When You Feel Damaged, Invisible, Irrelevant, and Ashamed
One day, a friend name Jane sent me the following email:
Can I be honest with you? Can I share with you about some of the demons that haunt me? It feels risky to say these sorts of things to my pastor, but here goes…
I doubt my love for Jesus, sometimes I don’t think I really love him at all. I wonder if I’m just playing a game, going through the motions because I enjoy being around Christians. Almost like I’m saying I love Jesus but maybe this is just a strategy to have Christian friends. Sometimes I feel like a well-intended fraud. This terrifies me. I fear being invisible to people I enjoy, irrelevant to my church and my friends, disconnected from my family, and that what I have to offer will be dismissed. I fear that I’m an outsider to things I really want to be part of.
This email came on the heels of me challenging Jane in an area of her life. Specifically, Jane had a loose tongue. She cursed a lot and could be opinionated and abrasive. I reminded her of Scriptures about how, as the aroma of Jesus in the world, we are called to cultivate the fruit of gentleness. We are also called to mirror Jesus in our speech—with words that are grace-filled, that give life instead of stealing life, that speak truth in love, that build up and don’t tear down, that encourage and don’t shame, that bless and don’t curse, that give a good report and don’t gossip, that are pure and don’t succumb to vulgarity—or as Ann Voskamp has said, to only speak words that make souls stronger.
After I challenged Jane on these things, I wasn’t sure how she would respond. So, when her email landed in my inbox, I was floored. The self-reflection, transparency, heavy-heartedness and humility with which she spoke seemed like a new version of Jane, a version that I had not before experienced but one that I was really drawn to. What’s more, Jane’s words confirmed something that’s good for us all to remember: External brashness and bravado is often a cover-up for internal fear and insecurity. The appearance of an inflated self-esteem is often a mask for an impoverished view of oneself. For Jane, what looked like pride was actually a mask for fear and self-doubt.
Hearing Jane share so openly about her hidden struggle made me love and respect her more, not less. In making herself vulnerable, she became an example to me, a person of esteem and great courage. I was proud of her. Above all, I began to relate to her. Ironically, her sober response to my correction became a soft, unintended yet Spirit-filled correction to me. I, too, am prone to hide my fear and insecurity with words and actions that betray my love for Jesus.
Jane had been abrasive for the same reasons that I will often over-eat to deal with stress, dial up the intensity with a family member when I feel threatened or afraid (my wife Patti calls this “going from zero to sixty in two seconds”), and medicate my inner emptiness with retail therapy…buying things I don’t need (a tenth pair of jeans and another pair of brown leather shoes, really?)…instead of running straight to Jesus for the mending of my broken self.
We are all messed up and damaged and afraid, aren’t we? We act it out in some of the oddest ways. The sooner we admit this to each other—that we are in many ways frail, restless, and much afraid—the easier it will be to love each other better.
THE SICKNESS IN US ALL
According to the Bible, there is a sickness that all of us carry. It turns us inward and cripples our capacity to love well. The name for this sickness is shame. Shame is an emotional undercurrent—a low-grade anxiety—that nags and needles at the soul. It is a fever without a temperature, a low-grade and ever-present condition that tells us we are less than, smaller than, and other than what we ought to be.
The older I get, the more convinced I become that every person, without exception, is dealing with shame. It has been said, “Be kind, because everyone you meet is fighting a hidden battle.”
Shame—the disquieting, vague sense that there’s something deeply wrong with us, that we are not enough—keeps us preoccupied with ourselves and inattentive to the needs of others. It tells us that we have to fix ourselves before we can serve others, to clean up our messy, jacked-up personality traits before we can be any good to friends and neighbors and especially to the poor, lonely, oppressed, and people on the margins. “Charity starts at home,” we tell ourselves. If something isn’t done about us first, then we’ll never be able to care effectively for others. If we don’t get healthy, our ability to invest in anyone besides ourselves will be limited.
There is some truth to this, but we often compensate in ways that make things worse instead of better. When Adam and Eve’s shame was exposed in the garden, their focus shifted to themselves. Adam searched for fig leaves to cover his nakedness, and Eve did the same. They ran and hid from God. They also lost interest in one another’s flourishing and turned against each other. Adam blamed Eve for the new predicament, then he blamed God. Eve blamed the serpent. History’s first experience of hell—alienation from the face of God and love for one another—broke loose.
The story of Adam and Eve is also the story of us. We know that aren’t what we should be, so we hide, blame, run for cover, and look out for number one. When shame knocks on our door, in desperation we create counter-narratives to silence it. We grasp for something, anything, to tell us that everything is okay—that we are okay. We will use anything—good looks, status, career, family, humor, friendships, religion, sex, influence, or a financial portfolio—to rewrite our stories. Desperately, we write shame out of our stories and replace it with these things we depend on to validate us. But it’s only a matter of time before the validating “fig leaves” let us down.
Before relocating to Nashville in 2012, I was ministering in a part of New York City with a high concentration of men and women who worked in finance. The Great Recession hit in 2008, and financial institutions crashed and careers vaporized. Many people felt that they had not only lost money and a career; they had also lost a sense of self. When you work on Wall Street, they would say, eventually you start believing that you are what you do, and you are what you make. “What is she worth?” is a question that is taken literally. Human value is measured not in terms of intrinsic dignity, but in terms of salaries, bonuses, and stock portfolios.
