When a person knows our shame, and then loves us and receives us, the shame can't survive, writes Vancouver pastor-author Ken Shigematsu.
My practice of confession with God and certain trusted people is one of the most powerful ongoing spiritual disciplines in my life.
For most of us the practice of confession is not easy. As a young adult I joined a small group and knew we were going to be invited to share transparently. I was with people I could trust, but I was still afraid and blurted out, "I recently went skydiving for the first time. Jumping out of the airplane was difficult, but relatively easy compared to baring my soul." Sharing our innermost self is not easy, but it is the pathway to one of life’s greatest gifts – deep friendship.
Let me mention three of my trusted people. I am profoundly grateful for the safe space for confession created by my spiritual director Dan. I am also thankful for my longtime friendship with Elizabeth, with whom I’ve been able to open my heart and feel received (and, at times, necessarily rebuked). I deeply value my weekly Zoom conversation with my friend Mark where we mutually confess temptations, struggles and sins, and then pray for each other. This may sound heavy, but in practice feels truly uplifting.
James Pennebaker, a professor at the University of Texas, studied what happens when trauma survivors, especially rape and incest survivors, kept their experiences secret. The research team found the act of not discussing a traumatic event or confiding it to another person could be more damaging than the actual event. Conversely, when people shared their stories and experiences, their physical health improved, their visits to the doctor decreased, and they showed significant declines in the activity of their stress hormones. (I read about this study in Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead [Avery, 2012].)
When a person knows our shame, and then loves us and receives us, the shame can’t survive.
I first began to see the value of confession when I was single. During my student years, one summer break while travelling, I had a romantic fling. Neither I nor the woman involved could imagine ourselves with each other for long – she was in a relationship with someone else and I was intending to initiate an exclusive dating relationship with someone back home. But that summer we found ourselves powerfully attracted to each other and one night we crossed some lines. We were in a public space, so there was a natural restraint in place, but we ended up engaged in some prolonged kissing and making out.
You might think it’s not a big deal, but I knew I had violated my conscience and was feeling guilt and shame. Not long after this I confessed what I had done to a close friend and mentor. He was disappointed and teared up, but also expressed his love for me and I felt his profound care. Having confessed and been received with love, I felt an enormous burden lifting from my shoulders.
When we can express our feelings and faults honestly with a safe person, something inside us lifts and straightens.
Dan Siegel, a researcher and professor of psychiatry at UCLA, has pointed out that when we confess something weighing on our heart in the presence of an empathetic person, the neurotransmitter GABA squirts onto our brain, creating a calming effect.
Brené Brown has also published research that suggests one of the most effective strategies for shame resilience is to cultivate friendships with trusted people who can become sources of empathy.
When we share a painful or shameful experience with someone we trust, we can begin to reframe our shame.
Sometime after my summer fling I shared my experience with another wise friend. After listening pensively he said, "I know you feel like you made a bad decision, but I also see that you demonstrated integrity in that situation by setting certain boundaries when you were given the opportunity to become even more physically intimate. A failure at this level may actually be beneficial for you. It may help you avoid something much more serious in the future."
Although I had still felt some residual guilt and shame over the experience, having the experience reframed for me caused the burden to lift even further and gave me a sense of deep gratitude.
Sharing our experiences of shame, pain or grief can help us reframe our story. When we see it in a new light, we can even begin to view it as something redemptive and beautiful in the larger tapestry of our lives. This will certainly be true for those who believe in the God who redeems all things and makes all things in our life work together for our ultimate good – and His greater glory as we are transformed into the image of Christ.
In his classic Spiritual Friendship, 12th-century English abbot Aelred of Rievaulx writes that we should "bare our souls" only to those we are certain want the best for us and would never betray us. Cultivating spiritual friendships with people who will not judge us and instead offer wisdom and empathy – and maintain confidentiality – takes time and effort. Initiating a conver-sation with a pastor, spiritual director or counsellor involves discernment and may require courage. But these relationships can be a lifeline and make us whole.
I know an upstanding and committed Christian truly respected for his integrity. Though he grew up in a conservative Christian home, and his parents never drank a drop of alcohol, my friend occasionally enjoys a glass of wine with dinner or a beer with a friend. One night he was downtown with a buddy, and they had a few beers at a bar. They eventually left, but as they were walking past another bar his friend said, "How about another beer?
"Sure," my friend replied.
"I don’t remember what happened next," he told me. "But my next memory, I’m lying on my back on a sidewalk in a drug-infested part of town, and my friend is trying to prevent someone else from beating me up. My friend pulls me onto a bus and I end up vomiting. The bus driver pulls over and says, ‘You need to get out.’ The next thing I remember, I’m lying in a hospital bed, hooked up to a machine and my wife is looking at me."
Sometime thereafter he felt compelled to share his story with two people with whom he had cultivated a trusted friendship. Overcome by shame he was unable to speak at first, but after considerable silence, stammering and with tears in his eyes, he recounted the incident. His friends wept with him, prayed for him and offered what felt like a visceral wave of love, without conditions.
Shame had reared its ferocious head, but their love proved stronger yet, breaking the power of shame and freeing him from his heavy burden. When he told the truth and entrusted his story to these friends, he discovered an unconditional love – a love that did not run away from his shame, but vanquished it.
When a person knows our shame, and then loves us and receives us, the shame can’t survive. In the sacred space of unconditional love, we become our true, made-in-the-image-of-God self, and the shimmering diamond of who we really are gleams brighter.
This article is adapted from the new book Now I Become Myself: How Deep Grace Heals Our Shame and Restores Our True Self (Zondervan, 2023). is senior pastor of Tenth Church in Vancouver, B.C., a diverse city-centre church. His previous books include God in My Everything (Zondervan, 2013) and Survival Guide for the Soul (Zondervan, 2018). Red door article illustration: Janice Van Eck.
Here is a prayer exercise that can help make the way for a time of vulnerability and feeling loved by God.
- Take several deep breaths, breathing in and out of your nose.
- When you feel still and peaceful, meditate on the words God the Father says to Jesus at His baptism, imagining God is speaking these words to you: "_______, you are my daughter/son, whom I love. I am so pleased with you. I delight that you are on the earth" (Luke 3:22).
- After listening to these words of love, practise holding a loving gaze with God by listening for any other affirmations God might want to speak into your heart. Breathe deeply, inhaling you are my daughter/son, and exhaling, whom I love. After listening take a moment to write down any affirmations you may want to remember.
- Now invite God to expand your capacity to receive affirmations from others by bringing to your mind the names and faces of people who have blessed you and loved you into being. After breathing and listening quietly, give thanks for each of these people. Then write down any words of affirmation you may have received from them.