I’ve received an unprecedented number of emails recently from people who are buried in shame about their pasts.
They know Jesus, and they could tell you all about grace and redemption. But for some reason they’re afraid to share the truth about their pasts with anyone, worried that if they do, people won’t be able to distinguish their past from their present.
I totally understand how this feels.
A few years ago I dated a guy who seemed like he had done everything perfectly. He was put together in all the ways I had fallen apart. He hadn’t had sex, didn’t spend his weekends getting drunk, and hadn’t made the kinds of public mistakes I did. He wasn’t in a fraternity, didn’t go to a party school like mine, and his past was squeaky clean compared to the perpetual frat party I’d created for myself.
He was perfect (or so it seemed)—the perfect church boy, the perfect Christian.
We were Skyping the first time he asked to hear my story. His eyes were bright with anticipation. He wanted to know who I used to be, where I’d come from, the experiences that made me, me. But the further I got into the story, the sadder he looked. Finally, as I was finishing up, he lost his grip and his eyes filled with tears. He couldn’t hold them back anymore.
I’d told my story before and watched a few people cry, but they were always good tears. It was always a happy cry. This was not a happy cry.
He hated my story, every bit of it.
He wished I hadn’t told him, tears streaming down his face as his image of me lay in ruins. I wasn’t the girl he thought I was. The stories I had told him didn’t reinforce what he knew to be true about me; they made him question it.
His disappointment felt like a sandbag weighing on my heart. I was embarrassed, I was ashamed, I was sorry, but mostly I felt stupid. How could I have thought I was redeemed? How could I have been so blind to think my actions would never have repercussions? The disappointment on his face was burned into my memory—my delayed punishment for what I’d done.
For the first time in my Christian life, I began to wonder if grace wasn’t actually enough.
I began to wonder if redemption was possible, or if forgiveness was like a pity invite into heaven and not a clean slate like I’d always imagined. I began to wonder if I’d always live with this shadow over my life. If love, and relationships, and marriage, and sex would always be tainted by what I’d done, by how I’d messed it up before.
A few years later, I was on one of my very first dates with a new boyfriend when he asked me the question I’d come to dread.
He wanted to hear my story.
My heart froze. I didn’t want to tell him. I didn’t want to watch his face change, couldn’t handle his disappointment. So I gave him the clean version. “I was in a sorority once, I partied, I didn’t handle relationships in a Godly fashion,” I told him, relying on clichés and platitudes, and glossing over the messy parts.
Before he could press me for any more details, I vacated the hot seat and ushered him into it. “Your turn!” I told him, dodging the bullet like The Matrix.
Before I knew it, I was swept up in the story of his life. He didn’t hurry, didn’t blush, didn’t apologize. His story wasn’t clean, and he didn’t gloss over the messy bits. He told me the hard parts and the great parts, the disappointing parts, and the painful parts. I was nodding emphatically as he spoke, amazed at how many moments, revelations, and experiences we had in common.
When he was finished with his story, I was in tears.
I was looking at a man who was nuanced and well worn in the best way. I was looking at a man who really knew God, not because it was the right thing to do, or because he was a perfect Christian. He knew God personally because he’d needed Him just like me. Also, I didn’t know it at the time, but that man would soon be my husband.
When he was finished, we sat quietly for a long time. Then I finally broke the silence and said, “Can I try my story again? I think I left out some important details.”
That day Carl reminded me of something I’ve known all along but forgot for awhile: our stories are not something to be ashamed of, they’re something we can proudly stand next to, a glorious before and after.
We have a past, every single one of us. Some of us wear ours more publicly—divorce papers, bankruptcy, an affair, while others of us can carry our mess more privately—pride, greed, selfishness. But every single one of us has things to be ashamed of if we really want to play that game.
But shame isn’t a game I’m willing to play anymore. I don’t think any of us should.
Because allowing ourselves to sit under a mountain of shame after what Jesus did on the cross is a tragedy. Jesus paid for our sin, gave us grace, and freedom, and redemption, He gave us a clean slate, a fresh start, and a new life, shame doesn’t have anything on us anymore.
And in response to that freedom, we need to tell our stories—the whole story not just the clean parts. We need to be honest about what we’ve been through and how God saved the day because we need to remind each other what He’s capable of. We need to remind each other that there’s a way out when we feel stuck, or that we won’t be broken forever.
We need to share the brokenness so we can share the redemption. He can make us new, and better, and whole again, and that’s a story worth being proud of.
Have you ever felt ashamed of your past? How would your life change if you really believed God's redemption covers all of your mistakes?
P.S. Here's a podcast episode on how to turn your mess into your message! And here's a blog post more about how to be vulnerable with those closest to you.