A few days ago, I was taking Ruby for a walk. It was mid-afternoon and she was building a tower of pebbles on the beach. My phone (which had been off all day), buzzed with an urgent question from my publisher. So I tapped out a two sentence reply.
In the time it took me to type, Ruby ran behind me and tripped over the pebbles. It was my fault. I’d taken my eyes off her and she could have been hurt. But before I could do anything, I saw two women walking past and heard them say, loud enough so I could hear…
“Did you see that? That child could have hurt herself and mum’s sitting on her phone.”
“Disgusting” was their assessment of my parenting. And their words hit their mark. I crawled home, burning with shame. Walked in the door and burst into tears.
A few days earlier, I had a very different experience; but one which turned out just the same.
I was sitting on a bench with Ruby, when a woman remarked on the fact that I was reading to her…
“So nice to see you reading to your daughter. Too many people parent by iPad or television.”
“Oh no,” I laughed, batting away any hint of praise, “My daughter’s been raised by the Teletubbies”.
She laughed and moved on, but I sat there thinking, “Why did I say that?” Ruby is not raised by Teletubbies. She gets In The Night Garden at the end of the day; and that’s pretty much it. But in the face of praise, I raced to shame myself.
When people shame me, I take it. When people praise me, I bat it away or twist it into a criticism. “Disgusting” sticks. “So nice” is instantly deleted. This is what psychologists call “confirmation bias;” we reinforce the evidence that supports our beliefs; and dismiss evidence that challenges them.
But what are my beliefs? I know what they’re supposed to be. As a Christian, I’m a daughter of the Living God, utterly accepted and loved. The Lord of creation is my Father, Jesus is my Brother and He has nailed my sins to the cross, removing them as far as the east is from the west.
These are the truths of the gospel. But so often, I tell myself a different story:
I’m weird. I’m disgusting. I’m messy. Too needy, too flaky, too awkward, too much.
So when I hear negatives from outside, they slot neatly into place; whilst the positives are often filtered out.
Self-condemnation can look very moral. But it’s the opposite of humility. It doesn’t point me to Jesus or inspire me to change. It means dwelling in slavery, when the Lord has set me free.
So what’s the antidote to this shame? Our natural instinct is to deny wrong-doing and hide; like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. But Jesus calls us to something very different. He confronts us with our sin (not feelings of shame but our actual mistakes) and then covers us with Himself. Instead of hiding in the shadows, Jesus calls us out into the light. But in His light there is genuine healing.
Instead of retreating under the label of “disgusting,” in Christ I can move forward. I can face the ways that I may have genuinely sinned and receive genuine forgiveness, (not just more self-hatred). I can dare to face my own guilt, knowing that He died to cleanse me. And more than this, He rose to cover me.
“Disgusting?” Not any more. In Christ, whatever my past, I am “holy, without blemish and free from accusation.” (Colossians 1:22). So when shame rears its head, I don’t run and hide. I lift my gaze to the cross and say, “I’m worse than I dared to admit; but more loved than I dared to believe. I don’t belong in the dark. I belong with Him. Because of Him, I can dare to be myself. And because of Him, I will never be put to shame.”
Those who look to Him are radiant; their faces are never covered with shame. (Psalm 34:5)