In the category of women behaving badly, this ranks right up toward the top. A true account…
“During my sophomore year of high school, a nerdy upperclassman named John, developed a little crush on me. Back in high school, I had no problems befriending a geek. However, I was not particularly interested in them sexually.
“Still, I did not discourage his crush.
“I continued to laugh at all of John’s jokes and I would periodically punch him playfully in the arm thinking that nothing harmful would ever come of it. Unfortunately, John interpreted all of my signals correctly and began pursuing me more aggressively. Cue the flowers and the poems and the invites for movies which I had to frantically make up excuses not to attend. Cue the sexual innuendos and the arm casually draped over my shoulder. Cue the rumors that John and I were dating.
“I had lost complete control of the situation.
“My friends, vicious that they were, started teasing me. Jokes about when I was going to take the poor boys virginity amidst cackling evil laughter became the norm. After awhile, I started to blame John for all of these problems. I mean, why didn’t he realize that I was totally out of his league?
“Did you feel a little dirty reading that last sentence? Well, I felt dirty saying it. But I must warn you, it only gets uglier.
“One day, John presented me with a gift that cost him a fair chunk of change for a high school kid. It was a heart shaped pendant, encrusted with diamonds, on a gold chain. When he gave it to me, he smiled his big goofy smile and told me that he had been saving for a few months now to buy it for me. It was at this precise instant that I. Just. Snapped.
“I tossed the necklace aside and angrily informed John that I didn’t want it. I told him that I hated him and if we were the last two people on the planet, I would never date him. I called him a loser, a wimp, and a social retard. His face crumpled as I viciously emasculated him, but I couldn’t stop myself. I was fueled by anger and resentment and guilt and embarrassment. Finally, John weakly tried to defend himself and he whispered hoarsely that I was a b—-. Furious, I called him a dork and stormed out of the library, my cheeks hot with rage.
“Oh, we’re not done here yet! Stick with me; it’s going to get uglier!
“I sought out my friends and recounted, with sudden remorse, how I broke John’s spirit. I thought that they would be disgusted by my cruelty, but they only laughed and egged me on. They thought my parting insult, DORK, was the epitome of comedy and humor. From that point on, whenever we saw John in the halls, we’d scream at him and taunt him and oh so nastily remind him that he was a DORK. This went on for weeks.
“Whenever I look back on all of this, I remember John’s face. I remember the look of dread that reflected in his eyes when he turned the corner and realized that we were there. I remember the way my own voice sounded, merciless and cruel, and I remember how our mocking laughter echoed in the halls. Most of all, I remember how I couldn’t resist myself and how I gleefully let something nasty and hateful in me take over simply because I couldn’t face my own mistakes and inadequacies.
“In the midst of this, John wrote me a letter. In it, he told me he once thought I was beautiful and smart. He said that he was initially attracted to my sweetness and my sense of humor. He said that now that he’s gotten to know me better, he could plainly see that he had made a mistake. He said that my behavior made me ugly and he wanted nothing to do with me ever again. He asked that I please leave him alone.
“During lunch, I read the letter to my friends. We all laughed and chortled and picked on all of his spelling mistakes and grammar errors. My friends asked me how it felt to have my very first stalker and I made some silly little joke about sleeping with a baseball bat from now on.
“But inside? Inside, I felt the deepest shame.
“That boy thought I was beautiful, so I emasculated him. That boy thought I was smart, so I degraded him. That boy thought I was sweet and funny and kind, so I humiliated him in front of large groups of people. That boy’s only mistake was that he was kind to me and I responded by making him regret it.
“Me, who always prided herself on being an individual and doing the right thing, succumbed to vicious pack mentality and outright cruelty. I wondered to myself, what is it about humans where we always feel the need to establish a pecking order? What right did I have to determine that John was out of my league in the first place? What was missing in me that caused me to feel better about myself by degrading someone else? What kind of person was I that I could reward someone’s kindness by spitting in his face? I felt that if my father were alive to see what I had done, he would have turned his back on me.
