By Russ Howard
Sitting on the front row while the worship team led a reflective song, I readied myself to preach. As a ritual, I would imagine a scene from Isaiah’s vision of Heaven. Isaiah saw wonders like the Lord himself sitting on his throne, the train of his robe somehow filling the entirety of the temple, strange angelic creatures calling out to one another naming and praising God’s holiness and glory. Isaiah took it all in and cried, “Woe to me.” He was not the man he was supposed to be, and he knew it.
Bible in hand and microphone on my ear, I too know that I am not the man I am supposed to be. Like the prophet, I am unclean. People entrust me to be their spiritual guide. They give me their attention in hope that what I have to say may inspire or equip them to become more like Jesus in some way. Their gift accents my unworthiness.
A Prayer for Cleansing
I would ask God to do for me what he did for Isaiah in his vision. God sent one of the angelic creatures to touch Isaiah’s mouth with a burning coal taken from the altar. I would ask God to touch my lips and speak to me the words the creature spoke to Isaiah. “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for” (Isaiah 6:7).
I had been preaching since I was a teenager. I’d been in vocational ministry for decades, and every time I preached I asked God to do for me what he has already done. Through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection God has taken away my guilt and atoned for my sin. I believed in the beauty and wonder of God’s grace enough to teach about it, but not enough to accept it.
While I moved through this ritual in my mind, I could hear another voice in my head. It was my own voice saying, “If the people in the pews really knew you, they would reject you.” Similarly every day I could hear it whisper, “If your friends really knew you, they would walk away.” And worse, “If your wife really knew you, she would leave you.” I had been keeping secrets for 30 years, and carrying them had become like bearing a 30-gallon drum of shame.
A Turning Point
Then in a coffee shop conversation a friend shared with me his story of pain and struggle. He trusted me with one of his secrets, and for some reason I felt I could trust him with one of my own.
I told him how I had been a kid with a big imagination and how from about the time I was 13 I created a place in my mind where I could do whatever I wanted. It was a place I escaped to, and it was a place I could do things that I would never do in the real world. Terrible things. And I told him how even then, in my mid-40s, I still retreated regularly to that place of darkness.
My friend listened to me that day. He heard my story, and he did not reject me. He met me with empathy and grace. I let him know me in a way I had never allowed anyone to know me before, and I wasn’t rejected.
This gave me the courage later to tell him another story and then another. Soon I was telling a few other close friends as well, trusting them and once again receiving understanding and affirmations of their friendship.
Then came the hardest moment. I sat down with my wife. In our darkened bedroom, trying not to make eye contact, I told her all that I had told the others. She was hurt, but she left no doubt that she accepted and loved me just as much as she always had. Together, we decided it was time for me to see a counselor.
During the first conversation with my counselor, we talked about why I created that space. We talked about how I grew up with a father who lived in my home but was emotionally and often even physically absent from my life. We talked about how my mother, on an emotional level, treated me more like a husband than a son.
Then he looked at me and said, “You don’t follow the normal pathology.” That was not what I wanted to hear. I didn’t want to hear that I was abnormal. That was something I thought I already knew. I wanted to hear that this was going to be easy. I wanted him to say something like, “Take two of these and call me in the morning.”
He clarified by telling me that typically men who grow up in a family dynamic like mine aren’t socially engaging. They are most often closed off and withdrawn. He named some of the things I liked most about myself, and he said I wouldn’t have retained those things had I not created this space in my head.
He told me that people use different coping mechanisms to get through difficult circumstances, and that while the one I chose as a 13-year-old kid came with its own short and longterm consequences, it also saved me from some that could have been far worse.
Freedom from Shame
As I left his office that day, knowing I still had a lot of work to do, I got into my car and wept. And somehow, right then and right there, God tapped that 30-gallon drum of shame and it poured out with my tears. Since then, there have been days when that drum tries to refill, but the hole is still in the bottom, and it runs out. I experience freedom from shame like I never knew possible. I have tasted the joy of grace that comes only through admitting how desperately I need it.
James, Jesus’ brother and an early church leader, wrote, “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (James 5:16). This is a passage of Scripture I once taught but to which I can now bear witness. God offers healing, freedom, and joy to us in our deepest broken places, and the first step into it is to trust someone to love us at our worst.
According to Jesus, God knows us intimately, down to the actual number of hairs on our head (Matthew 10:30), and he loves us still. When we follow Jesus, we are a part of a community that commits to loving as he loves. Through this community, the church, God places in our lives people who can know us best and love us most.
I no longer ask God to touch my lips before I preach. I no longer ask him to cleanse me. Instead I thank him, because he already has. I thank him for naming me as holy, chosen, and dearly loved (Colossians 3:12). I thank him for his grace, healing, and restoration. And I thank him for the people he has placed in my life—my church, my friends, my wife—who love me as God loves me.
Russ Howard is Serve Minister for Lakeside Christian Church in Ft. Mitchell, Kentucky.