit it to a single soul. Or maybe your particular secret is so shameful that you have almost convinced yourself you never did the thing.
When I was a teen, I went to a drive-in movie with friends and a case of beer. At the end of the night the backseat was covered in empty beer cans as we drove away—right into a police roadblock. The police were stopping cars as a way to prevent people from driving drunk. Needless to say, we were caught. The next thing I knew, I was sitting in a small camper awaiting the consequences. We were escorted to the town jail, where we waited for what seemed like hours for our fathers to pick us up. I remember the disappointed look on my dad’s face, and his words to me: “you’re a real piece of work”.
I’ve experienced enormous shame over this and all the dumb things I did in the first couple decades of my life. My shame was so great it felt like a two ton sack bound to my inner heart that I was dragging around. I really didn’t know what to do about the problem and it affected many aspects of my life.
For example, shame diminished my social confidence. It led to thoughts of self-loathing. It made me depressed. It drove me to use drugs and alcohol to numb the feelings. My shame manifested in rage at times, and fighting with people. Shame was a constant terrible companion casting a shadow on every moment of everyday. My shame made me quite afraid of God. Shame ruined everything and, for a while, I couldn’t figure out what to do about it.
My friend, you don’t have to carry this anymore. There is a remedy. There is freedom. Let me tell you briefly what happened to me in hopes it might ignite hope. During my years of carrying shame for a vast number of really regretful stupid things I did I always imagined that God - if there was a God - was most certainly angry and downright disgusted by me. I imagined myself, to God, as a sort of insignificant worm that was worse than a worm because I was so morally deplorable. I think the enormity of my shame was in part because I somehow believed that everything I did, everything I ever thought, was in full view of the eternal Maker. This shame, before the God I didn’t have any relationship with, was almost too much to bear.
Then one day everything changed. It was as if life was gray and rainy, and then suddenly the clouds broke and the sun shined through.
Then one day everything changed. It was as if life was gray and rainy, and then suddenly the clouds broke and the sun shined through. It’s hard to explain how, but God made it very clear to me that he wasn’t mad at me. He didn’t want to crush me, as I had thought. He didn’t want to keep a record of all my wrongs so he could convict me as a hopeless sinner and send me to some kind of everlasting misery. He made it clear that he wanted to forgive me. Like, fully forgive me. As in, remember my sins no more. As in, clear the slate completely and give me a fresh start. He let me know his heart toward me was tender and merciful. It was as if he touched something on the inside of me and that two ton sack of shame flew away. It was just gone. Poof! It disappeared. I don’t even know how, but it lifted and I went from walking around with a heavy spirit to skipping with a bursting new joy.
This is what’s so amazing about the grace Christ taught. All are invited to come to the fountain and drink freely. The Christian gospel teaches that Jesus came into the world to take our guilt and shame upon himself so that we can be free. Scripture teaches that God delights to show mercy. It’s in his very nature to be merciful. It makes me think of the lyrics of that old U2 hymn that say,
You broke the bonds
You loosened the chains
You carried the cross
Of my shame
Of my shame
You know I believed it
But I still haven't found
what I’m looking for
While I agree with Bono that in this life we will never fully be satisfied because we see God as if looking through a darkened glass, I still think that we can enjoy full and complete pardon, and a profound sense of being accepted by the God of the Universe. Jesus carried the cross of our shame. It’s the gift of God. Receive it.
Scott grew up in Western Massachusetts and came to the faith at the age of 21. As the outcome of his transformed life, he founded and now Pastors Renaissance Church and CityLove.