“I have kept John’s letter all these years. I kept it because it hurts me to read it. It is a reminder that someone out there once thought I was smart and beautiful, but my behavior changed his mind. When I’m feeling really low about the direction of my life, I read it and I think to myself that it took a boy that I abused to reveal to me my innate character flaws. When I put it down, I make a silent vow to show kindness to those who show me kindness. Sometimes I fail others and in doing so, I fail myself. I suspect that throughout my life, there will be many more failures.
“My greatest fear is that John’s dry observations about my character still hold true today.”1
We all experience personal shame. And for many it goes way beyond treating someone badly in high school. It might be shame over sexual abuse inflicted on us. Or ugly habits we’ve developed. Or the constant awareness that we are less of a person than others see. In struggling through our shame, we might especially avoid God, assuming that God would only make us feel worse.
As one person put it, “If your God exists, I wonder if he would care about me. I’ve done some pretty stupid stuff in my life. My thoughts are that he would look my way in disdain and complete and utter disappointment.”
Is that true? How does God see us, in light of the fact that he really does, fully…see us?
God said he knows “the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”2 In a strange sort of way, that’s comforting. At least there is one person who really does know everything, every detail about us. God is the one person we don’t need to try to hide stuff from. He knows it all. Guard down.
This next thought might be surprising. He says that he “sympathizes with our weaknesses.”3 God doesn’t expect that we will ever be perfect. We will never perfectly behave well or perfectly treat others well. It would be right to do. But none of us are that righteous. We lie, we belittle, we criticize, we’re impatient, arrogant, etc. We have horrible thoughts toward others, and we engage in things we wouldn’t want anyone else see us do.
Some people think that if we were just more aware of the Ten Commandments we would act better. Their thinking is, we need to be reminded not to lie, not to commit adultery, not to murder, etc. However, the Ten Commandments are not going to make us be better people, no matter how prominently they are displayed. God tells us the purpose of the commandments, ie. the law: “…no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.”4 Trying to live up to God’s commands is not going to relieve of us guilt, but probably will actually increase our guilt. This is not the way to overcome shame.
Becoming religious is not the answer either. There is an attraction today toward following strict, religious rituals. The more stringent the better. The more radical, the more devoted. This approach draws an allegiance because it speaks to our respect for action, for diligence. But subjecting ourselves to religious behavior is an empty hope. It does little toward bringing freedom from shame, sin, or internal burdens.
The only way to become free from shame is to become convinced that you are fully loved. God, who knows every detail about you, welcomes you to know his love.
Jesus invites us into a relationship with himself, “Come to me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you [a weaker ox would be paired with a stronger ox] and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”5
He can free us from the shame we carry and deeply change our perception of ourselves.
Take for example, this Jewish woman in the Middle East, written about in the Gospel of John. Having already been married five times, she decided this time to just live with the guy. Everyone in her village knew her, and probably talked about her. Feeling so ostracized, she had to go to the well to get her water at a time of day when no one else would be there. Jesus, however, waited for her at the well and told her how she could have eternal life. She was so moved by the conversation, she persuaded everyone in her village to come meet Jesus. That’s quite a change from avoiding people, to being willing to address the entire town. Did you know that Jesus can bring you that kind of freedom?
Also in the Gospel of John, was a woman caught in adultery and dragged before a violent crowd ready to be stoned to death. They asked Jesus to pronounce the condemnation. He responded that the person without sin should throw the first stone. “They went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus stood up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, Lord.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.'”6 It is through Jesus that we also can have forgiveness, a completely clean slate. A very different life. Do you ever wonder what God thinks of you? Here is a snapshot of Jesus’ view of us: “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”9 No one to care for them. No one leading them, protecting them. No one meeting their needs.
Do you realize that this is how Jesus sees you? Harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. In response to your needs, Jesus tells us, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand…sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep…He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd.”10 The one who genuinely cares about you. “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”11
More than anyone else, Jesus is whom we can go to in times of shame and personal failures and when others sin against us. Jesus is not asking us to get over our shame. He’s asking to be our shepherd.
He is able to put our shame in past tense, “you were dead in the trespasses and sin in which you once walked…”12 He does not say to this, “Try harder. Be better sheep.” Instead, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive…that…he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”13