Shame lurks in the shadows of my past. It quickly creeps up behind me when I want to move forward in my faith and ministry. Shame tells me I’m not good enough, not pure enough; that my past is too contaminated by sin to be of any use to anyone; especially God. Shame desires to have dominion over me; to become my captor.
Do not call to mind the former things or ponder things of the past. Behold! I am doing a new thing…Isaiah 43:18-19
Recently, through a dream, God took me on a healing journey to my past.
Some friends and I headed to my alma mater for a weekend getaway. We were staying in my old apartment, the one I used to live in my junior year of college. I should have been excited to visit but I wasn’t. Old ghosts haunted that place and the thought of revisiting them made me uneasy inside. For some reason, though, it was the only vacancy in town.
We arrived at Sisson’s on Main, walked up the long stairwell and opened the door to my old place. I heard the TV blasting in the living room. Why was it on? No one else should be here. I went to see. There, on the couch sat my former landlord. She was locked in an embrace with someone I could not recognize but knew wasn’t her husband. I glanced at the TV. Disturbing, explicit scenes paraded before my eyes. I looked away. Unashamed of her own behavior, she made no attempt to hide her actions.
Casually, she turned to me and said she hadn’t been expecting me but my early arrival was no problem as long as we didn’t mind her staying with us for the night.
“What?” I thought. “I had reservations and No! I don’t want that! Please get out and leave us alone.”
I complacently agreed.
She seemed eager to show me around since I hadn’t been there in 15 years. Taking my hand, she led me to a door I didn’t recognize and told me it was a new “secret room.” We walked inside. My eyes grew wide as I gazed at several rows of shelving, similar to a library. The shelves were stocked to the ceiling with old VHS tapes.
She slowly pulled me through the space, row by row never taking her eyes off mine. For some reason, she didn’t want me to see the titles of the videos. It was ok though, because I had no desire to know their contents. In fact, every time I would glance toward at one, the title would become blurry. A sense of shame filled me and I decided not to look again. I just held her gaze. What was going on? It was as if we were working together, she didn’t want me to look and I didn’t want to see. Eager to leave, I looked for the exit .
After my tour, she told me that she wouldn’t be staying after all. She requested payment up front and handed me the bill. $700 per night?
What? What happened to $70 per night!
I had been deceived about the price I would pay.
I awoke in a fog.
This dream followed me around all day. My mind wandered in and out of the past, reluctantly recalling my junior year of college. I knew it was significant because it had been both the darkest year of my life and the centerpiece of my dream.
Unpleasant images of myself in morally compromising situations rushed to mind. Memories of drunkenness, casual drug use, shallow romances, and phony friendships overwhelmed me. I groaned inside and my countenance fell. I tried to suppress everything my mind brought up. I wanted to stuff it all back down; somewhere far away. I wanted to disassociate myself from the past. Looking back made me feel ugly inside and, in light of my dream, I could only conclude this one thing: the enemy does not want me to see my past through God’s eyes. He wants me to remain enslaved to shame; for as long as I am, he still has power over me.
Even though my dream stirred old feelings of disgrace, I felt no condemnation at all. Instead, I felt as though God Himself had switched on a bright light and illuminated my dark room. Surprisingly absent was the instinct to shield my eyes; instead I felt revived; reinvented.
It was as if God was whispering…
I have completely cleansed you from your past; I have casted it away to be remembered no more! If I do not hold it against you, should anyone else? Jennifer, I am calling you to freedom from the bondage of shame and the fear of man! Look at the past in freedom and with purpose.
For the first time, I could recall my old life without feelings of humiliation and shame. Suddenly, it became obvious to me that most of my destructive choices were rooted in my desire to bandage emotional wounds; to cover them up without cleansing them first. I was trying to satiate my soul’s longings without truly understanding that finite people and fleeting diversions would never be enough. Ultimately, I needed my Creator.
Today, I can share my story with passion and thanksgiving; in awe that God has cleansed my polluted past and given me a life that I so don’t deserve…
A life beyond shame!
Throughout my teenage years, my conscience was a formidable opponent for my flesh. I wasn’t perfect but I knew God had a plan for my life and so, on a moral level, I tried to be a little more righteous than my peers without sacrificing my fun. When my friends drank liquor, I stuck with beer. When they tried acid, I stayed with pot. When they went all the way, I simply flirted. In reality though, I was just a God conscious hypocrite.
Then, at 19, I lost my mother to cancer. I didn’t know how to handle the loss of her life. I became emotionally hardened inside and I locked my grief away somewhere deep; in a place even I couldn’t find.
Friends said I seemed “cold and unaffected.” They were partly right. I was cold. But I was not unaffected.
Three months after her death, I returned to college for my junior year. I was glad to get away from the depressing atmosphere at home and be among friends again. The social climate was the perfect distraction. I was in a sorority, I had a boyfriend and I lived in an apartment above my favorite pub. The stage was set.
