Shame vs delight: how I’m overcoming the sense of falling short with the help of the bible

This week I’ve been looking at the types of people whom Jesus calls ‘blessed’ in the bible – the humble, the poor in spirit, the merciful and so on – and comparing them with my view of what counts as being blessed.

My answers were pretty eye-opening.

‘Blessed are those who never make mistakes for they will be called perfect,’ was one of them.

It’s definitely not in the bible (I’ve looked), but instead there’s a lot in there about how God uses our failures for good, strengthens us in our weaknesses, delights in even the places where we most fall short and lifts the burden of striving off our backs.

I’ve always believed that I was falling short of the high standard that’s expected of me, as though I’d never measure up no matter what I did. For me it’s led to things like perfectionism, striving, hiding my true self and trying to make myself indispensable to everyone.

Interestingly, when I became a Christian nearly six years ago, these things didn’t go away as I expected them to. Instead, all of the shame and perfectionism and feelings of falling short that I’ve carried with me my whole life transferred into my relationship with God. I suddenly wasn’t just a flawed and shameful person, in my head I was now letting God down and was repulsive to him. I felt that all my flaws held me back from being the person he wanted me to be.

However, as I’ve grown to know what God is truly like – not the stern, angry demanding perfectionist that so many of us see him as – I’ve become more free than ever before from my shame and sense of falling short.

Along the way I’ve had a number of large breakthroughs in my thinking – as well as hundreds of smaller ones – and certain bible verses have been key to those breakthroughs. I’ve included a handful of them in this post in the hopes that you, too, might learn something new about the way God sees you and your flaws.

This is a very overtly Christian blog post and I know that so many of you don’t share my faith in God and won’t necessarily understand where I’m coming from with this. I hope and pray that you’re still able to find something here that can help you in your journey to get free from shame, whatever your beliefs. I will talk mainly about my own experiences with the verses as I’m not a theologian and wouldn’t have a clue how to dissect them or teach from them. All I know is my own responses to them.

Delight and singing

After giving me a bath as a child, my mum used to play a game with me. She would put a towel over my head and say: ‘It’s a present, I wonder what it is,’ while feeling my head through the towels. I would of course giggle at this point and squirm. Then she would unwrap the present by taking away the towel and give a big gasp. With a loving smile on her face she would say something like: ‘Oh, it’s a Helen – it’s the most beautiful present I’ve ever seen.’

I made her play that game several times in a row after every bath. I suspect that game is the only reason I ever allowed her to get me anywhere near the bath as a child. It worked a treat.

It’s also a beautiful illustration of what it looks like to be delighted in, and one I still treasure to this day.

In his book Attached to God, Krispin Mayfield talks about how shame – specifically when it manifests as striving to be acceptable to others – can be caused by attachment injury. This is where there was something in our earliest relationships that caused disconnection – things like abuse, neglect, other types of trauma or overcritical or perfectionist parents.

This wound that starts in childhood, if left untreated, can go on to affect our relationships well into adulthood. If we have a shame-based way of relating to others we find it hard to be honest and show our true selves with them and feel like we have to always measure up to their expectations.

In his book, Mayfield suggests that the remedy for this type of attachment injury isn’t love as we might expect (although that’s important too), but delight.

Imagine being delighted in for a moment. What does it look like? What would it feel like to be delighted in just for who you are and not for what you achieve or what you can make yourself into? Imagine being able to just fully relax in someone’s presence, knowing that, to them, you’re enough. No striving, no putting on a front, no covering up your flaws and failures. Just complete acceptance, being fully known and fully loved.

That’s the kind of deep acceptance that I crave. To me it looks like warm, accepting eyes and a big smile and the words, ‘It’s ok,’ when I mess up for the thousandth time. ‘You’re enough just as you are, I accept all of you, warts and all.’

I’m just starting to learn that I do have a relationship like that. One where I’m fully known and fully accepted.

“The Lord your God is with you,
    the Mighty Warrior who saves.
He will take great delight in you;
    in his love he will no longer rebuke you,
    but will rejoice over you with singing.”

Zephaniah 3:17, NIV

He takes great delight in me. He knows everything there is to know about me and yet he takes great delight in me. This truth was hard to accept but powerfully freeing. My image of God was always one of sternness and judgement. I think I saw God as being like Father Christmas – checking his list twice and finding out who’s been naughty or nice. This truth about him delighting in me is the complete opposite of that.

