The other night, I was putting my little daughters to bed, and I sensed that I needed to talk to them about shame. I figured we could discuss it the next day since it was already late, but I didn’t realize the Holy Spirit was prompting me for a reason.
Before I left the room, one of my daughters said, “Daddy, a girl at school called me a mean name.”
“What was it?” I asked.
She covered her face with her hands and said, “I don’t want to say.”
“You know we don’t keep secrets. I want to know what she said.”
She paused, I asked again, and then she quietly said, “She called me fat.”
I sighed and thought, My daughter’s in kindergarten—is this happening already?
“Do you know what fat means?” I asked, hoping she would say no, but she put her arms down and held them out widely.
“Come here,” I said. I took her in my arms and tried to tell her that she wasn’t actually fat, that the comment didn’t make any sense, and she shouldn’t believe what the other girl said. And then my other daughter had a story to tell.
Fat and now an Idiot
“Daddy, a boy said something mean to me too,” said my other daughter.
“What was it?”
She looked like she was going to cry.
“He called me an idiot.”
“Come here,” I said, taking her in my arms too.
“You’re really smart girl, right?”
“So that doesn’t make any sense either. Did you know that when I was a kid, some of the boys at school used to call me a girl?” (They actually called me a queer, but that was a little too complicated to explain, so I tailored the story for my audience.)
“Am I a girl?” I asked.
Both girls said no.
“Then it doesn’t make sense that those boys called me a girl, because it wasn’t true.”
We Can’t Stop it
After that conversation, I told my wife what I’d just heard from the girls.
“That makes me so angry,” she said. “That’s exactly the kind of comment that can go down deep into a kid and begin to change the way they see themselves.”
We couldn’t do much though. It wasn’t like we could take the offending kids and give them some good “home training,” as we say in Mississippi. And it wouldn’t matter anyway. Some other kid will take their place. And my own kids will probably do it to others.
“It’s crazy how early kids pick up that knife of shame and stab someone with it,” I said. “Once they see the powerful effect on other kids, they get a little high and start carelessly wielding it around, leaving scars all over people.”
I should know. I remember one victim of mine, and it still bothers me today.
It was the summer of 1993, and I was going into my freshman year. I was in a driver’s ed course with a girl I had a crush on. She had a nice, symmetrical face; long, brown hair; a slender frame; and she was friendly, yet quiet.
When our group drove around together, I provided the entertainment — making inappropriate comments, making our instructor laugh, and packing in lots of immature jokes. Then one day, the girl took the risk of making a joke about me, and I carelessly fired back, “You know what you and a brick wall have in common? You’re both thin and flat.”
The girl went silent, and there were a few nervous chuckles in the car. Everyone knew I was talking about the size of her breasts.
Immediately things between us changed, and my subsequent apology didn’t help. She couldn’t look at me or say much more than, “Please leave me alone. I don’t want to talk to you.”
I shut her down.
Working Through Shame Like a Child
I didn’t want these careless words from my daughters’ classmates to begin the process of shutting them down. So after I held the girls for a little bit, I told them we couldn’t let those words get too far down inside, and I asked them to open up their hearts to Jesus so He could heal those places.
We prayed and I invoked the power of Jesus’ name, asking Him to dig down in there and pull those toxic words out. Then we held our hands open and pretended we were holding those words like an object, after which we pretended to throw them out the window.
The next thing we did was pray for the kids who said those hurtful words. I let the girls make up their own prayers, which basically consisted of asking God to “help those kids be nice.” Sure, it was a simple prayer, but it put the girls in a position of compassion, rather than bitterness or inferiority towards their classmates.
And just like my daughters, those of us who’ve been hurt by painful words can do something similar: go to Jesus, identify the ones who’ve shamed us, tell God the painful details of what happened, and then give them to the Lord as a gift. After that, we can visualize the offenders and bless them in prayer (Luke 6:28), asking God to help us begin the process of healing. Last of all, we can ask the Lord to bring to mind anyone we’ve shamed during our lifetimes and pray for those people.
Jesus and Shame
Jesus knows our shame. Hebrews 12:2 says as much: “For the joy that was set before Him [Jesus] endured the cross, despising the shame.” John Piper provides a comforting insight into what that verse means.
[Jesus] despised [the shame]. What does this mean?
It means Jesus spoke to shame like this:
“Listen to me, Shame, do you see that joy in front of me? Compared to that, you are less than nothing. You are not worth comparing to that! I despise you. You think you have power. Compared to the joy before me, you have none. Joy. Joy. Joy. That is my power! Not you, Shame. You are worthless. You are powerless.
You think you can distract me. I won’t even look at you. I have a joy set before me. Why would I look at you? You are ugly and despicable. And you are almost finished.”
Let’s not be dominated by shame anymore, regardless of who planted the seed inside of us. Jesus bore that shame, and we can now walk in the confidence of those who are forever covered in the glory of God. Because of Jesus, shame is finished.