#AskJenn: Shame from past abuse permeates my life. How can I break free?

Hi Jennifer! I’m recovering from abuse, and while I’ve made a lot of progress, shame still permeates my life. How do I break free from shame? And how do I trust that God loves me? Reading the Bible doesn’t seem to help, no matter how much I declare Scriptural truth over myself. My shame seems immune to spiritual or rational attempts to uproot it. What can I do? Thanks! Chris

This email has been edited for brevity and to protect the sender’s identity.

Hi Chris,

Thanks so much for reaching out, and I completely relate with what you’re going through. I think you’ve already hit on something incredibly important in your email though. Your shame isn’t spiritual (because you know it’s not Biblically justified) nor is it rational (because you know your abuser’s evil wasn’t your fault). This leaves us with the emotional. Your shame is rooted in emotions. It’s a feeling – not a belief or a conscious choice. Thus, it can’t be preached or reasoned out of you.

Emotions are often irrational. At their most basic, they can be boiled down to chemical reactions and hormonal changes in our bodies. In a fallen world where things break and decay and people get sick and die, our emotions too are susceptible to fallibility and disorder. However, this doesn’t mean nothing can be done to ease our shame. Rather, it means we need to rewire how we emotionally relate with our abuse.

Shifting Our Emotional Perspective

During much of my recovery process, I viewed by abuse as bad things my abuser did. When I thought about my pain, I thought about my abuser. When I thought about my suffering, I thought about betrayals by loved ones. When I felt sad, I was reminded of dark and disturbing events in my past. My sorrow was inextricably emotionally linked to the evil of others. For example, I couldn’t think about Christmas without wishing my kids weren’t missing a grandpa and remembering how my dad had sexually abused me. Thus, what should have been a joyous celebration of Jesus’ birth with my children evoked nauseating memories of perversion and feelings of humiliation.

My shame ran deep. My degradation was unforgettable. I couldn’t get the mortification out of my head.

Until I figured out that I could turn it inside out.

You see, rather than relate my abuse with my abuser, I began making a conscious effort to relate it to Jesus Christ. Because you see, Jesus experienced abuse too. He is the ultimate Survivor.

So, instead of relating my abuse with my abuser, I began relating emotionally with Jesus. In other words, rather than viewing my abuse as bad things my abuser did, I began viewing it as a way I could relate more strongly and closely with Christ. I began viewing my hardship as something God could use to accomplish good.

When I thought about my pain, I started thinking about Jesus’ death and resurrection. When I thought about my suffering, I started thinking about the Savior who I love dearly and the suffering he endured to accomplish my redemption. I rewired myself emotionally over the course of several years, until my experiences were inextricably emotionally linked – not to my abuser – but to the grace of Jesus Christ.

No Shame in Scars

We know, from reading John 20, that even after his resurrection Jesus has scars. He has scars in his hands where huge nails were pounded through. He has scars in his side where a spear was stabbed. It’s quite likely he has scars on his head where the crown of thorns dug into his skin, and whip-marks on his back where Roman soldiers flogged him.

As abuse survivors, like Jesus, we too have scars. They may not be physical marks on our bodies, but they’re inexorable marks on our hearts. They ache on spiritually gray days and are sensitive to the touch of reminders. But like Jesus’ scars, our scars are no sign that we are weak, unloved, at fault, or unredeemable. If the holy, perfect, powerful, miracle-working, death-defying Son of God could be abused, what have you and I to be ashamed of?

Let’s take a moment and think about how Jesus used his scars to reassure Thomas.

In John 20:24-29 we read:

Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Jesus does not view his scars as embarrassing. He does not view them as reminders of evil or of his abusers. Rather, he used them to assure Thomas of who he is as the Savior of the world. He views his scars as testaments to the redemptive work he has accomplished. He views those marks as evidence he can use to reassure Thomas, who struggled with distrust. He views his scars as proof that his work is finished; salvation is accomplished, evil is vanquished, and recovery – the kingdom of God and eternal peace in Heaven – is at hand for his loved ones.

I have friends who have traveled to the Holy Land. They’ve walked the streets of Israel and explored landmarks in Jerusalem. They express awe that maybe, possibly, they’ve walked in same places Jesus walked. However, as an abuse survivor, I don’t have to travel to the Middle East to walk in Jesus’ footsteps. I’ve walked in them in a more real way than many people can imagine. I have prayed, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). I have wept and sweated, racked with anxiety. I have felt the violence of evil men and the barbed tongues of liars and emotional abusers. I have taken up my cross and followed Jesus, and he alone has maintained my faith.

Our scars aren’t something to be ashamed of. They’re something to be marveled at in humble awe. Like Jesus, we can use our experiences – our scars – to tell others, “Yes, I know for certain that God can get you through this. Yes, I am living proof that Jesus saves, heals, and restores. Yes, I am walking talking evidence that the Great Physician heals, our Mighty Counselor comforts, and he has promised to wipe away all our tears in Heaven.”

Any time you feel ashamed, remember that you walk daily in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. Any time you struggle to trust that God loves you, remember that he has scars too. Like Thomas, when you’re overcome by doubt and disbelief, it is Jesus himself who reassures you, and his Spirit who reignites your faith. Look at your past. Look at all that he has gotten you through. Look at how much recovery he’s already worked in your heart. You are not only a child of God. You are a miracle of God.

A Shameless Gospel

We no longer need to feel shame, because our past isn’t about our abuser anymore. In fact, it isn’t even about us. It’s about Jesus. It’s about relating with him on an emotional level. It’s about reflecting him in a dark and dying world. It’s about using our scars to demonstrate to ourselves and to others that salvation is real. It’s about the wonder of a Savior who became human, suffered as we suffer, wept as we weep, endured what we could never endure apart from his empowerment, and overcame so we could join him in Heaven one day. The King of Glory lowered himself for us, yet remained shameless, holy, perfect, and powerful. Knit your wounded heart to him, and let him make you whole.

Of course, we know that just as only Jesus can wash away the guilt of your sin, only his Spirit can wash away the shame of your pain and ease your distrust. Pray for God to take away your shame. Ask Christ to reassure you, as he did Thomas, and fill you with a knowing that he understands your suffering. Confide your whole heart to him – the rational and the irrational, the biblical beliefs and the unbiblical fears – and cling wholly to him for peace and comfort.

It’s not your job to rationalize yourself into faith. It’s not your job to preach yourself into happiness. All we must do – all we can do – is rely on him to give us faith and work healing in our souls. And this is the glory of the Gospel, for it’s nothing in us that earns God’s love, but God’s love that earns our redemption. There is no room for shame when we are so divinely honored.

“… You are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. Such confidence we have through Christ before God.” 2 Corinthians 3:3-4

In this blog series, #AskJenn, Jennifer responds to emails from her readers. All emails have been edited for clarity and to protect the sender’s identity. If you’d like to submit a question, please click here.

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