In middle school I came how with a report card that was all A’s except for a B in music. My father looked at it and said, “What’s the matter? Don’t they give A’s in music?” I suspect that he was trying to be funny, but at 12 or 13 I heard one more affirmation that I was not good enough. I spent most of childhood and adolescence feeling like an outcast. Shame was a constant companion. I truly believed that the difficult and traumatic things that happened in my life were my fault. If I was somehow a better child, I wouldn’t be hurt, overlooked, and dismissed.
Shame, feeling responsible for all the bad that happened in my life, drove me to be a perfectionist. And that desire for perfection opened the way to struggles with suicidality and an eating disorder that would last for years. Most of the time, these issues were hidden. I seldom spoke to anyone about my feelings of inadequacy and depression. To most people, I appeared to be healthy and successful. I would tell myself that if people really knew me, they would agree with me that I was a terrible person.
I was in my twenties when I heard a verse from Romans that started to shift my self-understanding. The version of Romans 8:28 I learned is “All things work together for good for those who love and serve the Lord.” The idea that all experiences could be use for good gave me hope. All I had ever heard was that “everything happens according to God’s will.” That just didn’t make sense to me. How could an alcoholic family be God’s will? How could childhood trauma be God’s will? How could depression, anorexia, and suicidality be God’s will? But the idea that all things could work together to be something good gave me the courage to keep trying, to keep reaching for wholeness. There was hope for me, for others like me. Shame might not always be my constant companion.
For me it took working first as a therapist in a pastoral counseling center and then as a clinical chaplain at a state psychiatric hospital to recognize the transformation that had gradually taken place in my life. I was able to draw on my early experiences, the very experiences I had been so ashamed of, to help others, to give them hope. The more I saw those things as contributing to the person I was becoming, the more I was able to hold out the possibility of healing to others. These things that I had been so ashamed of – trauma, depression, suicidality, anorexia – had become a source of strength. I had seen the depths, lived in them, and returned with an assurance of God’s presence. God is present in the deepest, most barren places and in the fullness of the day with all its possibilities. It was a surprising day in my life when I realized that I’d found redemption in a psychiatric hospital.
It is possible for God to use even the worst of our experiences, the heaviest shame, the most isolating silences, for good. Now I spend a great deal of time talking about how faith can support the journey to wholeness, especially for those struggling with suicidality and self-harm. God doesn’t wait for us to be whole. God sees us as whole and longs for us to see ourselves as God sees us. God loves us and yearns for us to know God’s love even when shame blinds us to all that is good and beautiful in ourselves and in the world. It’s easy to forget that God is in the depths, those places that shut out hope and life. But, as the Psalmist says, even the darkness is not dark to God.
Now if we can put an end to the idea that “everything happens according to God’s will” and start looking for the ways in which God is seeking to work good in our lives with and through all our experiences, shame will have a much smaller place in our lives. When we can focus on God’s transforming love, hope and healing come much more readily. Imagine a world in which every child knows that they are God’s beloved. Then when traumatic things happen, no child will think it’s their fault or that God is punishing them. They will know that pain and suffering was not in God’s plan for their lives. They will also know that God’s love for them will guide them through the depths and into a place where all things work together for good.
I’m still not particularly good when it comes to music. However, I don’t need to be perfect these days. I’m sure of God’s love for me and for all people. God did not desire the childhood I had. Equally true is that God has freed me from the grips of shame so that I can be a voice of hope. We are not defined by pain or suffering or shame, though we may be shaped by them. We are defined by the love of God, and that is powerful enough to reshape all that we carry into something good.
Rev. Dr. Rachael Keefe
Rev. Dr. Rachael Keefe is an author, and the pastor of Living Table United Church of Christ in Minneapolis, MN. You can find links to her blog, video series, and books at Beachtheology.com