Not only that but he rejoices over me with singing. Wow. One of my favourite verses talks about God rejoicing over us as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride. I love imagining what a groom must feel about his new wife on his wedding day and how happy he must feel that he’s chosen to spend the rest of his life with her – and then remembering that that’s how God feels about me every day, regardless of how good or bad I’ve behaved.

“…as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride,
    so will your God rejoice over you.

Isaiah 62:5 NIVUK

I’ve mentioned in a previous post that I often feel strong negative emotions and subconsciously believe that if I’m feeling bad inside it’s because I am bad. I know that this is a common experience for many people who’ve been through childhood abuse and other types of attachment injury. For me this has been an ongoing battle, albeit one that I’m now starting to win. For the past week or two, since I started meditating on those verses about God delighting in me, I’ve been picturing God smiling over me and I’ve been saying to myself, ‘It’s ok to feel this way, God still delights in me when I’m feeling bad.’

There have been other times, too, in the past couple of weeks where I’ve felt like I’m falling short. For example, when I’ve sinned against God, given in to compulsive behaviours or made unhealthy choices. On each of these occasions, instead of giving into the feelings of shame and condemnation and choosing to hide, I’ve reminded myself that God still delights in me even when I mess up and still wants to be close to me.

There are some great stories that illustrate this in the bible. There’s the image of a woman who had ten gold coins and lost one of them. She searched her house high and low until she found the missing coin. When she found it she invited all her neighbours round to celebrate with her because she’d found the missing coin.

Similarly there’s the image of one missing sheep from a flock of 100. Instead of just writing that sheep off, the shepherd leaves the 99 sheep in a safe place and goes off himself to look for the lost sheep, likely putting himself in danger. As soon as he finds the sheep, he has a massive party to celebrate that he’d found his beloved lost sheep.

Then there’s the youngest son who asked his dad to give him his inheritance early and went off and squandered it on a wild lifestyle – probably involving lots of parties. When he’d spent all the money and was starving he decided to go back to his dad because he knew his dad had food. But when he got near to his dad’s house, his dad – who’d been looking out for him all this time – ran out to meet him on the road, gave him a massive hug, gave him his signet ring and expensive clothes to wear and threw him a massive party.

These stories all point to one thing – that God is so happy when we turn back to him when we’ve been lost – when we’ve rejected him or sinned against him or messed up in some way. He delights in us so much that he goes out to look for us. Then when he finds us he has a massive party. It actually says that there’s rejoicing in heaven when even one person repents of their sin and turns to God – more so than if someone never sinned.

These stories are, to me, a beautiful picture of what it means to be delighted in.

And because, according to Mayfield, our shame-based way of relating to others is rooted in insecure relationships, living in a secure, delight-filled relationship can help us to heal in other relationships too. Personally, I’m starting to find that knowing I’m delighted in in my relationship with God is setting me free to be myself in other relationships too, and worry less about whether I measure up around other people.

I’m not saying we’ll all be healed of shame overnight just because we know we’re delighted in – it’s a lengthy process and shame is more complicated than that.

For those of you who don’t believe in God, or have any kind of religious faith, you may be feeling stuck at this point if there’s no one in your life who delights in you in this way. But can you still picture God or someone else smiling over you with warmth in their eyes? Can you still imagine God singing over you? Can you still imagine all of heaven throwing a party over you? Can you tell yourself that you’re enough and that you’re still delighted in even when you mess up? Can you practice showing your true self in front of a trusted person and let them accept you for who you are? Can you show yourself the delight that you crave from other people?

Loosening my grip

I was clinging desperately to the side of the boat as waves crashed over me. All I could focus on was holding on. My very life depended on my ability to grip as tightly as possible, but there was only so long I could hold on for without my hands slipping.

This was a picture that my mum had while praying for me a year or so ago.

As she described the scene I felt the familiar dread and darkness start to sweep over me.

The picture summed up exactly how I felt inside most of the time. The sense that I was going to fail. That I couldn’t keep holding on, trying to be enough, trying to make myself acceptable to God. My best just wasn’t good enough and it felt so so dark and traumatic.

It wasn’t that I believed that I had to earn my salvation – I already knew I was saved and that it had nothing to do with my behaviour. No, this was something that went deep and stemmed from my childhood abuse. It was a subconscious belief that I would be punished, tortured or raped if I didn’t do exactly what God required at all times.

