Finding Jesus in the shame we try so hard to avoid

I still cringe when I think about that fateful moment in seventh-grade English class when Mrs. Silkman asked the question, “If you were stuck on a deserted island, what’s the one thing you’d want to have, other than food?”

I don’t remember what the other kids said — probably normal stuff like video games, a house, or a fan. Not me. In my innocence, I said two words I would regret for years to come: “My kittens.”

I truly did love my kittens — those puffy little offspring of Smokey, our beloved (and promiscuous) charcoal-gray momma cat. But within two seconds of making that known to the class, I regretted it.

This kid I’ll call “Bobby” snickered. Bobby was an imposing, heavy-set boy who had been held back from moving up to eighth grade; and what he lacked in kindness, he made up for in cruelty.

“‘His kittens! Did you hear that? Josh wants to keep his little kittens with him. Isn’t that sweet? Here kitty, kitty, kitty!”

My animal instincts kicked in and, in a fight-or-flight panic, I did the only thing I could to survive: I betrayed the kittens — and myself.

“I was kidding!” I said. “I wouldn’t want kittens on an island with me.”

“Yes, you would!” said Billy, as the other kids began laughing.

“No, no — I was really just kidding! I don’t even have any kittens!”

But it was too late. The damage had been done and it wasn’t without consequence either. I was called “queer” and “fag” by the bullies enough as it was. Now I had been branded a sissy who loved a litter of kittens.

When I was in high school, there was a female individual I’ll call Jane was not particularly likeable (for reasons I won’t go into here) and she was also overweight. Some of the guys, including me, regularly agitated her for sport.

One day, I was in the principal’s office after getting in trouble for clowning around in class (again). Dr. Clark said, “You’re a nice young man a lot of the time, Josh, but you need to understand how your behavior is impacting other people. They have feelings too.”

“I’m just kidding around.”

“That’s not always kidding you’re doing. Your ‘kidding’ has really hurt others. Actually, I heard that you even told Jane that you couldn’t imagine seeing her try to squeeze into a swimsuit. Do you have any idea how hurtful that must have been?”

“I didn’t say that,” I snapped back and tried to talk my way out of the situation by faking contrition for my classroom antics. But deep inside I knew my principal was right, even if I didn’t remember what I’d said to Jane. I was too frequently reckless with my words to keep up with all the inappropriate things I said.

After I graduated high school and began to follow Jesus, I was mortified by all the ways I had hurt teachers and fellow students with my careless words and deeds. More than any other offense I’d committed though, what I did to Jane haunted me the most.

And while I knew I couldn’t undo the damage, I wrote a letter to Jane and apologized for how unkind I’d been to her, hoping it would somehow help. I never heard back from her, and for years, I couldn’t forgive myself for how cruel I’d been to her.

We’ve all got moments from our pasts that have left us with shame. We’ve sinned against others and people have sinned against us. Oddly enough, it can seem almost admirable to hold on to the sin of the past. When we’ve been sinned against, there’s a sense of significance that comes from processing, revisiting, reliving the pain — there’s no hope, no progress. I’ll always be that seventh-grade boy getting bullied. You’ll always be the one who was damaged. There are no “two steps forward” — it’s either two steps back or no movement at all.

When we’ve sinned against others, it may feel wrong to get over it; and sometimes it is. We owe it to God and others to confess our sins and do whatever we can to make it right (Matthew 3:7-8; Luke 19:1-10; Eph. 4:22-24). But sometimes we simply can’t undo the damage we’ve done, so we feel guilty for moving forward when our victim may still suffer. The shame remains. I’ll always be the one who made fun of Jane’s weight. You’ll always be the liar, the cheater, the thief, the gossip.

There’s a common denominator when we’re fixated on our sins or the sins of others: We are the main character in a story that never gets resolved. Jesus never makes His grand entrance and rescues us. And living out of a narrative like that is living a lie.

When Jesus “became sin” on the cross, suffering torture and death, He made a way for our shame to disappear forever — don’t miss that: He became sin; then He died; so sin and all of its power died with Him (2 Cor. 5:21). When it comes to our sins against other people, if we’ve repented and tried to undo the damage, all that’s left to do is fall on the mercy of Jesus. Even if the other person doesn’t extend forgiveness, He does.

With those who have sinned against us and left us feeling ashamed, we absolutely have to take it to the cross and let Jesus absorb those offenses into His blood. It’s the only way to get out of the cage of painful memories — to be able to remember them without reliving them every time we think of it. We exchange our hurt for His healing.

One of the hazards of being human is the reality that we will be hurt and we will hurt others. The greater reality is that the pain Jesus went through is the cure for it all. “He bore the punishment that made us whole; by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5, CEB).