When the salary and the bonus disappear, and when the portfolio is cut in half, one’s sense of worth and personhood bleed out. A multi-billionaire from London lost half of his net worth in 2008. Though he remained a multi-billionaire, and though his quality of life was unchanged, he committed suicide. The shame of losing rank in the pecking order of the financial world drove him to self-loathing, then to despair, and finally to self-injury and destruction.
FROM JESUS ALONE COMES OUR WORTH AND OUR WEALTH
What if there was a way to break free from the pressures of riches and success? What the smile of Jesus—not our financial net worth, reputation, career successes, achievements, body type, religious devotion or moral goodness—became our source of validation? What if success was no longer measured in terms of achievement but in terms of humility, thankfulness, wonder, a life of love, and being faithful in the ordinary mundaneness of life? What if our secret battle with shame was neutered, so we could spend less energy covering ourselves, and more energy loving the people in front of us?
This is my greatest joy as a Christian pastor. I get to tell people that this path exists. Jesus has lifted our shame off of us, nailing it to the cross.
In Jesus, our judgment day was moved from the future to the past.
When Jesus let himself be stripped naked, spit upon, taunted, rejected, and made nothing on the cross—when Jesus—the perfect one who had nothing to be ashamed of—surrendered to the ruthless, relentless shaming and bullying that led to our redemption and healing, he neutered our shame and stripped shame of its power.
He who was wealthy became poor for our sakes, that through his poverty we might become wealthy (2 Corinthians 8:9). But the wealth that Jesus a different kind of wealth. It’s a shame-killing wealth. It’s a love-empowering wealth. It’s an inner resource that gives us certainty, protection, and validation in ways that the London billionaire’s wealth couldn’t give to him. When we are made wealthy in Jesus, we lose the need to be wealthy, or thin, or intelligent, or networked, or famous or any other thing that we have erroneously clung to for dear life.
And the “Jane” in all of us can come out of hiding and share the haunting secret: that we are not self-assured but much afraid, that we do not feel secure but vulnerable, that we act big because we feel insignificant, that we go from zero to sixty in two seconds because we fear invisibility and irrelevance. The saving, loving, forgiving wealth that Jesus gives invalidates, neuters, and disempowers these fears. It assures us that at our best and at our worst, in Jesus we are fully known and fully loved. In Jesus we are exposed but not rejected. In Jesus we can be naked and never ashamed.
We are free from ever having to make something of ourselves or to make a name for ourselves. We are free from having to re-write our own stories, from having to fight the shame with validating fig leaf narratives. The name of Jesus is sufficient to name us. The story of Jesus is sufficient to be our story. His name liberates from preoccupation with self. His grace and love supply the inner resources to turn our hearts and faces toward others, to treat all people as our equals, to love bold and strong and with comprehensive, non-discriminating breadth.
THE DIGNITY OF EVERY PERSON, INCLUDING THE ONE IN THE MIRROR
A few years ago at an awareness dinner in Nashville, Melinda Gates told a room full of pastors, leaders, culture makers, and influencers why she and her husband Bill decided to devote the rest of their lives to helping people in the developing world. Her reason was plain and simple, and it echoes truths first revealed in the earliest pages of Scripture:
Every person is equal.
“There is no reason,” Mrs. Gates told us, “why a woman in the developing world shouldn’t have healthcare and education and running water and opportunity just like I do. Because a woman in the developing world is equal to me.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. agreed when he said that there are no gradations in the image of God, and because of this we are to respect the dignity and worth of every person.
CS Lewis also agreed when he said in The Weight of Glory that next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, our neighbor is the holiest object presented to our senses.
These things are true about people in the developing world, the people of color whose dignity Dr. King valiantly and prophetically defended, and those CS Lewis had in mind when he wrote The Weight of Glory. But friend, did you know that there is more? Did you know that these things are also true of the face you see in the mirror? Did you know that these things are also true of you?
You may be asking yourself how you could possibly take the focus off of yourself, forget the fig leaves, and start loving boldly. It begins with the recognition that you, too, have been loved…to the fullest extent! You, too, are the image of God. You, too, are the crown of his creation. You, too, are valuable, highly esteemed, of great significance and worth, a holy object, a person created to be loved.
As the late Francis Schaeffer once said, there are no little people.
You are not little. You are not invisible…or insignificant…or irrelevant.
So whenever you have a “Jane moment,” whenever you look in the mirror and feel terribly discouraged about you, whenever you feel tired of yourself—don’t forget that in Jesus, you are highly esteemed. Don’t forget that in Jesus, with you the Father is well pleased. Don’t forget that you, who are small in your own eyes, are big in the eyes of your God. Big enough for him to see. Big enough for him to love. Big enough for him to save. He so loved you that he gave his son for you. You are the apple of his eye. He rejoices over you with singing (John 3:16; Psalm 17:8; Zephaniah 3:17).
And now, in light of these great realities, O child of God, he has also given you a job to do…
…to start loving as you have been loved.