Those are things that my abusers did to me and my view of God was tainted by them. I tried to do exactly what my abusers wanted before they even asked, believing – wrongly – that it would stop them from hurting me.

In the same way, I did exactly what I thought God wanted from me just to appease him. And not knowing what he wanted felt dangerous so I often guessed based on my tainted view of him.

For example I once spent all day obsessively straining to focus on God with all my mind because I thought that’s what he would want. Another time I stood worshiping him all day just because he’d asked me to do something similar before and I thought it was the only thing that would make him pleased with me.

Not long after my mum had that picture of me on the side of the boat, I was looking at a passage in the bible where Jesus was telling people that he was the one they needed to follow in order to have eternal life. Two verses jumped out at me and spoke peace and comfort directly into that place of trauma.

Then they asked him, ‘What must we do to do the works God requires?’

Jesus answered, ‘The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.’

John 6:28-29 NIVUK

I read those verses over and over again and was set free a bit more each time. Those words spoke light and freedom into dark places and helped – along with other things – to break the choke hold of terror at the idea of letting God and other people down.

It helped me to see that I didn’t have to strive to be good enough for God and that made a huge difference to my life – not just to my relationship with God but also the way I see myself. Because if I’m acceptable to God – the one who made me and knows everything about me – then I must be acceptable full stop.

Just because I’m much more free in this area, it doesn’t mean that I never feel that I’m letting God down or that I never associate God with my abusers. But nowadays I can remind myself of the truth and it doesn’t feel so dark and traumatic anymore.

If I’m honest, right now – where I’m in a brand new season of life – I keep coming back to those negative thought patterns about not measuring up to God’s and others’ standards.

In fact, just a few minutes ago, I was fretting over what my new manager must think of me, terrified I’ll be punished for going off sick, making mistakes and taking too long to read the training material because of my dyslexia. I anxiously pictured her with a stern face – just like my mental images of God’s face being stern – and imagined how I’d justify my actions and defend myself when I next see her.

Then when I prayed to God for help, I kept imagining him taking my manager’s side and being mad at me too.

As soon as I reminded myself of the truth that God doesn’t hold me to impossibly high standards and still accepts me when I fail, I could picture both him and my manager (who’s only ever shown me kindness) smiling, showing me grace and even being pleased with my flawed work.

Just knowing that this way of thinking is rooted in the abuse that I went through helps me to see the thoughts and feelings for what they are and I can start to break that cycle of thinking, one thought at a time.

No longer falling short

I was in a vast garden, surrounded by all sorts of trees: tall trees, knobbly trees, lopsided trees, trees whose branches formed a wide canopy, bushy trees, trees with branches that dangled and swayed in the wind. They must’ve put on quite a display in autumn and spring.

Birds nested in their branches and feasted on their seeds. Wild animals hid in their shade.

Among all these trees were fruit trees and bushes of every kind, bearing an abundance of fruits and nuts.

There was also a river that watered the garden, sustaining its inhabitants with fresh, clean water.

In that garden – how I imagine the Garden of Eden to be – I sat on a bench among the roses, next to God as he held me in his arms.

This is the place I came back to over and over again in my mind – picturing myself right there with God and all the wild animals and birds. I wanted to know how it must feel to be fully accepted by God and be good enough for him.

In my shame, all I felt was a disappointment to God, like I was letting him down. I thought I would never measure up and was setting myself up for failure. For some reason, other people seemed to have it all figured out and seemed confident and secure in their relationships with God – even when they were doing things like having fun with friends or eating.

I found comfort in the Garden of Eden story. Unlike me, the humans in the garden felt no shame. They were even naked but they didn’t feel the need to hide themselves. They were made in God’s image and they reflected the glory of God in everything they did – in walking and cooking and eating and sleeping and loving and worshiping and raising kids and enjoying life and even breathing. All of those things, and much more, brought glory to God because that was exactly what they were created to do. Even when they were bad at fishing or burnt the dinner they weren’t any less reflecting God’s glory.

Through meditating on these truths and the scripture from Romans below, I came to realise that it’s only by my sin that I fall short of God’s glory and that I, too, reflect God’s glory in living my day-to-day life – especially when I make deliberate choices to please him. That powerful truth set me free from so many lies about what God thinks about me and where my worth comes from.

for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

Romans 3:23-24

Eventually even the humans in the garden chose to sin and fell short of God’s glory themselves, just like the rest of us.

