By Peter Wickersham
I fully deserved my shame. Like a filthy undershirt, I wore it next to my skin. And as tightly as it clung to me, I clung to it too. Shame was proof, if only to me, that I wasn’t a monster. If I was ashamed, it meant that I regretted what I had done. If I never let go of my shame, maybe it would prevent me from failing again. Shame defined me, destroying me.
I was a pretty good kid growing up. I mean, sure, I tried lying to my mom. I tried disobeying my dad. But for the most part I was a respectful, charming young man who was secretly desperate to be liked. I saw that people liked that I knew lots of Bible stories and hymns. I saw that people liked me when I lived up to—and exceeded—their expectations. So I learned how to put on the “everything’s perfect” face. I built my identity on making the right decisions and saying the right things. I knew I wasn’t perfect, but I felt pretty close.
My faith and goodness were based entirely on my effort. Sure, I had received forgiveness for all the minor stuff I had done. But now that I was forgiven, it was my job not to need it. I knew right from wrong, thanks to Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:5. Just like them, I believed that knowing good from evil meant I would always be able to choose good. After all, 1 Corinthians 10:13 says, “God . . . will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear.” I carefully built my life on the belief that if I just tried hard enough, I would always choose to do right.
My Shattered Illusion
Until the day I put my hand down the shirt of a young girl. There is not, and never will be, any defense for molestation. I could explain to you, now, why I think I did it. Why I violated the trust placed in me. But no explanation changes what I did. Years of doing the right things didn’t protect me from a split-second choice to do evil. I had built my life on being the good kid; what I thought was my identity turned out to be just a facade. And I was terrified.
I immediately told my parents. We told her parents. A sheriff summoned me to meet with Child Protective Services. Largely due to the fact that I was still a minor myself, the state did not pursue a case against me. But if you carry shame like I did, you know that it doesn’t matter what anyone says. The weight of my shame covered me like a lead blanket. I was a child molester.
For years I couldn’t stand to be around children. Every time I saw a child, the questions ripped through my mind: “Do you know what I’ve done? Do you know what I am?” I welcomed the pain, even as it destroyed me. I knew I deserved to suffer for what I had done. And I equated my pain with my regret. If I suffered, if I never forgot my regret, I hoped that I would never do anything like it ever again.
To my horror, I instead began to experience urges to do other destructive things. Against my will I would picture myself stealing something, or physically attacking someone. A neighbor left her car running in the driveway; I pictured myself hopping in, joyriding around, and wrecking it. I imagined darker things as well. I lived in constant terror that my willpower would fail, and that I would act out what I was imagining.
I didn’t understand what was happening. These waking nightmares kept suggesting themselves to me. I tried to use my will as a shield. I would physically clench my muscles, mentally pushing away whatever awful act I was picturing. At the same time, my shame whispered that I must remain silent. I couldn’t talk about what I had done, or what I feared I would do, with anyone. This was my battle to lose; I would only succeed if no one else ever knew what I was fighting.
A Turning Point
Several years later I finally trusted one of my closest friends with my story. I told him about my past, and the shame and fear that now ruled my life. I talked about how I was so afraid I would do yet another terrible thing. Much to my surprise, he gently suggested a new way to live. My solution had been to tense my body and desperately raise my will as a shield. He instead suggested that I relax into the second half of 2 Corinthians 5, especially verse 17.
For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (vv. 14-21).
“Do you want to do these terrible things that you keep imagining?”
“Well, no, of course not. That’s why I am so afraid.”
“What if you responded to your shame and your fear of failing by saying, ‘That’s not who I am anymore. Christ has made me new and reconciled me to God. That old identity no longer applies to me.’”
I had spent years scourging myself with shame. My fear of failing ruled with an iron fist. I had hoped that my shame would give me the strength to resist evil. I believed that my terrified sorrow was the punishment I deserved. In a world without Jesus, I might have been right. But my friend pointed out the flaw in my thinking. Despite the fact that it had failed me, I had never stopped basing my identity on my own strength to choose right over wrong. I was trying to handle my shame on my own. I had not accepted the reconciliation and new identity that Jesus freely gave me. I was still trying to be good enough.
A New Identity
That conversation wasn’t a magic bullet. I had a lot of emotional scarring that I couldn’t deal with alone. But it was an important first step in accepting reconciliation with God. Growing up, I had created a static, clear-cut process that put me in control of looking perfect. My friend’s encouragement helped me instead to start building my identity on trust in, obedience to, and righteousness through Jesus.
Today, that looks like an active, hour-by-hour interaction with the Spirit. John 15:5 describes it like this: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” Sometimes that means I patiently listen for the prompting of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes that means I end up applying a Bible verse to a situation. Sometimes that means running away from a trap. But it never means shame and fear.
My deepening friendship with God has only produced good fruit in my life. I am slowly becoming more loving and joyful. I’m developing peace and patience. I am becoming more kind, gentle, and disciplined (Galatians 5:22, 23). I spent years creating a mask of perfection in a desperate attempt to be liked. Today, the Holy Spirit is slowly knitting me into the best version of myself from the inside out.
Peter Wickersham is a pen name.