Fueled by my sense of loss, I went on a quest for gain. I relentlessly pursued self-satisfaction. My behavior was reckless. I was hanging out at the pubs 4 or 5 nights a week playing pool, drinking and flirting with strangers. My social life took precedence over my education and my grades were borderline. Hang overs kept me home from class and indifference kept me from caring.
I spent myself, mind and emotions, on “good times” that vanished with the night and left my dignity in the dust. I knew I hit an all time low when, one Friday night, my landlord (the one in my dream) found me passed out at the bottom of my staircase and had to help me get up to my apartment. I didn’t remember anything.
I swallowed my embarrassment and tried to avoid her after that. I felt no desire to make changes in my life.
My sense of loss was magnified when soon after returning to school my relationship ended badly. A sense of rejection for unrequited love wounded me deeply and stoked the fire of indifference within. Emotionally, I felt like someone who had taken their entire life savings and made a foolish investment. Now bankrupt, I questioned everything I always presumed were the pinnacles of life: love, trust, commitment, friendship and the benevolence of God.
I was in a very dangerous place. I would awaken at night, literally paralyzed in my bed, feeling like something was choking me. The sinister presence in my room indicated they were demonic attacks. Instinctively I would call out the name of Jesus and the evil would disappear leaving me with the harrowing notion that the spiritual atmosphere around me was volatile.
I was happy when the year ended. I moved out of that apartment and into a new one. Although my senior year saw much of the same scene, I began to change on the inside and although it was very slow to surface in my behavior, I knew God was whispering my name.
I grew more and more uneasy in the party scene. I became disgusted with myself when I engaged in any kind of substance use. I began loathing my actions and had no peace. The same things that used to give me pleasure now made me miserable. At the time I couldn’t name it but now I know it was the Holy Spirit bringing conviction for my sin and changing my heart from stone to flesh.
I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. Ezekiel 36:26
By the time Graduation came. I was so desperate to leave the past behind me. When I moved back home, I began going to church with my sister. Desperate for truth, I decided that, every time the church’s doors were open, I would be there. I gladly recommitted my life to Christ. He was the only One who seemed sufficient; permanent. Yes, He would stay with me.
Slowly, God began washing me of the world and renewing my life.
I was so intrigued by the Lord that I pursued Him relentlessly. I was amazed that my past was forgiven and my sins were washed away. Could it really be that simple? I felt safe in God’s presence; for He saw me at my worst and accepted me anyway.
Two years went by and the past seemed far behind me. God’s plan for my life was unfolding. He was calling me to the mission field! As quickly as the call came, so did the enemy’s condemnation. The attack was fierce.
You! A missionary?
Look at yourself…you’re all tarnished inside! God can’t use a mess like you…
If God won’t make you pay, I will!
And the memories invaded.
And I retreated into the darkness.
One year went by. I ran away from my calling because I knew I wasn’t good enough to pursue such a big future in God. Graciously, God led a friend from overseas to contact me by phone. She asked me why I was running from God’s call on my life. The conversation was so extraordinary that I knew it was a direct message from the Great Commissioner! I moved forward with cautious joy.
Yes, God had accepted my past, but would people be as gracious? I hoped they would never find out.
And then…I met Wouter; the man I loved long before he even knew who I was, the one I would spend the rest of my life with. The one I wanted to give the best of myself to.
Pain and shame over the past seized me once again. This time though, I would have to face it; confess it all.
I remember the day I looked my future husband in the eye and laid myself bear. When I saw his countenance fall, I realized the lie I had been believing. Until that moment, I somehow thought I would be the only one affected by the consequences of my sin.
Once again God’s mercy abounded when Wouter showed me understanding and compassion. His own past enabled him to relate to me on even ground. To this day he has never, even once, made me feel insecure over anything from my past. His acceptance and love has freed me to be who God is calling me to be.
When the Bible talks about the year of the Lord’s favor, it says that He will give me beauty for ashes; joy instead of mourning and praise instead of despair. What God is this who, when I’ve surrendered to Him in the battle, doesn’t take the spoils of war but instead gives me His own riches?
One who deserves my everything!
*After years of battling with shame over my past, I’ve learned that a little shame can actually be a healthy thing. When comparing my sinful actions to a holy, perfect God, there are few emotions more appropriate. However, shame becomes sin in my life when it is rooted in the fear of man rather than the fear of God. When I conceal my shame in the interest of self preservation rather than seek forgiveness for the sin which caused it, I am in danger. My shame then turns from a signal pointing to my need for repentance, to a shackle threatening to restrain me. Shame should point me to God for forgiveness rather than to self for shelter from exposure.
He who conceals his sins does not prosper but he who confesses and renounces them, finds mercy. Proverbs 28:13