But the best part of those verses is the last part: ‘and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.’ I can know that my sin is forgiven and God justifies me (declares me righteous) so even in the area where I do fall short – my sin – there’s a way of getting back to being enough through Jesus.

My weaknesses are my strengths

‘You’re always so strong and brave,’ my friend said as I was coaxing her around a high ropes course for another friend’s hen party. She was terrified and needed my encouragement at every obstacle.

What she didn’t know was that I was also terrified but hid it from her. It was shameful to me to show weakness. I had a reputation for being strong and independent since childhood, but as an adult it was becoming more and more exhausting to maintain the strong front I put up around other people. Even those who lived with me never saw me at my worst.

I felt like I was being measured up against an invisible standard, and fear wasn’t the only area where I fell short and tried to cover up…

…I hid my academic struggles from friends by always being keeping up-to-date with current affairs and pretending I knew what I was talking about.

…I hid my physical weaknesses by pushing through chronic illness symptoms and pretending I was more able than I was.

…I hid my social anxieties by pretending that I didn’t care what anyone thought of me.

A few years ago I discovered some verses in the bible that helped me to view my weaknesses through a completely different lens:

Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

2 Corintihians 12 verses 7-10 (NIV)

I turned the verses into self-reflection questions and wrote the answers in my journal.

Initially I applied the questions to my physical weaknesses – my ME/CFS and other chronic conditions – and started to let people truly see my physical weaknesses.

But the real revelation came one day in late 2019.

I was beating myself for some failure or other – I don’t remember what exactly – and I sensed God saying to me that the verses above applied to other things too. Things like my compulsive behaviours, persistent sin, people-pleasing, character flaws, shyness, shame, anxiety, perfectionism and so on.

God was telling me that he could bring good out of all of those things that I thought repulsed him. Suddenly he didn’t seem like such a demanding perfectionist after all. Maybe he didn’t think I was falling short and would accept me just as I am.

In this blog post I’m going to turn the above verses into reflection questions, just like the ones that helped me several years ago. I don’t have a copy of those original questions but I will recreate them as best I can below. I’ve also given my own answers for two different areas of weakness in my life: work and shame.

The questions

  1. What is your thorn in the flesh (flaw or weakness)?
  2. In what ways are you tormented by it?
  3. In what way is your flaw or weakness being used for good (God’s power being made perfect in weakness)?
  4. How can you show your flaw or weakness to others and be more vulnerable?
  5. Do you believe that your flaw or weakness can one day be a strength even if not now?

My answers: work

1. My flaw/weakness in this case is my inexperience (and perceived lack of skill) at doing my job.

2. I torment myself through my thoughts about mistakes that I’ve made and how they mean I’m not good enough and letting down the people I support.

3. God is using this for good because there are a lot of new people at work and they can see that they don’t have to be perfect to work there and can make mistakes and it’s ok.

4. I can show my flaw/weakness by telling other people that I’m struggling and asking for help when I need it. It takes a lot of courage for me to be vulnerable in this way at work but it’s important.

5. Yes, this is a strength in some ways because of my answers to questions 3 and 4 above, however I hope to continuously improve in skill and experience over time so hopefully it won’t even be an issue in the future.

My answers: shame

1. My flaw/weakness is severe shame

2. Shame torments me by (among other things): stopping me from fully being myself around people (and then making me feel more ashamed when I’m not fully myself), getting in the way of my relationship with God and giving me an unhealthy, negative view of myself. It underpins everything else like my compulsive behaviours, prideful thoughts, obsession with what others think of me and so on.

3. God is using my shame for good in many ways, including writing this blog, helping others in similar situations, empathy with others, having to trust and rely on him more, showing others that it’s ok to be fully honest, stopping me from being self-reliant, helping me to see the importance of genuine humility and showing me the value of openness and vulnerability.

4. I can show my flaws and weaknesses more by continuing to open up about what I’m going through, being super vulnerable with other survivors and asking trusted friends for help more with things like shame and self-doubt.

5. Yes, I believe shame is going to be my biggest strength one day. It’s tried to silence me for so long but I’m overcoming it and will be victorious! I’ll be able to look back at my life and see that the fight to get free from shame has made me stronger than I ever thought I’d be.

How about you? In what ways can your weaknesses be strengths? How are you overcoming the feeling of always falling short?