The following addresses a mature topic and is inappropriate for children under 15 years of age without parental supervision.
I was 23 years old and a graduate student when he came to read to my class. He had arranged it with my mentor, so she caught the whole thing on film. I remember as he held out the ring thinking, “Is this what this is supposed to feel like? This anticlimactic?” But I said yes, and I went on through the stages of planning.
Four months later I called it off, finally having come to my senses. Not knowing what I really wanted, I went along with the plans we had made together. They were really my ideas anyway. He didn’t have much direction and was riding my energy and ambition. That was the problem. He needed a mother, not a wife. So it wasn’t betrayal of my values or holding onto the past that kept me moving towards my goals, waiting out the interim at my parents’ house. Out of pure necessity I plugged in at a local church. And of course my tender heart was susceptible to the kindness of a worship leader I met there.
One evening, after an emotional conversation about our hearts, sitting on the church lawn under the floodlights in the warm summer air (lightning bugs had long since retired), he looked at me gleefully and said, “You know what I’m excited about?” I didn’t even have time to formulate the thought of being his girlfriend when he blurted, “No more secret sin!”
Way to kill the mood, I thought. He went on to talk about how he and his friends got together and confessed their deepest, darkest sins and prayed for one another, about the healing that brought, about how shame, defused of its power, left entirely.
That conversation and concept stuck with me. God was pressing my buttons in more ways than one. As you can imagine, my engagement had left its mark. However, the fact that I entered into it in the first place was an indication of the pain in my heart. Since leaving the denomination of my childhood as an adolescent, my relationship with my father had suffered. Disconnected from him, the young man who had pursued my hand in marriage held more sway. Now he was gone, and I was under my father’s authority again, but the rifts in our relationship remained. The last thing I wanted to do was be vulnerable with my father.
So I knew it was God when the thought ran across my mind, “I want you to confess masturbation to your father.”
Ugh. Some things are so traumatic that you remember exactly where you were and what you were doing when they happen. This was one of those times. I was in the kitchen getting a snack or a glass of water or something after dinner. My mother had gone to bed, and my father was in the living room. Silently, I swore at God. But I knew it was Him, and the more angry I became, the more convinced I was that there was no getting around this one.
Finally I made up my mind to just get it over with. I walked into the room, explained I had something to tell him that I felt God wanted me to say, but by no means did I want commentary on it or even response of any kind – and before I lost my nerve, I blurted what could be classified as confession. My father began to respond, but I stopped him and hightailed it out of the room.
All these years later, I go back to that story because it marked a turning point in my understanding of the power of sin and shame. I figured if I could confess my most shameful act to the man I trusted least in the world (at the time – God has since done remarkable things in our relationship), then there was nothing so terrible that it merited the effort it takes to conceal it from people I do trust.
Confession: I have masturbated since I confessed to my father. I’ve masturbated since I confessed to my pastor. And you own what else? I’ve overeaten. I’ve judged friends. I’ve let my temper loose. I’ve thought of myself more highly than I ought. I’ve run from facing my pain. I’ve withheld love knowing others would suffer, knowing others depended on me. I’ve broken commitments. I’ve talked behind people’s backs. I’ve been disrespectful. I’ve voiced my opinions of other drivers.
But you know what’s strange? I’m not ashamed.
It’s not that I think any of those behaviors are wonderful or useful or do any good. It’s not that the actions have no weight, don’t matter, or have no consequence. I am not actively pursuing them, nor am I making them part of my life. But when they occur, there is a distinction: they are actions, and I am me. I am not my actions any more than I am the clothes I put on.
It is easy to say, “I am not my career”. By that I am declaring that my identity is independent of my profession, salary, benefits, or status. My identity is deeper than my education and university degrees. Rather, my identity consists of my relationships, my values, my passions, my personality.
I don’t believe actions indicate identity. They are the effect, rather than the cause. So when I masturbate, I do not say, “I masturbate – therefore I struggle with masturbation.” I say instead, “I masturbated. That is not something I struggle with, not something that is part of me, so I wonder what is really going on here?” The sin strikes me as odd, an aberration. I know there is nothing good that comes of it, so logically, there is no reason to invest energy into something that has no payoff. While I am not saying the action is neutral or has no power, I am saying that the action, when treated as a symptom or an effect instead of an indication of personal weakness or flaws in my identity, is useful in revealing something true.
When I masturbate, I do so because I feel the need to be in control. I feel disconnected, powerless, perhaps misunderstood or lonely. My needs for intimacy are not getting met.
More often than not, I find sin – actions – reveal the heart. My heart surprises me. I am not as aware of it as I’d like to be, and if I am aware of what I’m feeling, I may be clueless as to why, or to what extent. How useful and how kind that God allows circumstances which have the potential to show us what’s really going on.
