Written by J.M. Bergman
Have you ever had to keep a heavy secret? Then you know what it feels like to put up walls to protect yourself. At first, it’s a simple task of staying quiet, but over time the silence becomes a cold, isolated hole in your identity. And that secret can cause shame to grow.
Whether you or someone you love has been diagnosed with a mental health issue, every life in human history has been affected by shame. In one of Brene Brown’s TED Talks, she claims that shame is the baseline for all mental health problems. Shame tells us we are broken, misunderstood, and too small to have a voice. These are thoughts I struggle with personally several times each day.
Shame may be our current baseline, but it isn’t part of our origin story. If we look back to the garden of Eden, what truths can we study to determine God’s original intentions for our mental health, and what steps can we take today to realign our hearts with His?
First, let’s take into account our design.
In Genesis 1:26 we read: “Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness …” He created us in His image, with the ability to know and fully experience the fruit of His Spirit, which Galatians 5:22-23 describes as: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control.
Imagine living as Adam and Eve did—fully clothed in eternal goodness. In an article for Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries, Vancouver pastor and author Ken Shigematsu wrote, “Before sin entered the world, our ancient ancestors, Adam and Eve, were free from feelings of shame.” They felt secure being physically and emotionally naked before their Creator as they remained within the safe boundaries God had laid out for them.
That is, until they, just like I so often do, chose to mingle with doubt. From there, we see an equation contrary to God’s ‘X + Y = Z’ intention. He originally taught Adam and Eve that listening to His instructions plus obedience equals peace.
But Adam and Eve chose doubt plus disobedience and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that this equation led to dysfunction. Shame was the natural result. Shigematsu writes that because of this shameful separation, “we feel so unworthy that we are unable to accept the forgiveness God offers us.” Brown expands on this in the same TED Talk mentioned above, saying that “rather than feeling bad about our mistakes, we begin to view ourselves as the mistake.”
No wonder Adam and Eve hid, then blamed one another when God tried to approach them. Brown tells us: “The only things needed for shame to grow exponentially are secrecy, silence, and judgment.” Mixing any of these harmful ingredients into our lives will cause trouble. Our instincts are to hide our weaknesses, but the secrecy and shame created by doing so harm us deeply.
Our origin story feels far removed from the present. It’s almost impossible to imagine a world without sin. How can God’s original purpose for humanity help us today? I see three truths from the Genesis story that can, through God’s grace, help us counter shame and move toward better mental health.
Inhabit a posture of vulnerability
Our first step is a posture of vulnerability. This is our most powerful weapon against shame. Talk about shame by owning it and bringing it out into the open through confession; this is how we allow light into our dark, secret places. Applying vulnerability to our relationships with other Christians takes this power one step further, as we allow our friends and family to extend God’s love to us. Where there is light, the darkness flees. What once seemed huge and overpowering becomes a little smaller as we gradually accept God’s love and forgiveness in various areas of our lives.
Surrender our emotions and reactions to God
Next, we surrender our pasts, our current feelings about ourselves—everything—to God. This can only come after vulnerability. Brown suggests we “surrender all feelings of guilt, overwhelm, and shame to God. Give Him everything so [we] hold nothing—this leads to peace and the ability to restart.” Adam and Eve began their journeys with no preconceived notions about who they were—and so can we. This was God’s intention.
Hold on to connections within church community
Finally, we need to form and sustain connections within the body of Christ. Whether in-person or using one of the various virtual communication resources at our fingertips, we are made for community. As American musician Bill Withers famously sang in a long-ago chorus, “We all need somebody to lean on.” Christ built His church to give us support we can lean on. A Spirit-filled community is meant to be a safe place to expose and disarm shame using the fruits of the Spirit from Galatians 5 mentioned earlier.
“If you put shame and empathy in the same petri dish, shame cannot survive,” Brown says. “Empathy is the antidote for shame.” We read in 1 John 4:18: “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear.” Learning to accept the truth Genesis speaks about our identities is an ongoing process. But it is possible, and it begins with a choice, just as the gospel of Christ began with only a few disciples who chose correctly.
I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to take my voice back from fear and shame. Let’s show shame that we’re brave enough to bring our secrets into the light, receive love, and re-establish our identities as daughters and sons of a generous God who is brimming with freedom and joy.