Are you sick of the term “masturbation” yet? I hope I’ve not desensitized you to it. For me, every time I type it, every time I go back over autocorrect’s inaccuracies – yes, I really do mean that word again – I am punching shame in the face. There is absolutely nothing shameful about needing love, needing intimacy, feeling powerless, feeling out of control. But that is not who I am. The reality is I am loved. I am intimately known. I am powerful, and I can make powerful decisions that impact my life and the lives of others.
Ultimately, every sin is just a symptom of needing more love. Logically, no action can create love. Only a person can love me. And only one Person knows me well enough to know how to love me. If you haven’t guessed it by now, my preschoolers on a Sunday morning could tell you – the answer is (usually, always) Jesus.
Jesus knows what it feels like to be misunderstood. He knows what it is like to feel disconnected. Or powerless. Or out of control. He knows what it feels like to need love, to crave intimacy. And that’s all well and good to have someone who can relate to you, but it’s another thing entirely to have someone willing to do something about it. And that’s the bit I can’t speak to. That’s the bit where it takes a choice to believe in the goodness, kindness, gentleness, graciousness, mercifulness, powerful capacity and passionate motivation of a perfect Father God to do something about meeting our particular needs. That’s the faith bit. And in that journey comes greater confidence of identity. It is at times like fighting a shopping cart (or “buggy”, as we say in the South) with a wonky wheel that wants to keep sending you to the left. There is a wrestle to turn the ship in motion as it prefers the deep channel of habit to the untested course that would have you veer towards God. And that’s where accountability and community come in. Often we need others to remind us of who we are, to keep us from being victims of the shadow puppet that is shame, thinking we are these godawful creatures when really we are magnificent beings. We need to remember there’s nothing so terrible that it’s worth the effort required to conceal it, and in the end, even if we are rejected, even if we are abandoned, even if the expected repercussions occur, we spoke in faith that it is better to err on the side of truth because that’s the side God is on.
It is okay to count the cost. Truth is costly. Taking ownership for actions has a price. But my analysis goes like this: if I lose my friends, I still have a Friend, so I win. If I lose my job, I still am the daughter of the King, so I’m provided for, so I win. If I lose my family, I still have a Father who loves me, and Jesus is a ridiculously fabulous Brother, so I win. If I lose my reputation, I am still accepted and endorsed by my Father, and He is still proud of me, so I win. If I lose my health, well, Jesus paid for my healing, and if it’s my time to die, I get to be with Him, so I win. If I lose everything, I still win.
I. Still. Win.
Because every step away from shame is a step towards God, and every step towards God is a step of faith, and every step of faith is a declaration of allegiance to the Truth that my identity is found in my relationship to my Father, not my actions. I am not what I do or what I’ve done. I am me, and I am His. He belongs to me, and I belong to Him.
He paid for my shame anyway. He bought it when He bought me, so I’m just giving Him what already belongs to Him anyway. It’s no big deal. He is not perturbed by it because He already disassembled it, removing the mechanism empowering it. So if it’s not a big deal to Him, why do I allow shame to make it a big deal for me? That doesn’t make sense. Furthermore, He gave me His identity, so if it’s not something inherent in who He is, it’s not inherent in who I am either.
Last week I heard critters in the attic above my bedroom. I’d heard them before, but as they scratched for a minute and then were still, I didn’t think anything of them. At the time, they weren’t here to stay, just popping in from the cold. But last week they were incessant. I endured the scritching, the scurrying, the gnawing. It was early in the morning, and even soothing music couldn’t drown them out. Finally I was annoyed enough to turn on the light, fumble for an appropriate whacking device, and drum on the ceiling. The scuttling stopped. I whacked a few more times for good measure and waited. Within a minute, those obnoxious varmints started again! I climbed up on the bed and banged loudly with my hands. This time I heard them retreat. The next morning, my father set mousetraps in the attic, and before the day was out, he got one. A few days later, a second trap caught what I imagine was the mate. Since then, there have been no annoying midnight wakings.
Whatever it is that is covered in shame is nothing more than a mouse in the attic. I can tolerate it, but it’s annoying. It has no place there, no right to disturb my sleep, and lord knows what treasures it’s gnawing and ruining while I let it go unchecked. But at the end of the day, it’s a mouse. It’s not endangered, not high on the food chain. It is not worth my lack of sleep. And beautifully, my Father has already set a surefire trap for it – named (all the preschool children together now!) Jesus, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the Father. Consider Him who endured such trials so that you will not lose heart and give up. (Loosely, Hebrews 12:2-3)
I’m not saying it isn’t costly, this wrestling out of the grip of shame. It takes effort and risk and some pride-swallowin’. But it is worth it. The truth is far sweeter – taste and see that the Truth is good – and the actions are not who we are anyway.
In any way I am able to bless you with wisdom, boldness, courage, strength and resolve, I do so now in Jesus’ name! Grace to you and peace, and may you fly higher on the fresh, bracing wind you were born to ride!